Creating realistic skin tones with acrylic paint

Creating realistic skin textures and tones

I have a couple of portrait commissions coming up over the next few months and as I have been working a lot in watercolour recently, I wanted to write a blog post about what colours I use to mix skin tones with acrylic.

The main colours which I use in my palette are:

Overall acrylic palette

All paints bought from Ken Bromley Art Supplies

Titanium White

Cadmium Yellow Light

Cadmium Yellow Medium

Cadmium Red Light

Cadmium Red Deep

Cerulean Blue

Ultramarine Blue

Burnt Umber

Paynes Grey

I also have a bottle of flow improver. Flow improver helps thins the acrylic paint while keeping it at a constant pigment. It also makes the acrylic paint dry slower so it allows you more time to work with the paint on the canvas.

winsor & newton flow improver

I start by sketching out a faint line drawing of a face on my canvas using a watercolour pencil. I using a light brown watercolour pencil so that it will blend into the paint. If I use a graphite pencil it will muddy up the paint or show through the layers.

I always start a portrait with the eyes. If you get the eyes correct then I think the rest will follow. I start with a base of Payne's grey and white. Payne's grey is my favourite colour. I use it in nearly almost everything. It gives the eyes a nice base to start from. When it is used at its fullest pigent it looks dark blue/ black but when it is dilluted in water or with white paint its a lovely cold light blue.


caroline towning hand skin tone reference

If I use my hand as a reference point I can see that there is so many different colours going on. There is peaches, oranges, yellows, browns, blues and pinks.

 This is my limited palette which I am using for my skin tones.

This is my limited palette which I am using for my skin tones.

For the skin tones I am going to use a limited palette with basic primary colours with a brown and a white. Here I am using:

Cadmium Yellow Medium

Cadmium Red Deep

Ultramarine Blue

Titanium White

Burnt Umber

making orange colour

As my skin is closest to orange I will start by mixing an orange using yellow and red. Once I start making the orange mixture you can see that it is far too bright for the skin, so to neutralise the colour I add some blue. I could always add burnt umber too, there are lots of differnet ways to get to the same colour.

add blue to make green

As the orange was mostly yellow once I added the blue it then turned the mixture green. Green is not the colour of my skin so I need to add another colour.

adding more red to make brown

So I then add some more red to neutralise the green, this start to make a nice neutral tone that looks like a very dark brown which could be a skin tone.

skin tone colour

I then add some white to get a value that's similar to the one that I am looking for- I also add some flow improver to make it thinner so that it would be easier to use as a base colour. This starts to make the skin tone look similar to a wet foundation. 

There are 3 things I need to get right when making a skin tone.

The Temperature

This very much depends on the light. Is the light warm or cool? As things get towards the shadow is it a dark warm shadow that you commonly get inside or is it a cool dark shadow which is more of a reflective light which you tend to get outside. Sometimes you have green shadows when colours transitions between light and dark. You need to look for highlights, reflective light, mid tones and dark accents. There will be very warm areas that will yellow and moving into purples.

The Tone

What is the colour of the skin, pink? Brown? Red? Keep adding colours to get the right tone.

The Value

Is the colour too light or too dark? If the value is not right then it will not read correctly. I think of the skin as an object like anthing else that I would be painting.