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How to Mix Skin Tones in Transparent Watercolor

I've been creating and teaching art for several years and love helping new artists grow and find their own voices.

Self-portrait, Winsor & Newton Artists' Field Box watercolors in 5" x 8 1/2" Moleskine watercolor journal.

Self-portrait, Winsor & Newton Artists' Field Box watercolors in 5" x 8 1/2" Moleskine watercolor journal.

Mixing Skin Tones Can Be Easy!

In the watercolor self-portrait I started my Moleskine watercolor journal with, I kept my skin tone recipe simple. The magic color I used was in the very first set of Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolors I bought—Burnt Sienna. It's part of the Earth Tone Trio that comes up in almost all watercolor sets because the colors are all incredibly useful for beginners and experts alike.

Burnt Sienna is the magic color for Caucasian skin tones in good light. It's an earth color, a reddish-brown that goes down to quite deep darks if you're doing someone with a tan or a Black person with a ruddy complexion. What I modified it with was mostly the other two colors in the Classic Earth Tone Trio, found in so many different watercolor sets that I know traditionalists and teachers think of them as essentials. The other two are Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber.

In the shadows, I mixed a little Ultramarine Blue to cool it. That's another color that's in almost every 12-color set.

For lips, I usually add just a touch of Alizarin Crimson to the mix. I did here, too. Other cool reds will work, like Permanent Rose or any Magenta or Quinacridone Rose. But what you probably have on hand in a starter set is Alizarin Crimson. If a person's sunburned, you can use the lips mix to warm up all the sunburned areas, too.

My first successful watercolor portraits were miniatures about 3/4" tall. In using a Winsor & Newton field box, I wound up with a very tiny size 0 sable round brush . . . much more suited to details and small things than big washes. I sketched the shape of the head and placed the features with faint graphite pencil lines, just to get the person's proportions right in an erasable way. Then I went in with the superfine pointed brush and washed the entire face and neck with a thin wash of Burnt Sienna.

While that wash was damp, I'd mix a little shadow color, putting in Burnt Umber or Ultramarine in the puddle of thinned Burnt Sienna, and start loosely modeling the face with the broader shadows. I waited till that completely dried to get smaller shadows in.

Later on, I discovered that other reddish-brown colors like Winsor & Newton Light Red, English Red, Iron Oxide Red, and so on will work more or less for Caucasian skin tones. Most of them need to be modified a little—if they run too reddish then you need to add a little of your dark brown to them, which could be Burnt Umber or Sepia or any of several other dark browns. The trio really consists of a gold color, a reddish orangy brown, and a dark brown that's not reddish.

Recently, I discovered that Quinacridone Burnt Orange works just about as well as Burnt Sienna and has the advantage of being extremely transparent. It's a little brighter, so I either thin it more or modify it by cooling with a little dark brown unless the person's got a very ruddy complexion. Test the reddish-brown colors you have in your watercolor box if you don't have Burnt Sienna.

Try doing a series of cartoon faces. Use each of your earth reds or reddish browns as a thin wash on one—I'm talking smileys here; you don't need to stop to do complete small portraits. Just make sure the smiley has kissy lips so you have some lips outlined to get lip tone right. Use the same paper for these color tests that you plan for the actual portrait.

You can do a crescent of shadow color around the right side and under what would be the smiley's chin to see how dark and what color you want the shadows in each test. Do the shading color while the paint is damp—not shining wet anymore but not dry either—that'll be good practice for avoiding tide marks while adding shadows.

My Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box with two additional colors: Permanent Rose and Quinacridone Gold

My Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box with two additional colors: Permanent Rose and Quinacridone Gold

Skin Tones Vary!

Above is a photo of the watercolor set I used for my self-portrait. I recommend the Winsor & Newton Artist's Field Box for anyone; it's the best pocket set there is, and its palette will teach you some interesting things about color.

