Painting a portrait is arguably the most difficult of subjects and I have concentrated in this article on how to mix realistic tones for both fair and dark skins, and show you the process I went through to paint two portraits.
I’ve only used paints from Winsor & Newton Cotman Sketchers’ Pocket Box of 12 colours for both portraits

How to paint pale skin

I painted Rae (see bottom of page) as an art club demonstration, watched by 50 or so people, so I had to get it right first time.
The drawing was done carefully using a 2B pencil. I always draw fairly firmly – the fact that the drawing shows through in parts doesn’t worry me at all. In fact it is nice to see a graphic element among the washes. The fall of light on the sitter is also important; she sat so that light and shadow modelled her face. Peering through your eyelashes is useful for this – you can see the tones more easily.


Tonal washes

Begin by setting a tonal structure using dark, half dark, and half light mixes of cadmium red and ultramarine; Figure 2A (above) shows one such tone. If you wish, put the light tone in first and work up to the darks, but I think it’s better to place the darks first, in this case the darker elements of the hair. This is evident at the back of Rae’s hair, the nostrils and the pupils of her eyes.

Place half darks in the hollow between her cheek and hair on the right, on her blouse below that, in the inner corners of her eyes and as modelling to the shadow side of her nose.

Where light shading is evident, patch the tone in at about the strength of the background to the right of her head, and add it to the front of the neck. See how adding this tone describes how the column of the neck fits into the shoulders and chest.


Flesh tints

The base colour for Rae’s flesh is yellow ochre with various additions, such as cadmium red hue (figure 2B above), alizarin crimson or burnt sienna, depending on the complexion. Our tonal colour mix can deliver a good flesh colour, too (figure 2C above), and a sense of recession is created by painting recessed areas with a green mix (figure 2D above) made from yellow ochre and viridian hue. You can see how this works in the eye and nose detail of the face. Note how the warmer colour of the upper eyelid pulls forward from the greener colour of the eye socket.

You can also use ultramarine blue and yellow ochre un-mixed here and there – and well diluted intense blue for the irises. Leave the highlights as white paper. Note the highlight on the lower lid of her left eye. From this you can see that the white of the eye itself needs to be given a light tone.


Final elements

Colour the hair using a blend of burnt sienna and a touch of viridian hue to calm it down. On the top of the head use burnt sienna to which a little cadmium red has been added. The lighter areas of the hair are just dilute yellow ochre. Then add touches of detail to finish the portrait.


Figure 3
The colours in the face vary so don’t paint a mask of pink over it. Instead paint areas of colour as you see them, and be careful not to lose your lights

Add a catchlight in her left eye, (see figure 3 above) but don’t make too much of minor lines in the face. This is particularly important with portraits of women. It is unlikely to improve the likeness and will age her or make her look rugged. You can sometimes get away with it on a male sitter, but women don’t like to look rugged! Beware of the ‘marionette’ lines that go from the corners of the mouth down both sides of the chin; putting these in too heavily will really age the sitter.


Finished portrait


Rae, watercolour, (56x38cm)

Colour Mixes for Dark Skin



Above are the mixes Tony uses to paint the portrait of Leo (see below).

Click here to read Tony Paul's advice on mixing dark skin tones.


Read more on colour mixing with our 16-page Explore Colour Mixing digital download which you can purchase for just £2 in our online store by clicking here


This extract is taken from the July 2013 issue of Leisure Painter

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