Painting Realistic Skin Tones

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There are two words that give many novice painters a shudder: skin tones. That's because painting flesh in acrylic can be a daunting task, especially if you're hoping to render skin lifelike and dimensional rather than dull and flat. (And unless you're painting, say, LEGO characters, you probably are!)

This tutorial will teach you to mix skin tones using different ratios of the primary colors. Real talk: this method takes a little work to refine, but with a little practice, you'll be creating skin tones with confidence.

Getting started with skin tones

Determining skin color

The colors you select depend a great deal on the skin tone of the person you're painting. Sure, it may seem easy to determine if the skin is dark, medium, or light, but you also need to consider the undertones of the skin, such as blue or yellow.

Creating a family of tones

It's good to create a "family" of tones around your chosen skin tone so that you can add accents. As you can see on the palette above, the same skin tone is mixed with a little bit of blue, yellow and red in each spot of color. Save these accent colors for attaining details on the skin.

Tips for mixing acrylic paint

  1. Acrylic paint looks a little bit darker dry than when it is wet. So make the paint color slightly lighter than you'd like the final outcome to be.
  2. It can be tough to recreate specific color using acrylic paint the second (or third) time, so if you're looking for the perfect tone for a large piece or an ongoing series, make notes of the colors that went into the mixture. Better yet, mix up a large batch so that you will have plenty on hand.
  3. While white paint is helpful to attain skin tones, use black paint very sparingly. Black paint can react with the yellow in skin tones to create a greenish, muddy cast. If you need to make a skin tone darker, use a small amount of each primary color in equal quantity rather than adding black paint to the mix.

How to make skin tones in acrylic

Step 1

Create a palette with the primary colors: yellow, blue, red. White and black are optional. Have a photograph or reference image handy for the tone you are trying to attain.

Step 2

Mix together equal parts of each primary color.

Just about every skin tone contains a little yellow, blue and red, but in different ratios. Once you've done this a few times, you might start with more of one color or another. But to start, go ahead and mix equal parts of each color with a palette knife. Your outcome will likely be somewhat dark. This is a good thing! In general, it's easier to make skin tones lighter with acrylic than darker.

Step 3

Now, it's time to refine your color. As noted above, if you've mixed equal parts of each color, the blue in particular has probably made the color mix quite dark. Initial adjustments will be clear: if you need to make the skin lighter, add white or yellow. If you need to make it more reddish, add more red.

Once you make these obvious tweaks, you'll have the opportunity to refine, adding a little bit of this color, a little bit of that, until you've attained the exact tone you're looking for.

Advanced tips for painting flesh tones

Once you've mastered creating skin tones, you can set yourself up like a professional painter.

Mix shadows and highlights

Once you've gotten the exact right skin tone, create a "family" of tones around your chosen tone. This is a time when you can use black paint to your advantage. Mix a gradient of variations on your final skin tone with black or white paint so that you have paint in various related tones ready to create shadows or highlights in your work.

Blush tones

If you want to create a blush tone for your skin — for areas you want to appear rosy, flushed, or recently kissed by the sun, perhaps — don't simply dab pink or red paint on top of your skin tone. (This is not like adding blush on a real person's cheek!) Instead, create a custom tone by creating a mixture of your skin tone plus red for a color that will look natural as a "blush" tone.

Painting skin tones in tinted light

There are times when you'll want skin to take on more of a cast from the surroundings. For instance, if a character is standing near blue drapes, a sliver of blue may appear on the highlights or shadows on the skin. So you'll want to create a mixture of the skin tone with each of the primary colors added in, as in the image below. While some of them might look funny on the palette, it's these nuanced variations that will make your final painting more lifelike

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