During my drawing lessons in Amsterdam, students who want to start painting are usually attracted to either making still life works or portraits.
Portraits pose a challenge that has kept artists of all strides interested in that aspect of the arts for as long as we can trace history. The first challenge is posed by the drawing itself, but even if you achieve this with dexterity, if you're aim is to make a portrait in color, flesh tones are the next challenge.
In this post I try to provide a few pointers in dealing with flesh tones, which should help you get around this very typical problem. As with all my posts, I recommend you keep these as suggestions, and that you try to practice as much as possible from life, which is in the end, the only thing that will make your art get to the next level.
So here are my tips:
Tip No 1: Brown, pink and yellow are not to be abused
A common mistake is to simplify skin tones into their cartoonish versions and go for the flat single color look that people are 'supposed' to be. This is a widespread mistake with all painting where our mental concepts of an object take precedence over our visual input, but nowhere does it become more painfully obvious than in a portrait. In a way, learning to paint is learning to un-learn what we think and give precedence to what we actually see.
What you see in real life is that the color of skin, like the color of everything else is determined by 3 aspects:
- Local color, in this case the brown, pink and yellow
- Direct light
- Reflected light or reflected colors
Using pre-mixed 'skin' colors and lack of observational knowledge usually results in the abuse of the use of local color at the expense of the other two. The result is a portrait that appears as if airbrushed with fake tan:
Tip No 2: When possible work from life
As I explain on a separate post, working from life is superior to working from picture references for several reasons, not least of which is your ability to perceive colors, which is at least at the moment, superior to that of a camera capturing them, and a monitor relaying them to you.
Technology adds steps and limitations that get in the way and fall short of the way a human would perceive a scene. Colors are lost, tones and values compressed and the result in general less than ideal.
If you must work from photos, make sure that you practice working from life so that you know what to look for and how to correct for the downsides of photography. Many artists offering portraits on commission work from photo and do it very well, but the good ones work mostly from life
Tip No 3: Beware of your chroma (saturation)
Skin is a subtle thing and painting it right can be a challenge. However, if your aim is to paint realist portraits and nudes it's probably better to err toward the side of a low color saturation, instead of a high one.
During my Amsterdam painting classes, I invite my students to look at the work of the old masters, and what you inevitably notice is subtle tones of off-gray color, as opposed to strong pinks, browns or yellows. I once heard of an artist that like to create a 'symphony of grays', and that should be a good thing to keep in mind.
This is not to say you can use strong color, but know when and where to be vibrant and your painting will sing. Do it all the time and it will just scream mindlessly. The real painting master learns to navigate an ever narrower band of color and value. This takes knowledge of color mixing, discipline and dexterity in applying it. Even if you don't achieve the level of a Rembrandt, it is working towards it that counts.
A good principle when learning to draw and paint is to do things in a way that your lacks and mistakes are exposed, not hidden. That's what brings about learning and improvement!
Tip No 4: Decide the finish you're chasing after
When you make a portrait, it is good to start with a strong idea of the type of outcome you are looking for. You don't need to have every bit totally planned out, but if we talk about skin you should be clear on the type of finish and brushwork you'll be using.
This is particularly important for skin colors on a portrait painting, because skin in real life has a translucent quality.
You should decide whether you'll try to replicate this with a layered (glazed) painting or go for thicker layers and focus on the texture qualities of the medium. Decisions, decisions, decisions. No painting can accommodate all your ideas, and the best ones are the ones with a clear purpose.
Deciding this will improve the way you apply your skin tones and in turn the end result.