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WIP: Sarah – “What color do you use for the skin?”

Hi Everyone!

I stumbled upon an interesting opportunity to work on a quick portrait piece.  As I mentioned before, I am starting a new art class at McKinney Art House in January.  Just the other day, I was offered an opportunity to reserve a glass display case at McKinney Library in downtown McKinney, TX as a way to promote the art class. I immediately jumped on the opportunity and booked the case for the month of January. While brainstorming the ideas for the display, a thought occurred to me to display a work in progress piece. After reviewing the pieces I plan to exhibit, I realized that I am missing a portrait piece… so I asked my photogenic daughter, Sarah to be the model of this quick portrait.

Here is the current progress.

One of the most asked questions regarding the portrait art is “What color do you use for  the skin?”  The answer to this question is always a tricky one – the short answer is “any”, and here is the long answer:

One thing we need to realize about our skin is that it often acts as a reflective surface regardless of what skin color the subject has. If you take a photo against a lush green tree with diffused sunlight filtering through the leaves, your skin will have greenish tint. A photo taken indoors in the evening will give a warm glow and a photo taken under a harsh afternoon sun will have a washed out effect. There is no right or wrong colors for the skin.  The key here is to develop the eye to pick up the subtle shading you see in the reference photo.

The first thing we need to do it to remove our assumption that skin must be in the shades of beige-peach-brown. Don’t think of it as skin and just look at the picture and list all the colors you see. From observing the reference photo for my current piece, I saw lavender, dark purple, reddish brown, beige, brick red, peach, pink, rose, cream, orange….you get my point. You might want to jot this down on the piece of paper. Now, go to your colored pencil set and take out all the colors you saw. If you don’t have the color you saw, get the closest ones.

Another important thing about our skin: not a single area of skin has exactly the same color as the other. Because of this, I highly recommend working in a small area at a time rather than covering the entire face with one color of underpainting. Layer light and test out each color and hold your temptation of burnish until the very end.  If you are using white paper, take advantage of the white background as the highlight.  As you experiment and layer colors, you will soon realize that you are holding multiple colors at hand, constantly juggling from one colors to the next. Fantastic! That’s exactly what we are looking for.  The colors you see are the skin color for the piece you are working on. You can keep yourself organized by putting these colors in a shoe box lid, a jar, or a zip-lock bag until you are completely done with working on the skin.


Since we are on the topic of color, let me quickly discuss the “white” part of the face. We often associate the white of the eye and teeth as “white”. Many beginner artists make a mistake by leaving it white. The truth is that they are nothing but white and not coloring or shading these area will result in flat look. Here is an example:

Top left: teeth left uncolored, showing the white of the paper. Top right: after adding subtle shading to add definition, depth and highlight. Bottom: After the mouth area is complete.

I want you to look at the top right and bottom picture. Do you see how the teeth color seem to change? I did not brighten the colors on the teeth, I only colored the bottom section where it was white. It’s all about how our brain processes the colors. When surrounded by darker colors, the color will always appear much whiter.

Here is another example, this time with the eye:

White of the eye before and after the skin color was added.

Here you can see how the left picture has the white of the eye in reddish purple and after the skin color was added, on the right, it appear more white with slight purplish hue.  Again, the white of the eye was untouched. Only the skin around it. Do you see how the color changes depending on what color you have next to it?

My advise is not to judge the colors until you have colored the surrounding area. Always leave extra room for one or two additional layer for adjusting colors later and don’t be afraid to color the area where you think it should be white.

(This blog was originally published on 12/30/2014)

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