How I paint skin tones in acrylic + Free printable PDF mixing guide

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Creative process, Freebies, Tips for creatives

The title of post is not “how to paint skin tones”, because I don’t think my process is the best one, and I have quite a bit to learn. But for those of you who are curious how I do it, here is my process along with some palette formulas.

How I paint skin tones in acrylic + Free printable PDF mixing guide

UPDATE: Free printable PDF skin tones mixing guide is now available for download.

Note: I’ve only tried painting Caucasian people so far, and can’t offer any tips specifically for people of color. But I believe that varying the ratios of tube paints I use can provide pretty varied skin tones.

I will show you my process on my latest painting, Crucify.

Preparing the palette

I don’t prepare the entire palette beforehand. Since I work in layers over the course of a few days, I mix the colors as I need them.
For easy reference, I will show you the entire palette and formulas right away.

I used 6 tube paints in total: Yellow Ochre (PY42), Primary Magenta (PR19+PR146), Ultramarine (PB29), Burnt Sienna (PBr7), Titan Buff (PW6+PY42+PR101+PBk11) and Mars Black (PBk11).

Here is my palette:

My skin tones palette

And here are the formulas for the mixtures pictured above.

Flesh = Yellow Ochre + Primary Magenta + Titan Buff
Base = Yellow Ochre + Primary Magenta + Ultramarine + Titan Buff
Black = Ultramarine + Burnt Sienna + Mars Black
Flesh shadow = Flesh + Black
Shadow = Ultramarine + Burnt Sienna + Base
Midtone = Base + Shadow
Highlight = Base + Titan Buff
Blush = Base + Primary Magenta

Why I used these tube paints? Mainly because I’m used to using ultramarine, magenta, ochre and browns. I haven’t tried any other formula. They’re the colors I’ve used in the rest of the painting (with addition of a few others).
As for Titan Buff versus Titanium white, I just happened to have bought this tube for other reasons, and it works very nicely for lightening skin tones. I’ve used Titanium white before, and it works just as well, you just have to be careful with how much you add.

Beside these colors, I also use transparent glossy medium in top layers. It enables me to paint transparent glazes and seamless gradients, but it also (in my opinion) helps the skin to look more alive. Our skin is translucent and has a gentle glow, and acrylics are matte and dull on their own. Adding some transparency to skin tones makes them pop from the background.

Painting process

Excuse me for not having documented the entire process in detail, I wasn’t intending to write this post so I’ll have to make-do with the progress shots I have taken.

Painting skin process - step 1

I started with a blue undertone. I painted the entire background in blue tones, and transferred the sketch to the canvas. I painted over the sketch with a dark mix of Ultramarine (not sure which mix anymore), and marked the darkest shadows.

Painting skin process - step 2

The first tone I mixed is what I named “flesh”, since it’s supposed to hint the redness of flesh beneath the skin. Shadows are marked with “flesh shadow” just so I don’t lose the forms, but the tone of this one will be pretty much completely covered up with another layer of shadows, so it doesn’t matter.

Painting skin process - step 3

Next, I covered the entire skin with a “base” tone. The shadows show through, and the flesh beneath is just barely visible, which is what I wanted.

Painting skin process - step 3

The next step was to paint highlights and shadows with “highlight”, “midtone” and “shadow” tone. Also the darkest shadows between the fingers, legs and under the skirt are painted with “dark” tone.

Legs are much darker than the arms, so it took a lot of midtone to cover up the base layer, and I only used base tone for the lightest parts. Here the shadows look sharp and rough.

On the arms however the majority of the base layer shows though, with shadows painted using shadow and blended using midtone, and highlights lightly hinted using a transparent glaze of “highlight” tone. Everything is blended, and I used transparent glazing, as well as “dry brush” technique to make the gradients. But if the paint is still wet, you can use this to mix the tones on the canvas. I work very slowly, so I rarely get the chance to do that.

Painting skin process - step 5

The face is a place of highest contrast. I made both the darkest shadows using the “shadow” and “dark” tone (as seen on the nose, mouth and ears), and very light highlights with pure “highlight” tone on the forehead, nose, eyelids, cheeks, chin and collarbones. “Midtone” is used mostly on the chin and under it, plus to make the gradients around the nose and eyelids.

You can see here how I was fixing the armpit (painted with “shadow” tone), and how it looked prior to applying midtone and base tone.

