Painting realistic skin tones

Painting Realistic Skin Tones with Watercolor


A Guide to Painting People with Personality

Whether you’re a beginner or advanced, we’ve all been there. You decide to add a person to your watercolor piece, but you can’t quite get it right. It ends up missing something, not looking realistic or as you imagined.

An oval with a flat wash of color has as much charisma as an egg perched on a crystal egg cup. The surroundings are lovely, but the face falls flat. 

Realistic skin tones add dimension and depth
Mixing watercolors to achieve realistic skin tones isn’t difficult, but it does require some experimentation. Use this guide, mix your own colors, and fill your sketchbook with lively skin tones that make your pieces come alive.

Mix It Up to Add Dimension

Adding white or buff to lighten your watercolors can result in paintings that are opaque and dull. The same can be said for adding black or gray to darken the watercolors for the skin elements. Basic black and white falls flat when painting people.

So how do you give people more dimension? You mix it up. 

Mix your own colors to create realistic skin tones
Chromium Oxide Green blended with Burnt Sienna.

Using a mixture of colors for your skin tones, you can achieve transparent, layered combinations that will mix and mingle with the magic of watercolor!

It’s counterintuitive, but it works. Just look how beautifully a Chromium Oxide Green blends with Burnt Sienna to make a skin tone. 

Watercolor can always be lighter, simply by adding more water to the mixture. But watering down a single color, such as Titan Buff, isn’t the best way to create an interesting result.

Complement the Complexion

Using near complements can take colors more into the earth tone range. Try mixing oranges and purples with a healthy dose of water and let the colors dance. 

For lighter skin tones, adding water, rather than reaching for the white or buff colors achieves a more realistic result.

Complimentary colors mixed create realistic skin tones
In this example, Chrome Yellow is mixed with Violet to create a neutral skin tone.

For darker skin, try a mix that creates darker tones without black. A great combination you can use is Pyrrole Red Light, mixed with Phthalo Blue Green Shade. While red and green are two complementary colors, this warm red mixed with a cool blue creates a deep, nearly black, gray purple. 

Paynes Gray can be added to make realistic darker skin tones
A favorite combination is Burnt Sienna and Paynes Gray

A combination that is always available is something I refer to as MPH Mud. Literally mixing the red/yellow/blue colors can create a brown that mixes rather well when combined with another color. It is completely against conventional wisdom, but worth a try! 

The resulting mixes, combined with your wash will create a deeper, more complex color that is anything but flat.

Finding Your Favorite Color Combinations

Experiment with color mixing to find your favorites and discover combinations that work with a range of skin tones.

A wide mixtures of colors can create realistic skin tones
Mix your standard travel palette colors with the colors and combinations listed across the top of the chart to achieve earth tones. The first combination to the left is Mixed Primary Hue Mud.

It is always a good idea to work with a limited palette and see what combinations can result. With a simple exercise, you can take colors you work with often and combine them with neutralizing colors to see how they can stretch into skin tones as well as other earth tone colors.

Download this blank color swatching chart to try it out for yourself.

  • After wetting the swatch rectangle with a paint brush loaded with water, paint a swatch of each of the tube/pan paints that you use most frequently along the left-hand side. Label them if needed, by writing below the swatch in a waterproof ink.
  • Repeat the process, painting a swatch of each of the tube/pan mixing colors along the top edge of the chart. I used:
    • Mixed Primary Hues (a combination of your most common red + yellow + blue, to make ‘mud’ or a neutral brown)
    • Neutral Tint
    • A Complement for each color (leave this top swatch blank)
    • Mix of Pyrrole Red Light + Phthalo Green (blue shade), as a black color
    • Van Dyke Brown
    • Paynes Gray
    • Quinacridone Gold
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Burnt Sienna
  • Mix the colors, and fill in the swatch where the two intersect on the chart. You may find it easiest to do one column of color at a time, using the mixing color with your palette colors from top to bottom. Then move on to the next column.

Once you find your favorite mixing colors, keep them handy. I put my favorite combinations and individual colors into a porcelain egg tray that stays on the side of my watercoloring station. Here is a smaller version from our Amazon List that you can use at your workspace.

Use a palette like this egg palette for keeping your colors organized when mixing

12 Combinations to Paint with Personality 

Liven up your eggheads with some of my favorite color combinations. I use these consistently as I paint people in all kinds of scenes.

  • Cadmium Orange + French Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Orange + Permanent Alizarin Crimson + French Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Orange + Van Dyke Brown
  • Chromium Oxide Green + Burnt Sienna
  • Hansa Yellow + Diarylide Yellow + Permanent Alizarin + Dioxazine Purple
  • Diarylide Yellow + Permanent Alizarin Crimson + Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna + Cadmium Orange + Phthalo Blue (green shade)
  • Burnt Sienna + Paynes Gray
  • Burnt Sienna + Van Dyke Brown + Dioxazine Purple + Permanent Alizarin Crimson
  • Quinacridone Violet + Hansa Yellow Deep
  • Chrome Yellow + Violet
  • Flesh Tint + Mauve

Cool and warm color combinations achieve a variety of realistic skin tones

Want to give it a try? Download this blank worksheet to print out a blank chart and make your own lively skin tone watercolor combinations.

  • Mix colors together on your palette until you get the desired color
  • Use your brush to wet the paper inside of the face oval shape. Don’t oversaturate it so that you can have some control to keep the water inside the shape. If you put down too much, touch the edge with a dry brush to pick up the excess.
  • Apply your mixed color into the wet area, pulling the brush along as you would read a book, from side to side and top to bottom, always starting where you left off. If you are working on a larger shape, it is easier to keep the page tilted towards you so that the water accumulates along the bottom as you work, to minimize lines and achieve a smooth application.
  • Make sure and write down the color combination you used in the space provided, as well as the brand of paints as soon as you finish a face. This will help you keep this as a reference for future use.

And remember, your people are part of the scene that they are populating. Their faces are illuminated by their surroundings too. 

You can allow your faces to dry completely and add a wash of color that corresponds to their placement in your picture. You can also let that color seep into the wet mixture from the side that is facing an element in the scene. This makes a connection between the figure and its position as part of your composition.

Get mixing and fill your sketchbook with lively skin tones!

About: Sally Lynn MacDonald has worked in the art materials industry for over a decade. She attends trade shows where manufacturers present the latest trends, newest colors and coolest tools. She has rarely met an art supply she didn’t want to own in every color. You can take advantage of her #fullsetsyndrome to navigate the world of art materials from her Studio Lab. This Anarchivist® seeks to abandon rules and reacquaint you with the passion of creating something from nothing. Even if it does seem like she has everything at her disposal.

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