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From the Dust of the Earth: Watercolors

From the Dust of the Earth - Butch Krieger Gives a Watercolor Tutorial on Creating Convincing Fleshtones with Natural Earth Pigments from Daniel Smith

The great old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci well understood the value of each earth color for painting flesh tones. Time and technology, though, have replaced many of their favorite earth pigments with more brilliant and convenient synthetic colors.

Some traditional earth colors have survived on modern conventional palettes-namely Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna, and Yellow Ochre. Yet many other superb earth tones have almost been forgotten. This is unfortunate because these subtle pigments from the earth are as useful as they ever were for painting marvelous and life like flesh tones.

Final artwork

I used three earth pigments to paint this demonstration watercolor portrait of my daughter's friend. These pigments form a primary color triad of red, yellow and blue. The red is DANIEL SMITH Monte Amiata Burnt Sienna. The yellow is DANIEL SMITH Monte Amiata Natural Sienna. And the blue is DANIEL SMITH Lapis Lazuli Genuine. These are all semi-transparent pigments, which I built up in glazes.

I began the portrait by mixing the two Siennas together. This yielded an orangish flesh tone, with which I developed all the tonal values and modeled the facial features. I then "split" the flesh tone, by using each of the two Siennas separately. I used the red Burnt Sienna to paint the lips, inside corners of the eyes, as well as the pinker areas of the skin-and the yellow Monte Amiata Natural Sienna to paint the eyebrows and hair.

I then used glazes of Lapis Lazuli to paint the irises, to darken the shadows, and to faintly subdue the initial flesh tone-so that it would not look too orange. I also used a minute amount of the blue to cool the reflected light that comes into the picture from the right. I was thus able to do this entire portrait with just three colors.

color samples

There is, moreover, a much wider range of alternative earth colors than many portrait painters may realize. Consider the Ochres as a case in point. We tend to affix the word yellow to the word ochre to yield the phrase "Yellow Ochre," which we think of as the name of the one standardized color. There are several variations of Yellow Ochre available at DANIEL SMITH...French Ochre, Italian Ochre Deep and Verona Gold Ochre. There is also a Goethite-Brown Ochre which makes exquisite flesh tones. There are also Ochres that are not yellow at all-such as the blue, red, and violet varieties. Like the Ochres, the Umbers, Siennas and Green Earths each come in a wide variety of hues.

color samples

Earth colors, sometimes also called mineral colors, are pigments that are mined from the earth. They are often identified by names that include the terms Umber, Sienna, Ochre, Earth or Terra. (Terra is Italian for earth.) The Umbers take their name from Umbria, Italy, where they were originally mined. The Siennas were first mined near Sienna, Italy. The Ochres are naturally occurring oxides. And the term earth, of course, is self explanatory. Some mineral colors are made by grinding fragments of stones, some of which are semiprecious, such as DANIEL SMITH Lapis Lazuli Genuine, Azurite and Malachite Genuine, Vivianite-Blue Ochre and the new Natural Sleeping Beauty Turquoise Genuine. The range of beautiful hues extracted from the earth is really quite enticing.

When earth pigments are marketed in their original form, just the way they come out of the ground, they are often said to be "raw" or "natural." If they have first been roasted in ovens, they become redder in hue and are said to be "burnt."

There are many colors that have earth pigment names, but are not actually earth colors. Some don't contain any actual earth pigments at all. This is because many manufacturers assign earth color names to their colors based upon appearance, rather than content. You must therefore look at the fine print on the labels to determine if a color is a true earth pigment. It is standard practice now for manufacturers to specify the pigments contained in each tube by their international pigment identification numbers. The pigment numbers for the true earth colors will usually be either PR102, PBr7, PY43 or PG23.

Sometimes manufacturers will "enhance" an earth pigment by combining it with a non-earth color. This is often the case with the green earths, for instance, to which paint makers will add other green pigments such as Chromium Oxide Green (PG17) or Viridian (PG18). They do this to improve the luster of the more dull earth pigments.

