It Gets Complicated When The Clothes Come Off

9 Sep 2012

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.
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.

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. Figure Painting: Realistic Skin Tone with Patricia Watwood is a three-hour 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!


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Figure Painting Realistic Skin Tone with Patricia Watwood DVD

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Capture the vibration of rich color and life in natural flesh tones.

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Comments

on 10 Sep 2012 9:11 AM

I frequently hear that the figure is the most difficult subject to draw, which is why many artists attend weekly figure drawing sessions to stay on top of their game. Color adds a whole dimension of complexity on top of that. There really is no such thing as uniform skin color. Not only do people of the same race have variations in skin tone, but even within one body there are variations. I find it amusing when I'm modeling for a figure painting class and the teacher is advising a student about color mixing: "His head needs more green." (Green? Hmm. And I just took a shower!)

Philip2 wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 10:45 AM

I think that values can be  more important than the actual skin color in the overall composition....And of course  in addition to the variations mentioned by artmodelandrew...the surroundings and type of light have a great influence on what actual colors are used.

Philip2 wrote
on 15 Sep 2012 10:46 AM

I think that values can be  more important than the actual skin color in the overall composition....And of course  in addition to the variations mentioned by artmodelandrew...the surroundings and type of light have a great influence on what actual colors are used.

m.merkow wrote
on 16 Sep 2012 10:19 AM

I am working on a portrait from a black and white photo of a deceased person. It is very difficult to figure out the skin tones, I just kept at it every day for about 2 hours and finally I turned the corner. All the comments below apply,