How To Paint Realistic Skin Tones

How To Paint Realistic Skin Tones

Trying to capture natural skin texture and tone through painting may be the most daunting quest of them all — but we’ve broken down your path to success.

1. Use Oil Paint

Oil paint is the best option for creating the appearance of skin; its slick base seems to be able to excellently capture skin’s oily texture. It is also the best paint for layering, allowing you to adjust the tones of your painting and alter the subtlety of your colors as you go, which is a little more difficult to achieve when using watercolor and acrylic paint. As oil paint dries very slowly, you’ll never have to worry about your paper absorbing the paint too quickly before you can adjust what you’ve just put on paper - meaning you can blend colors to create the most natural, skin-like appearance.

2. Color Guide

Whether you’re creating a hyperrealistic hand painting, a full-body nude, or very light to very dark skin tones, you’ll need all of the following colors of Oil Paint (of course, if you can’t find the exact shade names, something similar will still work).

  • Flake
  • Titanium, or China White
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium Yellow
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Red
  • Biege (name varies)
  • Lamp or Ivory Black

3. Unleash The Pigment Within'

Prepare to be a little taken a back by the colors you’ll need to use while painting skin, and don’t underestimate the amount of pinks and grays you’ll find yourself placing on paper! Many artists who begin creating realistic skin tones start with a lot of yellows and whites, forgetting that most of us have a lot of red and pink in our skin.

Plus, the shadows on our faces are typically some mixture of dark pink and grey. And while Ultramarine Blue is not always necessary for every painting, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the how a little of that bold pigment actually helps to create a natural skin-like appearance.

For example, Daria Callie in her Youtube video “Color-Mixing for Portrait Painting” explains that she uses a little bit of Burnt Umber, Cadmium Red and yellow, Ultramarine Blue and Titanium White for her “base”. Make sure you have a reference to compare your designated skin color to... she uses her hand in this case.

Laying the foundation for Skin tone mixture. Screenshot Retrieved from Youtube


Note: to make lighter shades she mixes more white and red to her base. Darker shades she went a little heavier on the yellow, Blue, Red and Burnt Umber. 

After adding red and white. Screenshot Retrieved from Youtube
After adding more  Burnt Umber, Cadmium Red and yellow, Ultramarine Blue.  Retrieved from Youtube


3. Necessary Tools

There are a lot of great tools specific to oil painting, but some cult favorites are palette knife, oil, and of course, already-primed oil paper.

You can opt to prime your oil paper yourself, which will require you to buy an extra tub of primer and prepare your paper a little while before you start painting on it.

However, already primed paper tends to be easier and smoother, allowing you to start with an even surface, so this is great for beginners.

4. Practice - a lot.

The first time you use oil paint, you will might be disappointed by your creation. You’ve used too much linseed oil, your paint has become thin and won’t layer, and you’ve not payed enough attention to the actual colors present in the photo — but don’t get discouraged too easily. Every time you paint something new, you’re improving dramatically!

5. Work From High Quality Photographs or Realistic Tones.

The only way you learn to paint realistically is by observing high quality portraits. However, there’s a catch: oil painting doesn’t require you to look for the details in a photograph. In fact, while doing your first experiments as a beginner, you should try to ignore the minuscule details of a photograph that you might normally pay attention to while drawing/watercolor painting and instead focus on color placement and making sure that each color is as close as possible to how it is portrayed in your photo.

Remember that getting texture right doesn’t always mean focusing on the porous details of the face, either. Repeat after me: if you can get color placement right, you’re half way there to painting skin tones that could be mistaken for real life complexions.

By: Amaya Oswald

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