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Friday, June 8, 2012

A Lesson on Portraits, Skin Color, and Mixing Paints


"Vikeholmen Lighthouse" Skudeneshavn, Norway 16x20 Acrylic


I received a call today, from a fellow artist. She was painting from a photo and was concerned because her grandson’s portrait made him “look so old for his age.” I had just read an article from “the Artist’s Magazine,” and felt fully prepared for her questions. A few months ago, I had painted my own grandchildren from photographs and had learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t.


I explained to her that photographs generally appear darker. Laugh lines and creases show up darker making a child or an adult appear older. In sunlight, these same lines would all but disappear.

"Day Dreams" 11x14 oil on canvas

The fix? Use a lighter color to paint lines and shadows. Take the base skin color and lighten it. Try using a light red mixed with medium to lighten it even more. The Artist’s Magazine article suggested painting the areas on either side of the crease or wrinkle instead to decrease the need for detailing.

The fold of skin at the side of the nose and down the cheek is usually highlighted. Against this lighter value, the wrinkle or crease automatically becomes darker without having to paint them in. The skin on the upper lip, next to the smile fold, has a different color and value. When this upper lip color or shadow is painted next to the wrinkle or crease, our minds fill in a line without having to paint in a darker color, or value.

"With These Hands -- Love" 24x18 oil on canvas

These subtleties make the skin look more natural. My favorite skin tones were learned from Richard Kirk at the Bonita Springs Center for the Arts.

Basic Formula (oils):
1 part Cadmium Red
3 parts Raw Sienna (Grumbacher or Gamblin)

The basic formula is only a beginning. It must be mixed with Titanium White to lighten, or mixed with Ultramarine Blue or Burnt Umber for shadow. Different values of the basic formula may be made by adding 3 parts formula to 1 part Titanium White; 1 part formula to 1 part titanium white; 1 part formula to 3 parts titanium white; 1 part formula to 5 parts titanium white.

Darker skin has a somewhat different formula:  3 parts formula to 1 part Burnt Umber; 1 part formula to 1 part Burnt Umber or use straight Burnt Umber.

Another dark skinned formula: 2 parts formula to 1 part Burnt Umber and 1 part Magenta. I discovered richness in the skin tones with this last color. Another reason I like using magenta in shadow is that "overly brown portraits" according to Kirk, may appear dull and lifeless.

Experiment! It is great fun to test how many variations you can achieve with this one basic formula.



Weak tinting strength colors can adjust the formula as needed: Terre Verte, Ultramarine Violet, Permanent Rose, Thalo Red Rose, Indian Yellow or Raw Sienna.

Kirk stressed there are colors to avoid: Naples Yellow, Buff Titanium, Unbleached Titanium or any color that has white in it. What you’re doing is adding more white into the basic formula changing its color. Strong tinting colors should also be avoided.

I have seen many variations on skin tone formulas, but I continue to go back to Kirk’s formula again and again for the glow it gives to skin and by how easy it is to obtain the right value for any given skin color. The mixture that is closest to your model's skin color becomes the "key" color. This formula easily adapts to acrylics.

"Fish Market" 18X24 Acrylic