I added two colors to my W&N field box because I started to find them indispensable. Permanent Rose is very good for a slight blush. It doesn't go as dark as Alizarin Crimson, which is a very rich deep dark red, but it makes brighter pinks. If a lady's wearing lipstick, and you want to get pink lipstick looking true, Permanent Rose will give a better color. It'll also mix well with Ultramarine to get that bright purple blouse she's wearing. Alizarin makes a dull purple that's more grayed, but at least it gets a purple.

The trick of getting an accurate skin tone is in relation to everything else in the painting and what color the light is. There is no real "flesh" color in nature. The crayon usually labeled Flesh or Light Flesh now that people are more multicultural about it is actually a very light orange. Yep. It's orange and white mixed. So if you're only using spectrum bright colors, try using orange thinned very light and then add just the merest touch of blue to it to mute it and turn it into "orangy brown" comparable to Burnt Sienna. If it's not red enough, add a touch of red. If it's too pink, add a touch more yellow.

What works is to take orange and thin it down until it's so light it's like pale pink, then start going browner in some areas and pinker in others. If you have someone with a very golden complexion, adding a touch of Yellow Ochre or Quinacridone Gold to the mix will get a glowing golden-tinged skin tone. This is also good for a light tan. Raw Sienna is a better modifier for more golden complexions because it's a little more ruddy than Yellow Ochre.

Use Primary Colors to Create Skin Tones

You can mix skin tones just using three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue. The trick of getting those to look natural is the balance between them and exactly which colors you chose to make up that triad. One of the reasons I added Permanent Rose to my field box is that it now gives me the first primary triad Winsor & Newton recommends: Lemon Yellow, Permanent Rose, and Ultramarine.

It's possible to get a full range of colors using only those three colors. Permanent Rose is a purplish red, close to Magenta. Lemon Yellow is a very strong green-leaning yellow, and Ultramarine leans a little toward purple but will give a good "sap green" looking green with Lemon Yellow.

If I want a very bright orange, I mix warm (orangy) Winsor Yellow with the Winsor Red, which is a bit brighter and more orangy than Alizarin Crimson. They make good oranges. Why would I want a bright orange in a skin tone? Or even worse, a bright purple?

Consider Lighting When Creating Skin Tones

Because sometimes that's what it looks like. Try looking at someone across from the campfire next time you're camping out. They're lit from the side or below and the highlights on their faces are a bright orange—whether they were super pale Caucasians or they're deepest dark brown, you'll get orange highlights in campfire light. The shadows may look actually blue, partly because the highlights are so bright an orange that the afterimage of the orange makes them bluer. Blue-violet shadows look entirely natural in the evening in warm golden light.

But daylight leans a little yellow too. So what light you're looking at is going to affect what colors to choose. The more you move toward a spectrum orange, the more likely it'll seem like the light is very yellow-golden and warm. Incandescent lighting is like that too.

Fluorescent light will cool the skin tones and make browns more effective than oranges . . . but they don't look brown that thin. They look beige. Make sure you get the value right no matter what shade of brown or orange you use for a base skin tone.

Then start mixing intuitively—this is why lots of test patches are good. I always keep some bits of bright white card on me and while painting any person, I'll test my mixes to see if they're the right color and if they're too dark or light. Too light and I have to add more paint. Too dark, I need to add more water.

Take Into Account Your Subject's Surroundings When Creating Skin Tone

What's around the face will cast reflected color into it. If someone's out in a bright green forest, you may actually see bright green areas in the shadows on their face. Reflected light bounces in more prominently where the face is shadowed. If they're wearing a bright red shirt, the underside of their chin may look a surprising pinkish color—because light from above is bouncing off the shirt. Look closely at the person and their surroundings.

Try to modify the skin tone colors with the same pigments you use to paint the rest of the scene. If you want a little blue to cool the shadows, then use the same blue that you're using in the black and blue mix on the black leather jacket (which I did on my self-portrait). If you're using a red to warm the lips, use the same red to do flowers in the background or to do their red t-shirt. The simpler and cleaner you keep mixes, the brighter they are.

