Show Some Skin…Er, I Mean, Paint It!

Stacee by Scott Burdick, three-hour oil portrait painting study, 12 x 16, 2001.
Stacee by Scott Burdick, three-hour oil portrait painting study, 12 x 16, 2001.

For a Good Portrait Painting, It’s a Must!

I remember when Mr. Nemerow, my very enthusiastic freshman biology teacher, launched into what, looking back, I’d best describe as a full-body fit about how the epidermis is our largest organ, accounting for the most real estate on our bodies. Even now I shudder a little bit at that memory, but he did have a point. The skin counts for a lot. It is vital for life, and in art terms its tone, color, texture, and shape can make or break a painting, especially in portrait painting.

From the Dominican Republic by Scott Burdick
From the Dominican Republic by Scott Burdick

Where You Are Matters

But painting skin tones can be a challenge, and each artist usually has his or her own take on how they want to showcase a figure. I always start with what my environment is giving me—being mindful that skin can appear cooler or warmer depending on the atmosphere and light. Before you start painting, observe the color story of the light and the play of light and shadow on the model’s face. Take notes of your first impressions. They will help you before you jump in.

Texture At a Cost

Sometimes the skin across the face can be dealt with uniformly in order to not distract from a person’s expression or facial features. Other times an artist can zoom in and highlight the papery texture or freckles or signs of aging that faces take on as they go through life. Ask yourself, what do you want to showcase about your model and go from there.

Make It Resonate

A Carnation for Grandpa (detail) by Daniel Gerhartz, oil painting, 36 x 24.
A Carnation for Grandpa (detail)
by Daniel Gerhartz, oil painting, 36 x 24.

When you’re painting a person and you want to make sure they appear “of” or part of their environment, incorporate a gray neutral made up of the colors from the background into the colors of the face you are painting. This can mitigate the boldness of any one color, which leads to more subtle flesh tones.

Portrait artists and figure painters who excel at painting skin all seem to have one commonality—they make the flesh look real and touchable. In Chris Saper’s Beautiful Portrait Painting with Oils, the artist teaches us how to capture a likeness and what portrait painting really entails. Saper also covers painting the values and texture of the skin, and how his own expressive feelings about the subject come into play as he works. This resource gives you a lot to think over and even more to explore. What’s great is that an overwhelming subject, in Saper’s hands, becomes exciting and totally doable. For a beginner painter like me, that’s the best! Enjoy!


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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.   

3 thoughts on “Show Some Skin…Er, I Mean, Paint It!

  1. I agree flesh tone are a complex thing…I am an adult student and as part of my study I am exploring skin tones and what some all known artists use. My inspirations are Jenny Saville, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and some relative newbys like Nick Lepard. It is amazing how there are several different ways of achieving the same result!

    Even the old masters used nothing but the four primary colours in varying degrees with traces of white and black.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