How to paint skin tones in watercolor

examples of painting skin colors in watercolor

Painting skin tones in watercolor isn’t as straightforward as you think. You don’t simply buy one or two colors and suddenly, you can paint perfect skin tones.

If you know me, you’ll know my pet peeves. I hate people who think there’s only one way to do anything.

You’ll find that some people will approach the way they get skin tones in watercolor differently than I do, and it will still look fantastic. If so, then they’re doing a great job. Like I always say, there’s more than one way to do anything.

That said, grab a friend. Tell them you’re a watercolor artist, and you want to have a look at their skin tones on their face.

You’ll notice that nobody has one skin color. They’re not only not one consistent skin color. That person’s skin color is also affected by things like lighting, shadows, time of day, etc. You’re simply going to have to use more than one tone.

How I get skin tones in watercolor

My method works for me. I use four colors in seven layers, but mainly just two colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. (Both of my models are white women, so if you’re painting non-white models, you’ll have to use darker tones and possibly even different colors).

For the very first layer though, I do something completely different. Where I would have painted highlights, I use hansa yellow medium. By the time I get to the seventh layer, the yellow sort of shows through if you look for it. It’s a really nice effect.

The thing is, you don’t just take your colors and mix them and you’re done. It’s not that easy. You’re going to waste a little bit of paint until you get the right colors.

I used to use only quinacridone red and hansa yellow to get my skin tones but I lost a lot of paint using that method. It took me forever to get the right mix, so I ended up throwing out the mix half the time. That’s a lot of wasted paint.

Now, I start off with a lot of titanium white and add little bits of burnt sienna until I get the right tone.

Either of those two methods will get you shades of orange. Yes, that’s right – orange. I used to think white people were really pink, until I started painting. That’s when I realized I was wrong all this time and white people are really shades of orange.

Does the brand matter?

Brands are personal preference. Some people will only use one brand. Some people mix them. That’s up to you.

I just happen to use Daniel Smith for everything since I started with Daniel Smith and absolutely love these paints. However, my burnt sienna is Windsor and Newton since that’s what the store had at the time.

Now, I buy all my supplies exclusively from the local Blick store. I love Blick because they hire artists to help artists. I love that! The people who work there actually know what they’re talking about.

Anyways, does the brand matter? No. You use what you like. You’ll probably learn by trial and error which paints you prefer but that’s perfectly fine. That’s a great way to learn what you like.

Shading

As you already know, in watercolors, you paint light to dark. I don’t do the shading until the final layers. For shading, I use burnt sienna watered down. How much water versus how much paint? That’s another thing you’ll have to just learn with experience.

example of skin tones in watercolor

The above is my model Roxy. If you look really closely, you can see the yellow. You can also see the shading. You can even see watered down straight up reds that I love to add to the cheeks to give her cheeks some rosiness.

So in summary, four colors:
Daniel Smith titanium white
Windsor and Newton burnt sienna

Daniel Smith hansa yellow medium
Daniel Smith quinacridone red

I use the first two colors for her skin tones. I use hansa yellow medium as pre-highlights. For rosy cheeks, I water down quinacridone red. For highlights, I take a little bit of the skin tones I’ve already created and put it in a separate crevice, then add more titanium white to lighten it up.

Wet on wet, 7 times

So this is how I paint. I wet her skin. I add paint. Repeat seven times.

Do this and her skin will look very smooth. It’s a great effect.

This is my most recent painting of Allie. Note how smooth her skin looks. That’s what happens when you paint seven layers of watercolor wet on wet.

Allie has a secret for you

Allie

I’ve heard some people use certain blues in the shading to add coolness. I haven’t tried it yet, but when I do, I’ll add on to this article. As for now though, I’m loving the skin tones I’m getting so I may not change my method any time soon.

UPDATE: Adding blues for coolness in shadowing

Well I had to try it. And learned the hard way – be very, very careful with the blue.

The blue? Daniel Smith’s French ultramarine. I absolutely love this color. But, very important – go easy with it. I mixed that blue with some burnt sienna and it looked fantastic for shading.

Then I started painting and I got a little carried away. I had to carefully wash it down with water to salvage the painting.

So my advice? Be careful. Go really easy with the blues.

They do look great. French ultramarine is my favorite Daniel Smith blue. That’s why I bought it.

It’s got a nice coolness to it, very watery. But it’s potent. Wet on wet, a little goes a long way.

I may add blues in the future to my shading. Or I may decide to going back to what I was doing before. I haven’t decided yet. I do know that when adding too much blues, I had to go to nine layers of paint in order to cover up the excess blue.

Both ways though, I got results I liked.

SECOND UPDATE

Since I paint more stylistically than realistically, I think I’ll drop the cool experiment. Both times I tried using cool shadows, I had to add extra layers of paint as she looked like a zombie with only seven layers.

The first time, I used too much blue for the shadow and I had to use nine layers instead of my usual seven. The second time, I went easy with the blue and still had to use eight layers instead of seven.

So I’m going back to my old style of using burnt sienna for the shadows.

Now, I’m not at all implying that you shouldn’t do use more cool colors for shadows. It’s personal style. If you’re shooting more for realism, you’d probably be better off using a cooler color like a blue or a gray for shadowing. Your call.

This is the beauty of art. It’s really up to you to figure out your style. I can only tell you what I tried and what I liked. You’re free to take what you like from my words and throw out the rest.

Allie in water

My second attempt at using blue (a cool color) for shading

THIRD UPDATE

I feel like I’ve improved a lot since I wrote this article. This is going back to my old way of doing it – wet on wet seven times. No cool colors.

I shoot for beauty rather than realism. Sure, there are better ways of making shadows. But, are they beautiful?

Allie has the cutest smile

7 layers, wet on wet

You’ll notice that this picture makes Allie look a lot more alive whereas the one above this, not so much. I shoot for “warm” rather than “cool” when painting women. It makes them look much more alive.

About

Roman is an artist, composer, writer, and travel junkie, and he can still throw a football

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