After the paint dried, I applied the “blush” tone to the cheeks and parts of the hand.

Painting skin process - step 6

Here you can see what the skin looks like in the end. Again, you can see the final image here.

In the very end, when everything dried completely, I went over the entire skin with a very thin layer of transparent glossy medium. I don’t know if that makes any difference in the result, but since I had some medium mixed in, I wanted the glossiness to be uniform, and not only on some parts.

So, that was my way of painting skin as of April 2013.
Do you have some better tips & suggestions? Please share! I’d love to learn if there is a better way.

If you enjoyed seeing this painting process, you might want to check out my painting process video: Making of “Nourishing Heart”.

Don’t forget to download your free guide!

Download PDF skin tones mixing guide

P.S. Before leaving, check out my blog archive where I offer lots of tips for artists and other creatives.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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31 responses to “How I paint skin tones in acrylic + Free printable PDF mixing guide”

  1. Dear Nela,
    I have always found skin tones some of the hardest thing to mix! And when I finally get the color I often end up not having enough and not remembering how I got to the perfect skin color in the first place and the shadows I find so hard that I usually avoid them completely. So, thank you for sharing this!
    All the best!

  2. Hi Nela,
    This was a great article. I’m very new to painting and skin tone is definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve come across! Thanks for this post. I’ll be revisiting when I’m back to it!

  3. Hey Pipaluk,
    thanks for your comment, I’m glad you consider it helpful! :) I agree, getting the correct mix is difficult and especially if you run out of it! It happens to me too.
    I’m trying to keep things simple with only a few tubes, so if I don’t manage to get the exact same shade the first time, through a few tries I end up getting close enough.

    Hi Meg,
    glad you liked the article, thanks! I hope it will be helpful to you in your painting.
    I agree, skin is one of the most difficult things for me as well.

  4. Hi Nela
    This is a really interesting article. I don’t paint in the same way as you but it is always good to read about other artists’ processes.
    Good luck with your painting!!

  5. I’m new to painting with acrylics and I found this super helpful. I tried winging it once and it didn’t turn out *quite* how I wanted it to, hehehe.

  6. Rachel,
    thank you very much!
    I’ve seen your art and it looks lovely with the pure tones. I agree, we can always learn something from each other :)

    Hi Dominee,
    glad you find it helpful! Painting is challenging, it really depends how intuitive you find the medium. I’ve gotten along fine with acrylics, I found watercolor challenging but learned to enjoy it more, and I still struggle with gouache.. Just continue painting and you’ll get the hang of it! :)

  7. This is a great post. I am an artist and the reason I never paint humans is the difficulty in creating true to life skintones. I specialize in painting animals for that very reason! One of the main problems I find when I mix skin tones is that I tend to make the colour too pink.

  8. Thank you, Sarah!
    Mixing a “skin tone” that is too pink or too orange was a problem of mine too, that’s how I got the idea to use this saturated tone for a warm undertone I called “flesh”. I then make this tone less saturated and turn it into proper skin tones, but it’s good for the first step.
    With acrylic, you can always paint on as many layers as you need until you get proper skin tones :)

  9. Thank you so much! Although I’ve been painting for many years, I am just now venturing into human figures. I was having great difficulty with skin tones. Now, I have the confidence to move forward with my current painting!

  10. Very interesting, thank you for sharing! I’m not normally a portrait painter (of people) I usually paint birds but I recently accepted a challenge to paint a self portrait, and now I have to paint another!! I used a single colour with black and white to simplify things…maybe one day I’ll attempt a full colour version. :)

  11. Hi Mandi, glad you like it!

    Yeah the simpler way is to just use black and white, that’s certainly what I do in quicker gouache portraits.

    Actually, it’s advisable that painters start off with monochrome portraits, but I’ve jumped straight from black&white drawings to full color paintings. I might go back to fill in some gaps in knowledge :)

  12. This is incredible. I’ve never bothered messing with painting people because i didn’t know how i should do it, but this…. this has intrigued me. Thank you! My only suggestion, could you create a video of you painting? I learn better watching someone doing it. ( mixing the palette, dry brushing, mixing on canvas, applying medium,etc.) I think it may benefit more than just me. Length of the video wouldn’t bother me, the longer the more detail and info i learn, right? Lol

  13. Greetings, Nela!
    This is the kind of thorough, really-useful information that would’ve gotten me “hooked on” painting in high school, instead of just dabbling at it, over the years! ;)

