Human figure painting, particularly painting skin, is the height of artistic prowess for me. I’ll know I’ve made significant strides as a painter when I can recreate the opalescent glowing surface of skin. But I have a strong handicap to overcome. I used to reach for those paint tubes of premixed “skin” color (don’t judge!), not understanding that I could mix pigments for skin color—and better ones at that—all by myself without this training wheel color.
|Aphrodite, Appledore by Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 1908.|
And while leaving this kind of pre-mix off a palate for good makes an artist better at assessing color, I still struggle with how to paint figures’ skin tones. But I have learned a lot. For one, with any figure painting I always study the undertone of the model’s skin—both in the light and in the shadows. Realizing this is where the true “color” of a person’s skin lies makes all the difference for me because there is such a variety of color in skin that can be distracting, but if you assess that undertone correctly, chances are you are on the right path.
|Seated Nude on Yellow Tapestry
by Horacio Torres,
1975, oil on canvas, 62 x 50.
I’ve also found it really helpful to take a page out of the Impressionist handbook and approach skin in a dappled manner rather than as a uniformly colored expanse. That means possibly using blue, green, yellow, and red all together when painting a relatively small area—the stretch of the back or musculature of the chest for example.
Enriching how you paint figures from the skin out is really the only way to succeed in creating compelling finished works. The Figure in Watercolor is a DVD workshop that can help you get there. Devoted to painting the luminousness and beauty of the human skin, it tackles color, value, and gives you the building blocks to delicately turn the form with key exercises and great tips. Enjoy!