Painting the Flesh Tone


After the Verdaccio and going over the figure with Terre Verte, it’s time to start painting the flesh tone. I guess this is where it starts feeling like the real painting business is beginning to happen, with the underpainting stage complete. Now we are starting to work with a bit more with local colour.

But I try not to fall into the trap of thinking one layer is less or more important than another.

Getting stuck on formulas

Also, forget about using a ‘ready-made’ flesh tone. Besides age and race etc, everybody’s skin is different and is affected by many different factors, including lighting, clothing, surroundings and reflections.

So observation of the model is vital.

Remember that skin is translucent, and reflects colours near it. So don’t get too caught up in trying to find the perfect base colour or formula.

Pre-mixed skin colours usually need some mixing with other colours in any case, so I don’t bother using them.

You can create wonderful skin tones with just the basic common pigments in your painting box.

Pretty much every famous artist who painted the flesh of a figure or portrait had their own method of mixing skin tones and their own choice of pigments.

But in the Classical method, colour variations and subtleties arise mainly from painting in layers, as opposed to mixing a whole lot of colours on your palette at once and painting directly.

Using a limited palette for painting the flesh tone

By keeping things simple, and by working in layers, I find that I have a lot more control over the tonal values (light and dark), the colour temperature, and the amount of saturated or greyed colour that I want.

Many classical artists took advantage of using a limited palette in the early stages of painting the flesh. This is usually only three or four colours, plus white. Once this stage has dried, they then built up layers of transparent glazes on top of this.

Keeping the colour palette basic, helps to prevent ‘muddy’ colours and to focus more on tonal values than hues.

And tonal values are generally a more important consideration before getting stuck worrying about colour.

‘Thou Shalt Not Have the Dreaded Muddy Colours’, always sounds to me like one of the those overly concerned popular fallacies which scare would-be artists away from oil painting. I rarely worry about muddy colours actually, even though I mentioned it above.

The reason is that, I try not to over-work my painting in the first place. Also, it’s a bit easier when you’re not trying to mix all the colours you see at once. I can also just glaze a transparent colour over the ‘odious’  muddiness if I so wish.

And really, at the end of the day, the skin contains a lot of greys, so painting the flesh without using desaturated, greyed colours, is just going to look weird.

Pigments used for painting the flesh tones. Winsor & Newton Light Red, Red Ochre, Transparent Gold Ochre, Flake White
Pigments used for painting the flesh tones. Winsor & Newton Light Red, Red Ochre, Transparent Gold Ochre, Flake White.

What pigments should I use for painting the flesh tone?

With my underpainting complete, at this stage of the painting, I’m trying to build up the flesh tone to a lighter value for the final glazing that comes afterwards.

In this phase, I’m using just red, yellow and white. Namely, Winsor & Newton Artist Colours of light red, red ochre, transparent gold ochre and flake white.

Earth colours are great for painting the flesh. Umbers, ochres and siennas work wonderfully.

But I’m not going to go into a whole treatise on all the pigments one can use here now. There are plenty of online forums where artists discuss their palettes ad nauseum.

It depends on what you’re looking for. Do you want to paint the figure in the style of Zorn, or like Bouguereau, or like Gauguin for example?

I’m simply going to show my own process with this particular portrait, while I mostly take inspiration from the Venetian method of Titian or Giorgione.

Red, yellow and white

I love the warm tone of Winsor & Newton Light Red which is a red oxide. It’s a little opaque, so best used in the underpainting stages rather than as a glaze. There are a range of other red or ferrous oxides you can use, like Venetian red, English red, burnt sienna, red ochre etc. Some are transparent enough to be used as glazes.

I used a bit of transparent gold ochre because I love the pigment. But you can use yellow ochre or raw sienna. I prefer to use the organic mineral oxides in the early stages of the painting because they are durable and light-fast, rather than use their synthetic counterparts.

I’m using flake white (lead carbonate) from Winsor and Newton, which is a super old tube. I think you can get their ‘Cremnitz White’ still, but I’m not sure how expensive it is or how available it is. I know Michael Harding makes a pure lead white. But I plutzed when I saw the price!

