Painting the Skin Tone

Painting the Figure – Part 3

by Damian Osborne


There are many styles, colour palettes and methods artists present and past used for painting the skin tone, and of course it won’t do to just mix a universal ‘flesh colour’.

Although I like to study as much of the old masters and their palettes as I can, as well as living artists’ methods, colour mixing is pretty intuitive for me; I’m thinking more in terms of colour temperature and value than following someone else’s method, rules, or anything else.

According to Chris Saper in How to paint perfect skin tones, skin tones need to be identified and evaluated and it’s better to paint from life than from photos. 


Colours and brushes for painting the skin tone

So for this session, I mixed up some titanium white, Naples yellow, gold ochre and light red for the warm flesh tones after the cool halftones I worked on in the last post.

I focused more on the areas of light and warmth here, starting with areas such as the upper trapezius, the upper edge of the arm, knee and feet which are catching the light.

I used hog’s hair bristle brushes: mainly filberts, but also flats, and a medium-sized round for blending and softening the edges a little. Edge control is very important for describing the mood or atmosphere of the painting.

The range of brush sizes I used were mostly in the middle range between no.2’s to no.8’s. 

So I tried to keeping one of my main brushes for the yellow tints, and the other for the pinks, always paying attention to the subdivision of warms and cools even in the ‘warm’ range.

Naples yellow, especially when mixed with a bit of white, is quite a ‘cool’ yellow. Pinks made with light red and white, are fairly earthy and subdued, which I like.

And there are a whole range of dusty oranges between, with gold ochre thrown in. Just those three colours, plus varying degrees of white, gives you a lot to work with.

This time, I didn’t want to grey the colour down too much by adding greens and blues into the mix.


Colour palette for painting the skin tone
Colour palette for painting the skin tone.


I try to not go too crazy with my colour mixing, preferring the control one can achieve through a more limited palette.

I also added raw umber and Payne’s grey, but that was for working on the sand and foreground.


Taking your time and checking yourself

I try not to rush my painting, or push it too far by overworking. Instead, I take my time, take many breaks and step backwards often to check myself and see the painting from a distance. 

Oil paint is transparent, which is a great advantage for glazing or scumbling techniques. But it also means that the paint needs time to ‘sink in’. It usually dries a little duller and becomes more transparent than when it was originally wet.

Obviously it depends on the quality of the paint you’re using. But I usually anticipate coming back around a second time to push the brighter, light areas, rather than applying huge dollops of paint.

That’s not really my style — I’m a bit of a conservative painter, not needing large amounts of oil paint.

I also have a mirror behind me, which I use for checking the painting in reverse and resetting my brain to pick up any obvious proportion errors or jarring value or colour transitions. 

Stepping back also gives me a chance to compose the rhythms and symmetries in the painting, such as the movement of the clouds, and the ripples in the sand. I think about balancing the composition with dark masses, and lines of action or direction. 

By the way, here are some great figure painting tips I wrote that you can use when painting skin tone in oils. 


What is the overpainting layer in oil painting?

The overpainting layer is usually the first ‘local’ colour layer over the underpainting layers.

You can build up as many overpainting layers as necessary, bearing in mind the fat over lean rule, where you don’t add solvent-rich lean oil paint on top of thick oil-rich layers. Otherwise you’ll eventually get cracking. 

But I tend to keep my paint layers fairly thin in any case, and don’t use much solvent or oil in between. I try to use good quality paint straight from the tube as much as possible. 

And I leave the painting to dry for at least a week and work on something else in the meantime. 

Here’s a brief description of overpainting by

Painting the skin tone in many successive glazes was a common Flemish or Venetian technique of the Old Masters, like Titian, Giorgione or Van Eyck.

Later, in the Renaissance Period, artists discovered the scumbling technique. 


Scumbling the flesh tone
Using two brushes for scumbling in the flesh tones.


Scumbling in the flesh tones

Scumbling is the process of gently rubbing the oil paint onto the painting in a semi-transparent, thin film.

It’s similar to glazing, (which is generally transparent due to the use of a medium like oil or alkyd), but with the difference that scumbling usually contains the addition of white (be it flake white, zinc white, titanium etc.)

I wrote more about scumbling in ‘Painting the Traditional Way – Part 5’ and glazing in ‘Glazing the Skin Tones in Oil Painting.’ 

I used traditional Naples yellow which contains lead or flake white, which I particularly like for scumbling, as it’s a bit more transparent than titanium white. Thus, you can control the values with the amount of paint you apply, and still see the layers beneath.

Scumbling is useful for lightening the values, like when you increase the exposure on a dark photograph.

It’s also useful for modeling and carving out the forms. And is an especially wonderful technique for painting the human body. 

Using scumbling techniques for painting the skin tone gives you the ability to create soft gradations across the value changes. 

And it also sets you up for adding the warm glazes that are to come in the Final Stages of a Figurative Painting. 


If you have any questions about these painting methods, or if you need any more information, please don’t hesitate to ask below. 


Check out my Sirens series, which this painting I’m working on is a part of. 


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