How to Paint Skin Tones

Whether you’re a new painter or a seasoned professional, painting skin tones in acrylic can be a daunting task. It can be tricky to attain tones that are lifelike and dimensional rather than dull and flat.

By using the simple method detailed in this tutorial, you’ll learn how to mix skin tones using different ratios of the Primary colors. I remember the day I realized all I needed was 3 colors plus black and white in my paint box, my whole world changed for the better! I use to spend so much money on “pre mixed” colors, not realizing how much I was wasting my money!

Below I will provide an easy method that requires a little work to refine, but it is a fantastic and accessible method for artists of any level. With a little practice, you’ll be creating skin tones like a pro.

Getting started with skin tones

Determining skin color

The colors you select depend a great deal on the skin tone of the person you are painting. While on one level it is easy to determine if the skin is dark, medium or light, you’ll also need to consider the undertones of the skin.

For instance, you might not think of many skin tones as containing the color blue, but many do, to some degree. By really looking at the tone you’re trying to attain, you can make informed decisions about creating a skin tone in acrylic paint.

Creating a family of tones

It’s good to create a “family” of tones around your chosen skin tone so that you can add accents. As you can see here, the same skin tone is mixed with a little bit of blue, yellow and red in each spot of color. Save these accent colors for attaining details on the skin.

Tips for mixing acrylic paint

  • Acrylic paint looks a little bit darker dry than when it is wet. So make the paint color slightly lighter than you’d like the final outcome to be.

  • It can be tough to mix a specific color using acrylic paint, so if you are looking for the perfect tone for a large piece or an ongoing series, make notes of the colors that went into the mixture. Better yet, mix up a large batch of the tone in question so that you will have plenty on hand.

  • While white paint is helpful to attain skin tones, use black paint very sparingly. Black paint can react with the yellow in skin tones to create a greenish, muddy look. If you need to make a skin tone darker, use a small amount of each primary color in equal quantity rather than adding black paint to the mix.

How to paint skin tones in acrylic

Step 1:

Create a palette with the primary colors: yellow, blue, red. White and black are optional. Have a photograph or reference image handy for the tone you are trying to attain.

Note: Remember to be very sparing with black paint.

Step 2:

Mix together equal parts of each primary color.

Just about every skin tone contains a little yellow, blue and red, but in different ratios. Once you’ve done this a few times, you might start with more of one color or another. But to start, go ahead and mix equal parts of each color with a palette knife. Your outcome will likely be somewhat dark. This is a good thing, because in general, it’s easier to make skin tones lighter with acrylic than darker.

Step 3:

Now, it’s time to refine your color. As noted above, if you’ve mixed equal parts of each color, the blue in particular has probably made the color mix quite dark. Initial adjustments will be clear: if you need to make the skin lighter, add white and/or yellow. If you need to make it more reddish, add more red.

Once you make these obvious tweaks, you’ll have the opportunity to refine, adding a little bit of this color, a little bit of that, until you’ve attained the exact tone you’re looking for. All of the below skin tones were attained by making refinements to the initial primary color mix.

Advanced for painting flesh tones

Once you’ve mastered this method of creating skin tones, you can set yourself up like a professional painter.

Mix shadows and highlights

Once you’ve gotten the exact right skin tone, create a “family” of tones around your chosen tone. This is a time when you can use black paint to your advantage. Mix a gradient of variations on your final skin tone with black or white paint so that you have paint in various related tones ready to create shadows or highlights in your work.

Blush tones

If you want to create a blush tone for your skin, don’t simply use pink or red paint on top of your skin tone. Create a custom tone by creating a mixture of your skin tone plus red for a color that will look natural as a “blush” tone.

Painting skin tones in tinted light

Take the above concept a step further and create a mixture of the skin tone with each of the primary colors. While some of them might look funny on the palette, the fact is that skin you are painting may reflect the colors of the painting’s scene.

For instance, if a character is standing near blue drapes, a sliver of blue may appear on the highlights or shadows on the skin. By creating these variations, you’ll be able to capture these details, which will make your final painting more lifelike!


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