How to Paint Skin Tones Step by Step

Plenty of artists are intimidated by painting skin tones. But you don’t have to be one of them, thanks to this tutorial on how to paint skin tones step by step.

Acrylic skin tones

Photos via CakeSpy

This tutorial simplifies what can be a tricky process, even for seasoned artists: how to attain perfect skin tones. You’ll start by creating a “base” skin tone, a simple paint mixture which can be easily adjusted to attain any type of skin tone. Then, you’ll learn tricks for attaining a variety of skin tones by simply adding primary colors and white paint to your base mix. You’ll round out your painterly skills by creating a suite of undertone colors to support your key skin tone. The final result? Lifelike, dimensional skin tones which will add depth and dimension to your artwork.

Free Guide! Painting Realistic Portraits in Acrylic

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Getting started with painting skin tones

Find a good reference image

One of the best ways to set yourself up for success is to find a good reference image for the type of skin tone you’d like to paint. It will work as a reference, but you may find that it acts as an education, too. While the tones in cartoon characters are flat, in a human body, there are a myriad of tones, including a primary skin tone, undertones, and subtle tones throughout the skin. So to say that there is just one “skin tone” is false — even on one single person, there are many different skin tones at work. A good reference image will allow you to evaluate all of these variations in tone.

While on one level it is easy to determine if the skin is dark, medium or light, it’s also important to consider the undertones of the skin. For example, many wouldn’t think of skin tones as containing blue or purple tones, but when you look closer, many do to some degree. By evaluating the tone you’re trying to attain, you can make informed decision about the more subtle tones that are part of skin.

This will allow you to create not just a basic skin tone, but also a “family” of tones around your chosen skin tone so that you can add accents to your piece. This will make your finished painting far more lifelike and compelling.

Working with different types of paint

Acrylic paint

This tutorial utilizes acrylic paint. While the basic technique can be used with different types of paint such as oil, gouache, or watercolor, many of the individual tips are most appropriate for acrylic paint.

Acrylic paint dries a little bit darker than when it is wet. Remember this when mixing your paint: if your color is a touch light of being 100 percent perfect, this is actually a good thing, because it will dry right around the tone you have in mind.

Oil paint, on the other hand, will dry in basically the same tone as it is painted on, so this is not as much of a consideration. Watercolor will dry with a matte finish but will be quite similar in color to when it is painted on paper.

If working in acrylic or oil, mix skin tones using a palette knife. Mixing with a brush is not only less clean and contained, but it may dull the bristles of your brush. If mixing skin tones with watercolor, a brush will work fine.

Regardless of the type of paint, use black paint sparingly. Black paint can make skin tones murky if used in too great a quantity. To darken the skin tone with a more natural look, use brown paint made by combining equal parts of all of the primary colors.

How to paint skin tones

You’ll need

  • A palette
  • Palette knife
  • Paint in blue, red, yellow (the primary colors) and white; black or other colors of paint are optional
  • A paint brush
  • Water, for cleaning the paintbrush
  • Airtight containers, for storing successful color mixes
  • Paper, for testing out colors / painting

Step 1:

Make a “base” color for skin tones. Configure a palette with the primary colors: yellow, blue, red and white.  Black is optional; see note, above.

Palette setup

Step 2:

Mix together equal parts of each primary color. Just about every skin tone will contain a little yellow, blue and red, but in different ratios. Once you’ve done this a few times, you might start with more of one color or another. But to start, go ahead and mix equal parts of each color with a palette knife. Your outcome will likely be somewhat dark. This is OK, as it can be adjusted to be lighter or darker.

Primary color mix

Step 3:

Add a little bit of white to the mixture of colors. This is helpful even if you want to attain a darker skin tone. The white paint will add opacity and pigment to any color, so you can darken the tone later if desired.

Typically, this “base” color will end up looking a bit like this:

Base skin tone

Although results may vary depending on the paint you are using.

It’s possible that it is the exact tone you’re going for, but most likely it’s a little dark, light or just generally not quite right. But, you have a good starting point for the next steps.

Tip: make a big batch of this “base” to make mixing skin tones easier in the future.

Step 4:

Now, it’s time to refine your color. What sort of skin tone are you going for? As you can see from the below chart, different additions of color can have a profound impact on the finished color. Here are some possible variations.

Acrylic mixes

For a darker skin tone:

Start with your base mixture, and add brown to the mix. Assess the visual of the tone and adjust as needed. Is it too dark? Add a touch of white. Too light? Add a bit of each of the primary colors to darken the mix.

For a medium skin tone:

Start with your base mixture, and add a small amount of white paint. Adjust by adding a small amount of whatever primary color most represents the skin undertone. If you add too much, adjust by adding more base and white paint.

For a lighter skin tone:

Start with your base mixture, and add a moderate amount of white paint. Adjust by adding a small amount of whatever primary color most represents the skin undertone. If you add too much, adjust by adding more base and white paint.

Within any of these categories, there can be infinite variations among the color. When in doubt, add more color a very little bit at a time, and mix it in using a palette knife until you have an idea of the finished color.

Step 5:

Look again at your reference picture, if applicable. Can you see prominent secondary tones in the skin, such as blue or red? Make sure to make a variation of your new base with this undertone color, to keep on hand for while you paint.

Variations on skin tones

Step 6:

Get painting! Your primary skin tone color will be the most important tone to lay down the main shapes of character faces, hands, or other exposed skin. Use your supporting cast of undertone colors to create shadows and highlights.

What medium do you use to paint skin tones? 

Free Guide! Painting Realistic Portraits in Acrylic

painting classes on sale

Get this free PDF guide you can only find on Bluprint. Featuring 25 pages of tutorials, tips and tricks from illustrators Jessie Oleson Moore and Sara Barnes, this guide is sure to help you improve your portraits.Download for Free! »

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