But if you want the skin to look natural and not super bright, then the fact that multiple pigments mix duller can work to your advantage. Complex mixtures may give exactly the right shade for a shadow in a scene, but it'll still unify the painting more if they're the same colors you used in the rest of the painting.

Shadows are usually cooler (more toward violet) than highlights. Thus, the dark brown like Burnt Umber is less reddish and less yellowish than the Burnt Sienna, so it works as a shadowing color. So will mixing Ultramarine into the Burnt Sienna.

It is possible to just use the spectrum brights and mingle them on the paper if you're into that style. The main thing is to remember the base skin tone will begin with orange thinned down very light and just lean toward yellow or pink here and there, while all three primaries (or anything and its complement) will make grays or browns.

How much that shows depends on how you want the painting to look. Sometimes it's cool to do the whole painting in pure high-intensity colors. Other times it's fun to have it all grayed out, browned, muted, and soft.

Keep your color choices in relation to the color choices you make for everything else in the painting. Don't use pale watery color in the face and then bold full saturation colors in everything else, but do keep the skin tones (if light) paler than the full intensity of that color except in shadows.

Finally . . . try using Burnt Sienna as a monochrome color for a portrait. Do someone with brown hair and brown eyes if you really want this to look true, but it helps to see it in action. You'll be surprised how effective it is—and how it makes a good base for anything else to adjust to the lighting, individual skin tone, what they're wearing, hair color, and painting style.


Andrew J Moore on January 12, 2019:

Thanks Robert for sharing great tips. It cuts thru the minefield that is painting skin tones

Giant Seguros on July 06, 2015:

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Anjo Bacarisas II from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines on August 07, 2012:

Thumbs up, very useful... I like this page so much, the mixing made easy because of this tips. Thank you!

dixychik on March 21, 2012:

This is the best explanation I have ever found! I have so much trouble trying to understand how to do skin tones, so thank you SO much for this! I think it will really help me.

Dbro from Texas, USA on February 07, 2012:

Very useful! I'm always on the look-out for good color recipes. I follow your advice about a limited color palette. It sure helps to keep your paintings looking unified and harmonious.

Rachel on January 13, 2012:

After oil and pastel I am overworking watercolor portraits. How many washes before you're washed up?

craftybegonia from Southwestern, United States on February 03, 2011:

Very nice!

BrendyMac on January 31, 2011:

Yellow Ochre is one of my favourite colours...I use it in various washes for skies and foregrounds,and buildings of course....makes a great first wash!

Another inspirational article from you...thank you for the very helpful instructions you give us in it!!

modern furniture ideas on November 29, 2010:

i looking for this how to make skin tone for a long time... now i found the answer... because of you! thanx... of course i have to try to mix the watercolor maybe many time before i got what i really want... but thanks to you for the info... i will use it for my pasticin

edelhaus from Munich, Germany on November 23, 2010:

terrific - thank you!

Lorena Bowser on November 20, 2010:

Thank you! Doing my second of the very first portraits I've ever done and having so many doubts! This helps tremendously. "great"ful.

Sa`ge from Barefoot Island on September 27, 2010:

Great info here, thanks again for such great work: aloha :D

Life Unplugged on June 20, 2010:

Hi Robertsloan2 ,excellent information about how to get exact skin tones !

I usually use burnt sienna and raw umber ,and works quite well for most of my works !

Awesome explanation !

Thanks for sharing

DXmusic on April 16, 2010:

It give the natural tone of skin, i had tried to make skin color many times but didn't get good result but this one really looks natural...Thanks

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on April 15, 2010:

Thank you! I had trouble with skin tones for years till I got the Winsor & Newton set and realized the obvious -- that warm reddish brown was the perfect base color. Add in a little of anything else to the Burnt Sienna and you modify it, but it looks natural on almost anyone.

Wealthmadehealthy from Somewhere in the Lone Star State on April 13, 2010:

This was excellent!! Skin tones are hard. This made them easier ....Wow...Thanks for this hub!!!