Advice to an enquirer

painting skin colour,
leading to diverse other remarks
on the art of painting

naomi Message: I wonder if u can help me, I'm looking for different ways to mix caucasian (skin colour). If you can please give me some recipes. Thank you.

My answer: There is no recipe for skin colour. You can buy 'portrait pink' in a tube, and it doesn't look a bit like skin colour (so don't waste your money). Even so, I think I can answer your question, if you are patient with me.

If you study the old master paintings (and of course I include in this category the great women painters such as Marie Louise Elisabeth Vige le Brun, and the lesser but still worthy ones like Mary Beale) then you will see that there are many methods. Nevertheless, there are some simple underlying principles, which I shall outline for you now. Then, if you are serious, I suggest you copy an old master painting that you admire (preferably a small and simple one, ideally one you can go and see in real life). You should also have the best and largest possible reproduction to work from, and you should sketch in the museum if you can get permission.

Study of a statuette. Painted on a prepared canvas taped to a board. The canvas already had an imprimatura (first layer) of burnt siena. Raw siena is more generally useful as an imprimatura, because burnt siena is too hot for the mid-tones.

I shall speak about colour first because colour gets in the way, and you need to get it out of your head until the last stages. Whether a skin tone looks the right colour does not depend very much on the precise colours used. It depends on relationships. Most importantly, the relationship of those colours to the colours in the rest of the painting. Also, the relationship of warm to cool tones in the flesh tones of the sitter.

It will help you a lot (and make it much easier) if your colours are harmonious, so that the colours of the face relate to the colours of the background. The simplest way to achieve this harmony, and usually the best too, is to work with a severely restricted palette. It is said that the ancient Greek painters used only four colours (three colours and white), and so did Frans Hals. Rembrandt and Titian used very few. Check out Vige le Brun's painting of her palette in her self portrait. None of the old masters went into a shop where there were rows and rows of colours in tubes. Keep it simple. I shall return to the topic of colour below.

Any painting is composed of three elements: form, tone and colour. It is essential to get the first two right before proceeding to colour, because if you start slapping colour on right at the start, you will have to keep correcting the form and tone of your painting, resulting in muddy stirred-up colours. I am confident this is the right advice, even though someone might object that the Impressonists used to put colour on from the beginning. Nevertheless, the Impressionists such as Degas and Czanne had studied traditional methods first at the art schools of the time, and they could get away with it. In my opinion you have to be a superb traditional artist to get away with Impressionism, and everything else that passes for Impressionism is just sloppy. If you want to put colour on from the beginning of a painting, then we part company here.

The remarks that follow assume you are using oil paint. However, many of the more general points will apply to other media as well.

Consider using a toned ground. Paint or rub a thin veil of a mid-tone (not too dark) of some neutral colour over the whole canvas. If painting a portrait, you will want to make the flesh look warm, so use a cool ground to set it off. For a Rubens or Rembrandt scheme, you could use cool raw sienna, or for that Rococo Boucher/Fragonard look, use a pearly blue-grey (mix titanium white with a little lamp black to get a blue grey). Let this layer dry for several days before proceeding.

Tackle form first. 'Form' is another way of saying 'drawing'. Drawing is fundamental to painting. When I was first told this, I didn't understand it, but I am in no doubt about it now. Without good drawing, all other efforts are wasted. Either draw out your composition in pencil or else (if working in oils) use a brush with some colour (say burnt umber) diluted with turpentine to draw straight onto the prepared canvas. The paint should be very thin, like watercolour. You can correct your work as often as you like, by painting correction lines and by rubbing out lines you don't want with a rag. The smudges don't matter. Just don't use the paint too thick. You are only interested in the outlines. Spend a lot of time on this stage - everything will be built on it.

When the outline drawing as as good as you can get it, apply tone, that is, what in primary school we called 'shading'. Use your dilute burnt umber with a big soft brush. The dark areas should be thin and transparent. Stand back often. Don't get obsessed with detail. Spend a lot of time getting the major shadow areas right. Rub the paint off if it goes in the wrong place. Look at your work in the mirror, or upside-down. Correct any imperfections in the drawing.

Let this dry and work on it again, darkening the really dark shadows in key places. You are sculpting with light almost, since dark areas tend to push space back. Try not to put dark paint on too thick. Burnt umber is good for the darkest areas of flesh, because these shadows tend to be warm.

Studio study (unfinished). Painted on a prepared white canvas. The drawing and shadows were done in burnt umber and the lighter tones added in yellow ochre mixed with white. At this stage I am beginning to apply colours to the background and clothing, before working on the skin tones. So far I have only used burnt umber, yellow ochre, titanium white and lamp black (so where did the green and blue come from?)

Now go for the mid-tone light areas. Use either raw sienna or yellow ochre mixed with white (these colours vary tremendously from manufacturer to manufacturer - choose one you like and stick to it). Where appropriate, you can warm it slightly with a little red, but don't overdo it. You can use a little light red ('English red') or a very tiny bit of cadmium red (go easy! it's very strong). If this produces a tone which is too orange for your sitter, add a tiny bit of quinacridone violet (an inexpensive and reliable substitute for rose madder). You will now be using the paint thicker. Probably you will not need to add any thinner at all, and if you do, use linseed oil or oil and turpentine mixture rather than turpentine. Paint in the light areas.

There will be gaps between the shadow areas you have painted earlier with burnt umber and the lights you are painting now. If you have used a background colour as advised above, these areas will be background colour, which should be a tone lighter than the shadow areas and darker than the lights. Also these mid-tone areas will be cool in relation both to the darks and the lights. So we have dark-middle-light at the same time as warm-cool-warm. You see, it's all about relationships. Look at drawings on toned paper, especially from the Rococo period, or by Leonardo. Try drawing on the rough side of brown wrapping paper, using charcoal for the dark areas and white chalk for the light areas. The colour of the paper forms the mid-tones by itself.

Return all the time to observation. These general rules relate to what you can actually see. There are areas on the face which are cooler in colour than others. If you get the relationships right, you can even exaggerate cool areas and paint them green or blue, and your painting can still look convincing. Look closely at portraits from the French Rococo, and you can see areas of the faces that are definitely blue-grey.

Finally, the brightest highlights are cool again, because white is a cool colour. Pick out only the very brightest areas with pure white, and don't overdo it. At this point, your paint can be as thick as you like.

So, in short, and if I have to put it into a formula, it's all about relationships of darkest (warm) to medium dark (cool) to medium light (warm) to light (cool). Always compare the formula with what you actually see, and paint what you see in preference to any formula. Keep it simple, and study the old masters.

Best wishes, and all success to you and your paintbrush,


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May be copied for non-profit private and educational use provided that the text is unaltered and that this copyright notice remains attached. All other rights reserved. May not be reproduced or issued as a whole or as part of any document printed electronic or otherwise for commercial gain without the written permission of the author. Copyright Martin Dace 2003.

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