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Monday, December 11, 2017

Monday Morning Art School: How to mix skin tones

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas
Recently I gave you an assignment on mixing warm and cool tones. The example I used was my figure-painting palette. A reader asked for more specific information on mixing skin tones.

I have read many short articles on mixing skin tones and they all seem to start with a basic misconception. That is that the human form can be represented by just a few brownish colors.

An extended matrix for mixing skin tones, by student Matthew M. The warm tones are quinacridone violet, burnt sienna, naphthol red, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, transparent yellow and something I can't identify. He modulated them with tints of ultramarine blue, black, Prussian blue, dioxazine purple, and a warm mix. Overkill, perhaps, but it explains how he learned to paint so well.
We all understand that the human race has a variety of skin tones. Each person has a range of tones as well. There are pinker areas and yellower areas, and areas with distinct blue and green tones. Our skin varies by the season, the lighting, and even by the day, which is why we sometimes say, “your color is off,” or “you look peaked.”

If you mix three colors to make a human figure, you’re going to end up with something very inadequate. There are as many different tones in a single human body as there are in a landscape.

The resulting tones. With more or less white, these all appear in the human figure.
The palettes I’ve shown were done by a high-school student working in my Rochester studio. In practice, I don’t usually mix the entire array, but as a learning experience, it’s very useful. When I’m painting a person I’ve never painted before, I usually start with an extensive selection of these tones. Only after I’ve worked for a while can I see what sections of the palette I will use, and whether I need more or less white added into the mix.

You could, of course, skip that step and just hold a print of Matthew’s palette up to see if your model tends to have blue or violet or warm undertones. There are, in fact, entire books of color recipes for skin tones, which you're supposed to use exactly that way.  I recommend against that, because as soon as you do that, you’re making assumptions instead of looking.

The workhorse dark-neutral, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.
I always start my figure drawings on canvas with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. If the shadows are cool, I push the mix to the blue side. If they’re warm, I push it to the brown side. If I balance them perfectly, they’re as close as is necessary to a chromatic black.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659, National Gallery of Art
Getting the shadow color right allows you to leave your darks thin and loosely worked, a technique that Rembrandt used with great effect. This is usually a technique associated with indirect painting, but it works well in all figure painting.

To make a mix for blocking in the midtones, I generally start with a mixture of cadmium orange, black and white. But these are colors I use only for drawing. When it comes to applying measurable paint, I use the matrix above.

A figure painting still at the drawing stage. As you can see, I'm not interested in the subtlety of color here, but rather in getting the shapes right.
Two things will wreck the color in figure painting. The first is working under spotlights. Wherever possible, figure should always be worked under natural light. Spotlights change and narrow the color range of human skin. The second is working from photographs. Even the best cameras narrow the chromatic range of human skin.

I used the exact same palette for this portrait as I did for the figure painting at the top, with less tinting.
Race has far less to do with differences between people than is generally believed. In 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that most of the variation (80–85%) within human populations can be found within local geographic groups. Differences we casually attribute to race are a very minor part of human genetic variability. A study by Noah Rosenberg, et al showed that differences among individuals account for 93-95% of all genetic variation. Race accounts for just 3-5% of all human difference. As Ken Malik wrote, “Imagine that some nuclear nightmare wiped out the entire human race  apart from one small population – say, the Masai tribe in East Africa.  Almost all the genetic variation that exists in the world today would still be present in that one small group.”

And I usedthe same palette for this painting, whose model is Central American.
But, surely, skin tone is one area where racial differences are pronounced, you might say. After painting figure for many years, I disagree. There’s really no such thing as “white” skin color, “black” skin color, or “Asian” skin color. They are mixed with the same array of paints; we just control how much white paint we add to the mix.

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