    Bright Blessings ~

  14. @Cam,
    thank you very much!
    I’m definitely making a note on a possible instructional video. I’m still new to videos so I don’t do them often, but I definitely see the value in doing a skin painting process.

    thank you!
    Hehe I’m like you, wishing I started painting way earlier than I did… but my firm belief is that it’s never too late ;)

  15. In regards to white skin tones, skin cells are transparently white or yellow. Example, we see a light and seemingly see-through yellow color in a callus, which is made of only skin, simply. I find this observation significant in creating different skin tones,( save darker pigments). Generally speaking; the top layer of skin should always be painted over maroons, purples or reds, which, collectively represent the flesh. White, black and other colors should be applied as shadow detail or reflections from the surrounding environment. Yellow, white, red and black are all you need. For darker skin tones, add a suitable brown. To accommodate colorful lighting, arrange your palette accordingly, using the given colors atop your flesh. Be aware of the difference between life and death. The presence of blue is naturally the color of death in reference to flesh.

  16. Hey Castro,
    those are very interesting observations, thank you very much for your input!
    I don’t use much while and yellow in their pure state, since I’m afraid my highlights will go too flat.

    Yes, I can see how blue is not a healthy choice for painting the flesh. However, I personally like the effect cold shadows (blueish-purple) have on the overall look of the portrait, it makes the warm flesh tones in the light pop-up even more.

    And perhaps my personal experience is at play here as well – being very thin, my blue veins show up a lot under my skin, especially on the arms and hands, so I see this blue tinge as quite essential in my experience of the skin.

    I’m interested, how do you create purples without blues? Or are you referring just to pure blue colors?

    I’d like to see some examples with skin painted only with “yellow, white, red and black”. I personally can’t imagine how working with these alone can produce the effect I want, but I’m willing to learn.

  17. Hi Nela you are very gentle but I have some questions…my canvas absorbe too much color should I put some gesso on it?I try to paint a portrait but now it’s too pinky and brown there is a way to recover it?an the last question, if I work the painting in different days and layers how I obtain a blend effect?I mean the paint dry very fast so the new layer I start upon the dried paint doesn’t blend with the layer under. Can I use a dry brush?thank you very much

  18. Hi Alexis, thanks for your question!
    Are you working on a primed or unprimed canvas? I always buy canvas that already has a few layers of gesso so I never experienced what you describe. If it’s absorbing too much, then yes I would suggest doing that.

    Acrylics are very forgiving – you can always paint over what you already did and make it better!

    For blending with paint that is already dry, I use a clear transparent acrylic medium to dilute the paint (gloss medium). If you put on paint that’s mixed with a transparent medium, some of the paint from underneath shows through.

    Dry brushing is more useful when the paint is still wet.

  19. seriously i envy you oooo. am a graphic designer but luv painting too. pls can i have u on facebook so we can always chat better

  20. Hey Ebereuche, thanks for your kind words :)
    I’m not a fan of chatting on Facebook – I barely use it to be honest. If you have any questions for me, feel free to send me an email through my contact page!

  21. I find I really enjoy painting portraits and plan to pursue this line of art, beginning with my 5 beautiful grandchildren. So kind of you to share your talent for free. Much appreciated. You are a true artist and an inspiration to us ”battling beginners”. A big thank you.

  22. Hi Joy,
    thank you for your kind words!
    Painting portraits of your grandchildren sounds wonderful – I’m sure they will be grateful to you for these for decades to come :)

  23. Thank you for the skin tone mixing guide. Can I ask how much quantity of The yellow ocher the magenta or the blue for the base. Is it three times as much yellow ocher and a speck of magenta or for parts or two parts magenta one part blue I just don’t know the quantity I really appreciate your guide The yellow ocher the magenta or the blue for the base. Is it three times as much yellow ocher and a speck of magenta or four parts ocher two parts magenta one part blue I just don’t know the quantity but really appreciate your guide

  24. Hi Caroline, I’m glad to hear that the mixing guide was helpful!

    I’m afraid I can’t share an exact formula with you, since I don’t have one. I totally go by the feeling here. I start with Yellow Ochre and then just keep adding tiny bits of Magenta and Ultramarine until I get to the hue seen in the photo of my palette. Then I add as much Titan Buff I need to make it lighter. I never bothered with exact formulas, as we never have the exact same complexions and lighting conditions in portraits so I don’t think it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

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