Question: Mixing skin tones in watercolor is difficult. Do you have any suggestions on how to mix beautiful skin tones and not end up with muddy colors?
There are a multitude of great painting combinations for good skin tones. Most good ones are basically a combination of red, yellow and blue. Make a skin chart of your own by placing each color with very little mixing. Mix slightly (and with a little more water) in the center. This will give you more skin tones to choose from, as each combination will be different depending on the amount of red, yellow, or blue that is used, and by the amount of water. You will learn more by making your own rather than just printing out the one included here.
One of my favorite dark skin tone combinations is a mixture of burnt sienna, cadmium red, and French Ultramarine Blue. Just remember though, that even when the figure has dark skin, on the light side of the face, you can move into a light skin tone mixture, and still leave areas that are the untouched white paper.
I generally cool down the face with blues, but here in “Feathers and Flowers” I used a Sap Green, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine combo, along with Cadmium Red. I had used green in the leaves around the flowers, so it felt appropriate to use it in her skin too. I let it run into her hair, to tie the whole painting together. Even though I list all the colors I use, in some places two may be used, in others three and even one as a stand-alone color.
For lighter skin tones, I tend to use Cadmium Red and Yellow Ochre for the first wash and Manganese Blue Hue as a wash over the top after the initial skin tone has slightly dried. Blues help areas to recede so they work well at the temple, under the lip, and to connect the eyebrow to the corner of the eye. The Reds make things come forward, so they work well on the tip of the nose, cheeks, and ears.
Just remember that the amount of water used will make a huge difference in the appearance of your skin tone. It can go very light or quite dark. Although Cadmium Red is a very strong color don’t be afraid to use it at almost full strength in certain areas. A good example is this detail of “Heritage and Bangles”. You can see where I put the blues and where I added the reds. I simply added a little purple under her chin for the purpose of repeating a color, a reflection and tie-in to her clothes.
I tend to be a direct painter. I work on hotpress 140 lb. Fabriano Artistico, which lends itself to this way of painting. In the example below, I decided to paint in layers instead. It is still red, yellow and blue, but in numerous layers. I probably should have used cold press for this piece (because it is easier to layer on), but I was still happy with the results. I used thin layers of Yellow Ochre (Raw Sienna works well too) and both Manganese Blue Hue, and Cobalt Blue (it is more transparent) and I also varied back and forth between Cadmium Red and Rose Madder Genuine. Rose Madder is more transparent than Cadmium Red, so it works well when layering.
Remember that one of the keys to making skin tones work, is to leave whites of the paper. Use the paint thick in areas and other areas use lots of water. Be careful when mixing on the palette to not over homogenize. Look down at your palette, if it is not over stirred, you will be able to see each color shine. One of my favorite adages is: “If it’s not pretty on the palette, it’s not pretty on the paper.” Try some small simple faces, just have fun with color, and see what you can dream up.
Materials used in all of the above paintings:
All paints are Winsor and Newton’s finest, except Sap Green which is Holbein.
Paper: Fabriano Artistico Hotpress 140 lb.
Brushes: Cheap Joe’s Golden Fleece #10. Most of my paintings are painted with this one brush, but on occasion I use a mop brush, or a sable, when I want a wetter look. I don’t usually use a detail brush, but if I do I use a #6 golden fleece.