Whether you’re a new painter or a seasoned professional, painting skin tones in acrylic can be a daunting task. It’s tricky to attain tones that are lifelike and dimensional rather than dull and flat. Here, you’ll learn about mixing paint skin tones and tips for how to incorporate the full spectrum — from light to dark — into your realistic painting.
The Easiest Method for Mixing Skin Tones with Acrylic Paint
This simple method uses different ratios of the primary colors to give you a range of shades. This easy approach requires a little work to refine, but it’s a fantastic and accessible method for artists of any level. With a little practice, you’ll be creating skin tones like a pro.
Determining Skin Color
The colors you select depend a great deal on the skin tone of the person you are painting. While it’s fairly easy to determine if the skin is dark, medium or light, you’ll also need to consider the undertones of the skin.
For instance, you might not think of many skin tones as containing the color blue, but many do, to some degree. By really looking at the tone you’re going for, you can make informed decisions about creating a skin tone in acrylic paint.
A good reference image is crucial. 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.
Mixing a Base Color for a Portrait
First create a palette with the primary colors: yellow, blue, red. White and black are optional.
Mix together equal parts of each primary color. Just about every skin tone contains 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. Your outcome will likely be somewhat dark. This is a good thing because in general, it’s easier to make skin tones lighter with acrylic than darker.
Refining The Base Color
If you mixed equal parts of each color, the blue probably made the color mix quite dark. Initial adjustments will be clear: if you need to make the skin lighter, add white and/or yellow. If you need to make it more reddish, continue to add red.
Once you make these obvious tweaks, you’ll have the opportunity to refine, adding a little bit of this color, a little bit of that, until you reach the exact tone you’re looking for. Here’s how to obtain three different tones:
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 incorporating more base and white paint.
Once You’ve Mixed the Basics, You’ll Need a Few More Variations
The colors that bring a person to life go well beyond the basic skin tones. To create a lifelike portrait, you’ll also want to mix the following types of hues.
Shadows and Highlights
This is a time when you can use black paint to your advantage. Mix a gradient of variations on your final skin tone with black or white paint so that you have paint in variously related tones ready to create shadows or highlights in your work.
If you want to create a blush tone for your skin, don’t use just pink or red paint on top of your skin tone. Create a custom tone by creating a mixture of your skin tone plus red for a color that will look natural as a “blush” tone.
Create a mixture of the skin tone with each of the primary colors. While some of them might look funny on the palette, the fact is that skin you are painting may reflect the colors within the scene, such as ambient light.
Top Tips for Mixing Skin Tones in Acrylic
Don’t be afraid to Use Blue and Green
We don’t think about blue and green in skin tones, but they are certainly there. This stylized portrait is a great example of how cool tones add contrast and dimension when paired with the warmer tones that we generally associate with skin tones.
Be Sparing with the Black Paint
While white paint adds a wonderful pigment and opacity to any skin tone, either dark or light, black paint can make skin tones muddy. If you’re aiming for a darker shade in your skin tone, your results will be more natural-looking and less murky if you add a small amount of brown paint (or equal amounts of the primary colors).
In the image above, we mixed yellow with brown (in the middle) and black paint (on the right), and you can see how unnatural the black mixture looks. While you wouldn’t use yellow paint straight out of the tube as a skin tone, the same principle applies to your base skin tone.
Keep a Record of Your Successful Skin Tones
Keep a record of your favorite mixes! If you mix a fantastic skin tone, make notes on what colors you mixed together to make a particular skin tone.
Always Mix More Paint than You think You Need
Always, always mix more acrylic paint in a skin tone than you think you need. The reason is that skin tones are particularly tricky to re-mix with accuracy, and the viewer’s eye is drawn to areas of skin tone, so they are generally a prominent part of a piece of art.
Even if you don’t think you need extra, make a little more and store it in an airtight container. If you need to make changes to your painting later, you’ll be thankful.