Apparently the dry pigment is impossible to buy because of regulations. Lead white is toxic, so I handle it carefully and wash my hands before eating or picking my nose. Lol.

Lead white is great for painting the portrait because it doesn’t overpower the other colours. It has a light tinting strength, is semi-transparent, and has strong film properties. It has a warm, lovely tone. I use titanium white when I want a strong, opaque white. But lead white is wonderful for subtlety. Especially for the translucence of the skin. I dries nice and quickly too.


Painting the flesh tone, artist selfie with figure painting
Painting the flesh tone layer by layer.

Some tips and advice (or my thoughts while painting the flesh tone)

Don’t over-paint this layer (the ‘white’ layer). Let the painting almost ‘paint itself’. This is where a good fundamental drawing in the underpainting comes to your advantage.

☺ Allow the paint to be semi-transparent, to let the verdaccio influence the layers above it.

☺ Remember that paint dries more transparent, so make allowances for the paint to ‘settle in’. It’ll change. So again, don’t over-paint and be patient.

☺ Generally speaking, there is a ‘rule’ that the forehead is usually more yellowish in hue, the muzzle more warm and reddish, and the throat and jowl area more cool (blueish). But be careful with rules and trust your eyes first.

☺ Don’t skimp on the layers or paint badly, thinking that you’ll fix it in the next layer. Paint your best and accurately for each layer. It must look fairly ‘complete’ after each stage.

☺ Consider the thickness of your paint carefully. So keep a rag handy if you need to wipe off excess paint from your brush. Also, too much medium will make the paint slide around too much and cause it to start to lift off the canvas as you work it.

☺ Consider your brush strokes. Think in terms of how the flesh and the forms ‘flow’. What directions do the forms flow in?

☺ Put down the lightest mass areas first (well as far as you can) and then scumble the edges into the shadows.

☺ Consider your colour temperature constantly. How much white, how much red or yellow, how much verdaccio are you going to let show through? Fleshy areas are generally warmer, and bonier areas are usually cooler. I want to keep my shadows fairly warm, and the highlights cool. (Cool bright light coming from the window.)

☺ The flesh has a lot of greys and complementaries. So use pure colour carefully. Particularly on the edges of shadows. I find the red earth colour works nicely here with the green of the verdaccio.

☺ Step back often to check your painting from a distance. Make sure your proportions still look good and there are no harsh, unwanted tonal or colour transitions, unless you purposefully want that. Use a mirror to get a fresh perspective.

☺ Remember that the skin has blemishes and texture. So don’t try to labouriously blend too much. You’ll overwork it and start to lift the paint off. Stop before you go too far. Or leave it til it dries if you must blend more.

There are a lot of murmurs in the contemporary art world about ‘over-blending’ brushstrokes. It seems blocky patches of brightly coloured portraits with drippy paint are all the rage. (I secretly hate that!) I honestly couldn’t care what people say. Sometimes I like a bit more texture à la Lucien Freud, and sometimes I like to paint very soft sfumato, inspired by da Vinci or Bouguereau.

Painting the flesh tones after verdaccio
Painting the flesh tones after the Verdaccio is complete.

What’s next?

After allowing the first ‘white’ layer to dry, I’ll go over the highlights again, as well as areas that need a more higher value, opaque passes.

Thus I build the painting up slowly and in layers.

It’s amazing how blue the dress appears, even though I never used any blue pigment. This is because the cool white scumbled over the dark, warm brown umber of the underpainting refracts the paint and creates the illusion of blue/violet.

When you scumble a light, cool and opaque colour over a glazed shadow area, you get a chalky effect. It’s particularly great for atmosphere in landscapes or making the background recede.

My aim is to glaze over the dress later with pure ultramarine blue. Much like the lapis lazuli used in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna’s blue robe.

You can check out the next step Glazing the Skin Tones here.


Check out my figure paintings here.



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