Lucian Freud Had Great Skin

Leigh on a Green Sofa by Lucian Freud, 1993, oil on canvas. 6 3/4 x 9.
Leigh on a Green Sofa by Lucian Freud, 1993,
oil on canvas. 6 3/4 x 9.

I started off seeing skin tones in figure painting in a closed off way, not really pushing to find the dimension and depth right in front of me. I almost felt I was still pulling a Crayon out of the box to color a figure’s form from head to toe like I did in childhood. But there are artists who have shown me the rainbow effect of human skin, most notably Lucian Freud.

Figure Painting with Realistic Flesh Tones

Freud’s figure paintings reveal how realistic flesh tones can be created across a painter’s palate, using a range of colors. When observed on an abstract level, his figure painting works become almost kaleidoscopic in their colors. The greens, blues, reds, and yellows are as prevalent as the more neutral shades one might initially expect to use when painting flesh.

Studying Freud’s figure paintings made me realize that going skin deep is a good thing–if the emphasis is on deep. Because Freud painted as if he was building skin itself, capturing the undertones of color of veins and blood vessels that gleam subtly on the surface to the marks and varied texture of skin that can change from body part to body part or with age. Now, when I prepare for a human painting study, I try to see as Freud has taught me to see–that the surface or skin isn’t finite, but full of possibilities and complexities.

How to Paint the Light and Color of Skin

Woman Smiling by Lucian Freud, 1958-59, oil painting.
Woman Smiling by Lucian Freud,
1958-59, oil painting.

To become artists who shares Freud’s sensitivity to the color, light, and shadow inherent in every inch of our skin, we need to start seeing in this same language– that of light and color. Painting Realistic Skin Tones is a resource that reveals how one of the most fundamental aspects of figure painting is an exploration of all the luminous and energetic color and light of the flesh. It certainly made me open my eyes a little wider, and appreciate yet another level of subtlety in the human form. What a gift! Enjoy!

And what discoveries have you come across when painting portraits or figures’ flesh tones? Leave a comment and let us know.


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

12 thoughts on “Lucian Freud Had Great Skin

  1. I find flesh tones a really big challenge actually. Although I admire the photos of LF works above, that would not be my style. And I find that the real look of skin, is not always as lovely as I want to see in a portrait (although my portraits are rarely realistic anyway). I love the challenge – and appreciate the topic. Thks.

  2. I have always loved Freud’s painted skin. Because he does capture all the subtle tones. I like Van Gogh’s also for the same reason, although his tones are a bit more colorful but still work.

  3. Ms. Jordan,

    While reading your Artist Daily Newsletters I not only learn new things but also find myself agreeing and disagreeing with your comments in varying degrees. However, for the first time I feel moved to comment on your remarks in todays (May 1) Newsletter. The skin tones of artist Lucian Freud that you laud are, in my opinion pasty, blotchy and grey. The poor subjects look diseased or like they’ve been locked up in a dungeon for twety years! Speaking as a professional artist of some 40 years I know that good skin tones are made of many colors but the combination Freud used are repugnant. You would have done better to write similat comments abou the work of Patriia Watwood and your credibility would have been reinforced by the artist you chose.

  4. Joan, no need for formality! Call me Courtney. And I’m so glad this engaged you enough to comment.

    Patricia Watwood is a dear friend and colleague–she guest blogs for us often. I’m so glad you find her work appealing.

    And I think we can agree to disagree on Freud. But that’s the joy of talking about art. We can see things so differently. It makes it exciting. Thanks again for voicing your thoughts!

  5. As everyone see’s colour differently I don’t know how some people can be so judgemental…opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

  6. As everyone see’s colour differently I don’t know how some people can be so judgemental…opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

  7. I have always been a fan of Lucien Frueds’ work. His portraits are often disturbing at a very deep level, and always leave me wondering how he was able to see so deeply into the hman soul. I believe that great art is much more than a pretty picture and those who are truly great touch the viewer at a deep emotional level.

  8. My question is “who really gives a Sh**! Why instigate this debate? Does a debate of the subject lead to greater art? No!! It just gives people a chance to chime in and make someone listen to them. I would suggest everyone here go back to their easels and paint – like I plan on doing. One more ridiculous debate like this and I plan to unsubscribe to this crap.

  9. Courtney,
    Have you seen the Scheile show at Neue Galerie? (I think it closes in a week or so)…His transcendent drawings and watercolors are luminous with large fields of color for flesh but he rocks the dappled skin tones in his later masterworks….’the family’ !!!!!! I loved seeing that face to face.

  10. Hey Courtney!

    There are some real passionate comments flying around! That’s what I like to hear!

    Why bother to discuss—or debate—things like Freud? Well, one reason is that it gets you to start thinking about things like subtle color and maybe question your way of thinking. Sometimes talking about drawing and painting can stimulate us to do more work or set out on a new path.

    Personally, I agree with Joan Jackson. I think Lucian Freud’s work is terrible. I think he paints with all the subtly of a sledge hammer. And, if anybody disagree with me, “Your mother wears Army boots!”

    Nice going, Court!


  11. This is a replay of an earlier post—and a good one. I was enjoying all the comments and suddenly realized one of them was from me. This is the kind of free-for-all that is fun to read and be a part of. Too much of the commentary on art seems like sound bites from a polite wine tasting affair rather than the passionate opinions on something that is part of our lives.

    “1976rats”: The only thing I object to is that with your redundancy contradicts the premise of your comment—which is singularity.