Mixing Colors to Create Skin TonesMar 14, 2022
“How do you create skin tones with colored pencils?” This is a question I get asked a lot. There are so many different shades and colors in someone’s skin it’s not always easy to find the right mix.
This blog is all about mixing the right colors to create skin tones.
The colors you choose depend on the skin tone of the person you want to draw. When you choose your colors you can start by looking at whether the person is light, medium or dark skinned, and also pay attention to their skin's undertone. Some people have more purple/blue undertones, while others might have a yellow or olive tint. Looking at these details will help you when picking out the right colors.
I often see beginners only choosing colors like beiges, browns and pinks for their skintones, that's a great place to start but it’s not enough. To create a natural realistic skin tone you will also need colors like blues, purples and greens for some areas of the skin. These colors will give the skin tone extra depth.
Skin tones have many different colors so depending on the skin tone of the person you will choose base colors and undertones. When choosing the base colors, decide if the skin looks pink, if so, than the skin is cool toned. If the skin looks more like yellow the skin is warm toned and if you don’t really see which color it is then you can use more neutral tones like beige and browns.
Take a look at the different portraits and see if we can mix and match the colors.
Look at the swatches created with Caran d’ache luminance colored pencils. If you compare the colors to the reference photo you can see that the lightest, Burnt Ochre, is the base color for this skin tone and then you see that the Beige is perfect for the highlights.
Swatch the colors to mix and match (see picture below). Start with a layer of Burnt Ochre then use the Burnt Ochre 50% below it. Go over the previous layer of Burnt Ochre to blend and create a smoother finish and then with the Burnt Ochre 10% go over all of the layers to mix and blend them together, when I do this I use light to medium pressure. For the highlights, use the Burnt Ochre 10% and go over that with the Buff Titanium.
If you look at the shadow on his nose it looks like the Burnt Ochre swatch is a bit too Orange and the shadow looks a bit more purple it leans more towards the Burnt Sienna so we mix the Burnt Sienna with the Burnt Ochre. For the shadow on his forehead, you can add a layer of blue to make it look more realistic.
When you’re swatching your colors you can go back and forth and keep on layering, you can try out a color and if you see that it's too light you can add another color or darken the color to get the same value as in the reference photo. That’s why I use Bristol vellum paper when I color with colored pencils because I can add a lot of layers if I need to.
For the previous reference photo, we used mostly Burnt Ochre for this reference photo you would use Brown Ochre. This photo has a different skin tone, it’s a bit more Beige. You can start with a layer of the Brown Ochre then the Brown Ochre 50% and then go over the previous layers to blend and finally the Brown Ochre 10%.
Now you have the base colors for this skin tone. You can see that the Brown Ochres look quite similar and some areas are more Beige also the shadow areas are cooler and darker. For the shadows, you can mix the Brown Ochres with Burnt Sienna to make the color cooler and darker.
After every swatch, you can compare with your reference photo. Some shadows are darker and that’s where you add more Burnt Sienna. In other areas you can add more Brown Ochre if it's more Beige. Look at each area separately just like when you draw a portrait. You might start with the eyes and then add the skin tone around the eyes, then you move on to the nose and focus on the skin tones on the nose and finally the mouth, the cheeks and so on.
You will also need to determine which side the light is coming from. You can see that the colors on the right side of his face are lighter than on the left side. So it can be the same skin tone but the highlighted areas will be lighter and the shadows darker.
The previous reference photo was Brown Ochre but this skin tone looks more like the Burnt Ochre so I would choose the Burnt Ochres as the base color.
Try to keep in mind that skin tones have a lot of different shades and tones. The Burnt Ochre is the base color but I also see a bit of Pink on her nose and cheeks. For the pink areas, you can mix the base color with Pink. For the shadows on the face, you can mix the base color with Raw Umber or Olive Brown.
For this reference photo, you can use the Brown Ochre as the base color. The Brown Ochre color matches a lot of his skin tone. The shadows are a bit darker so you can mix a bit of the Burnt Ochre with the Brown Ochre.
Keep going back and forth with layering and mixing the colors and maybe even add a bit of the Burnt Sienna if the color turns out too orange.
For this skin tone, you can start with Burnt Ochre but it's a bit darker so you can mix the Burnt Sienna and the Burnt Ochre to create the base color.
You can see that the colors on his nose, forehead, cheeks and chin look very warm, that’s where you mostly use the Burnt Ochre and when you go towards the shadow on the left side you will add more Burnt Sienna as well as Sepia to darken it.
For the darker areas, I would use the Sepia and then the Burnt Sienna. Then mix it with the Burnt Ochre to make the color a bit warmer where you need to.
If you compare the colors in this reference photos with the swatches you see that the Burnt Sienna works best as a base color and you can mix it with the Sepia to darken it.
For the swatches, I start with the Sepia and then go over the layer with Burnt Sienna to mix the colors.
If you look at the color on the nose, cheeks and chin, you’ll see that it's a bit more Orange Brown. You can use the Sepia, Burnt Sienna and mix them with a layer of Burnt Ochre. For the highlights, you can go over the layers with white to blend and lighten.
Remember to focus on each area of the face separately and look at it as a whole new area. What's great about these colored pencils is that you can keep going over them when you’re using light pressure, you will be able to keep on layering because you're not sure if you have the correct color right away.
It’s important that you use light pressure and don’t burnish the layers. Do you remember what burnishing is? That is when you use hard pressure to push all of the pigment into the tooth of the paper but because you pressed really hard you won't be able to layer over it. Try not to burnish or at least wait until it’s your last layer. You might not even have to burnish because if you have layered like seven or eight layers you will already get a smoother finish. Try not to burnish, try not to use hard pressure, always use light pressure and keep on building up the layers, step away a few times then come back and look at your colors.
Next to the colors, your values will also need to be correct. The values are highlights, midtones and shadows.
It’s easier to look at values if your reference photo is in black and white. A gray scale is from black to white so you can compare your drawing more easily that way.
You can take a picture of your drawing and turn it into black and white, do this with the reference photo as well and then compare it to see if you have the correct values. Even if you don't have the exact right color for the skin tone the correct values make up for that. If you have the darks dark enough for the shadows and the lights light enough for the highlights that will make your drawing look round and realistic.
Remember, the more you're going to practice, the more you're going to get to know your colored pencils and your paper so you can mix colors with ease and get those skin tones right.
If you want to learn more about mixing colors for skin tones have a look at the step by step video lessons in the membership covering everything from basics to portraits…
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