There is a major advantage to using earth pigments in portraiture-you can use them to duplicate the colors of actual skin. Many, in fact, are so like human skin in their color that you need not mix them with other pigments. The most useful and abundant earth colors, in this regard, are the hues in the red-yellow range. These are the pigments that are most useful for making flesh and hair tones. With earth pigments you can match the basic skin color of anyone on this planet.

color samples

The green earths make wonderful glazes to tone down and shade the more reddish of the pale complexions. These are the best choice if you are not experienced with earth tones. I prefer, though, to use the pure Terre Verte-this green earth is so clear, intense and transparent that it doesn't require enhancement. Also Bohemian Green Earth is a subtle green ochre that works well in glazing.

There is a blue ochre called Vivianite, as well as the blue mineral colors, Lapis Lazuli (Leonardo da Vinci's favorite blue) and Azurite (Michelangelo's). Lapis Lazuli, Vivianite, Malachite and Azurite are made from semiprecious stones of the same names. There is, to my knowledge, only one company-DANIEL SMITH-that markets them in watercolor form. (Lapis Lazuli is also available in DANIEL SMITH Acrylics and Malachite is now made in their Oil Color line.)

color samples

There are also violet earth pigments: Côte d'Azur Violet and English Red Earth. The less expensive Raw Umber Violet is available in watercolor and oils. This is a very purple brown that, when used in combination with a yellow earth (its color complement), yields some lovely bronze skin colors. When thinned with clear mediums (such as alkyd medium), Raw Umber Violet looks more like a transparent violet than a brown color-and thus provides beautiful glazes for cool flesh-tone shadows. The blue and violet earths, although not as intense as the synthetic pigments, can combine with the red-yellow earth tones to create strikingly lifelike skin colors.

Earth colors range from semi-transparent to semi-opaque in their covering strength, with Siennas being more transparent and Ochres more opaque. You can use the earth colors effectively in flesh-tone mixtures with other colors and white paint. It is in the simpler process of glazing that the skin-like appearance of the earth pigments really comes through.

It is very difficult in printed (and web) reproductions to exactly match the colors shown in the accompanying illustrations. We have, however, done everything we can to ensure their chromatic accuracy. In the meantime, you may wish to take another look at the earth colors that are already on your palette. Perhaps you may see them in a new light.

final art

The Umbers are very useful pigments for painting darker skin colors. I did this demonstration watercolor portrait in one of my workshops, for example, by first developing the tonal values and modeling the facial features with DANIEL SMITH Raw Umber. I then glazed in the modifying colors of red, yellow and blue, each of which you can see to the left side of the model's face.

color samples

There are many beautiful earth pigments that are off the beaten path-and thereby unknown to most portraitist. Here are some examples of such colors from my own palette. At the bottom of each example I have diluted the paint with an alkyd medium. This shows you what the colors look like in glazes, which is the way that I like to use them.

Sedona Genuine is a deep rich brown that is excellent for painting the flesh tones of many Afro-American subjects. Minnesota Pipestone is a very warm pigments that, when thinned, look like reddish pale Caucasian flesh tones.

Burgundy Yellow Ochre is a very light, relatively intense form of Yellow Ochre that is excellent for flesh-tone mixing. Terre Ercolano is a brilliant red Italian earth that is superb for mixing flesh tones-and for glazing the pinkish areas such as the cheeks and lips.

You can blend Burgundy Yellow Ochre and Terre Ercolano to match any of the lighter complexions, whether Caucasian or Asiatic. Bohemian Green Earth is a pure green earth. It makes beautiful cool glazes that subdue reddish skin colors, particularly in the shadows. English Red Earth is a deep Umber-like brown with a purple cast that-when mixed with Burgundy Yellow Ochre-yields a medium-dark bronze flesh tone.