Thursday, March 17, 2016

Skin Tones

One of the questions I get a lot is, "what colors do you use for skin?"  The answer, of course: it depends.  It depends on the subject's skin color: the colors used for a light caucasian will be very different than an Asian or African-American.  It depends on the light source as well: the light coming in from a north-facing window is a different color than the direct light from a tungsten lamp.  It also depends on the colors of the things surrounding the individual, as they will reflect their colors into the skin tones.  And it also depends on whether you want to bring the skin tones forward (in which case you'll probably use stronger hues) or push them back using more muted colors.

The majority of my subjects are caucasian or similar, so I'll address those colors here.  The basic composition of most of them is a red of some sort, a yellow, a good bit of white, and maybe a bit of blue to tone them down.  Within these limitations, there are an infinite variety of possible colors that you can mix.  For reds, I've used cadmium red light (a bright warm red), alizarin crimson (a cool red), and terra rosa (a slightly muted, slightly cool red, and my current go-to color).  For yellows, I use yellow ochre (a muted yellow with both red and green components), cadmium yellow (a bright yellow in light, medium, and dark variants), and lemon yellow (a light yellow, leaning slightly towards green).  For whites, I prefer flake white or Cremnitz white.  Both are lead-based and have a slight warm tone with a rich feel to them.  You just have to be careful because they're, well, lead.  Another white is Flake White Replacement, which is really a combination of titanium and zinc and provides a very similar white without the toxicity of lead.  Titanium white is a strong, cold white that gets a bit too cold and chalky for my tastes.  As for zinc, I never use it.  Used alone, it's too brittle and can sometimes react with other chemicals.

So those are the colors I've been using for years.  Here's an example of how they look in an alla prima figure sketch:


In this exercise, I used primarily terra rosa, yellow ochre, and flake white replacement.  The light in my studio comes from daylight-balanced bulbs, which is slightly blue, so you'll see a touch of ultramarine blue in some of the shadows as well.  When accentuating colors, I use a touch of cadmium red and cadmium yellow.  These stronger colors don't show up well in photos, but in person they make some skin areas really come alive.  You can see it in her cheeks and lips, for example.

I don't use cad reds and yellows everywhere because a painting needs larger areas of muted color in order to make the small areas of strong color stand out.  I typically use strong colors in the focus areas only, and more muted colors like terra rosa and yellow ochre everywhere else.  When you realize that 90% of a painting is really a supporting area for the 10% focus area, it makes sense.  If you try to make everything a focus area, then the eye gets confused and you can't figure out what the painting is about.

Using this selection of colors has its disadvantages, though.  I've never been able to make very pale or muted skin tones with them.  You've seen the people I'm talking about: people that have extremely white or muted skin colors.  Many redheads, for example.  We had a redhead model a while back and I tried to paint her with my usual colors and failed miserably.  Trust me: flake white replacement is NOT a skin color by itself!  So I've been frustrated and trying to figure out just how people like John Singer Sargent or George Bellows handled those hues.  I think I may have found an insight into a workable approach.  Recently, I discovered a Swedish painter named Nick Alm.  Most of his figures have very pale skin tones.  I downloaded a few images of his paintings and took them to the studio.  After some trial and error, I found that using burnt umber (essentially a dark muted yellow) and Prussian blue (a greenish blue) and a lot of white gave a soft green, and I could then mix in just enough red to get a pale skin tone.  So rather than taking a red and yellow and toning it down to get a muted skin tone, I was taking a light green and then adding enough red to make it into a pale skin tone.  A very different approach for me and it seems to be working.  I copied one of Alm's portraits and here's how it turned out:


This approach seems to have some promise.  I'm going to continue to play with it to see what it can do.  I won't call it "the" answer to realistically showing muted skin tones, but it's certainly an interesting option.  What do you think?


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