Show Some Skin...Er, I Mean, Paint It! For a Good Portrait Painting, It's a Must!

1 Apr 2014

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.
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 portraiture.

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.

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 get really close and highlight the papery texture or freckles or signs of aging that faces take on as they go through life.

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 a part of their environment, I've often seen artists incorporating a gray neutral made up of the colors from the background into the colors of the face. 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 Richard Schmid's art instruction DVD, The Captain Portrait, the artist spends a bulk of the demonstration explaining how he does just that--and more, from capturing a likeness and what alla prima painting really entails. Schmid 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 work on. Enjoy!


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View the insider tips on creating your very own Alla Prima portrait with expert painter Richard Schmid.


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Blackbird_61 wrote
on 20 Jul 2011 11:36 AM

Oh I wouldn't mind seeing your skin ... er I mean you'ld make a lovely life model ; ) Blessings, BB.

LCArtist wrote
on 20 Jul 2011 2:06 PM

I just saw the Ray Turner portrait show at the Long Beach Museum of Art. It made me a strong believer in the fact that there is no such thing as "skin tone." He uses everything in the spectrum. Check his work out on the Web or see for somebody's short video record of the show.

on 2 Apr 2014 6:49 PM

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 :)