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Painting Flesh Tones on Claybord Textured

Painting Flesh Tones on Claybord Textured - A Demonstration by Butch Krieger


Lifelike flesh tones are not merely a matter of color. They are also a matter of texture.

You may have seen portraits that had flesh tones that were well-chosen and perfectly blended-- yet the people in them look more like wax or porcelain figures than living human beings. To avoid this artificial appearance, flesh tones must have some kind of texture. This is because human epidermis itself is thoroughly textured. It is replete with such minute details as pores, tiny wrinkle lines, and fine facial hairs. There may be irregularities in pigmentation as well, the most obvious examples of which would be freckles. Such minute variances in the tonal values of the skin give it a slightly grainy appearance. In order to look natural, painted flesh tones must not be too smooth and homogenous. The surface you choose for your portrait painting is therefore very important.

For several years, I achieved the likeness of skin by painting on hardboard panels that I prepared by applying gesso and then sponging the gesso while it was still wet. The resulting texture showed through subsequent applications of paint, making it look much like the surface of porous skin.

More recently, I discovered Claybord Textured™, whose surface coating more closely matches the look of actual human skin than my sponged gesso panels. Claybord Textured™, produced by Ampersand Art Supply, is a sealed and clay-coated hardboard that has a very absorbent quality, much like that of paper. It has an evenly distributed texture on the surface that makes it ideal for portraiture.

A good example of this effect using Claybord Textured™ is shown in an illustration I did for the July 2001 issue of The Artist's Magazine. I painted the oil portrait of my wife in three stages.

Yvonne by Butch Krieger

Grisaille Underpainting

First, I did the grisaille underpainting to establish all the tonal values using Golden Fluid Acrylics straight out of the bottle without the addition of medium or water.

Grisaille is a method of painting tonal values using only black, white and gray. This gray underpainting sets the stage for the color oils glazes that come next. The textured surface of the Claybord grabs the acrylic colors but leaves the all-important texture which is necessary for the final skin effect.

Scumbled Color

Scumbled Color

Next, I scumbled the base flesh tones and the hair color over the grisaille underpainting. Scumbling is a method of using oil colors that are naturally transparent over a grisaille underpainting. The paint, when scumbling, should be used in an opaque or semi-opaque manner more heavily than when applying thin glazes because these colors will show through the oil glazes used in the final step. I did not mix the flesh to tones but chose naturally transparent oranges and pinks for the skin tones, greens and blues for the shadow areas. In this stage, the skin had a "pasty" or unnatural appearance, which is exactly what I wanted in preparation for the next step. The final oil glazes in the next step are what bring the portrait to life!

Completing the Portrait

Completing the Portrait

I then glazed on the modifying hues, such as the warm red in the cheeks, and the cool blue in the halftone and shadowed areas. I chose naturally transparent oil colors and mixed them (about ½ paint + ½ medium) with Daniel Smith Oil Painting Medium for Oils and Alkyds for a shiner, more transparent paint film. These glazes are very thin and the colors were not mixed but layered to create the final skin colors. For example, if you glaze blue over red, you see purple but it has more vibrancy than if you had painted purple alone.

In the close-up view, you can see how the stipple-like surface of the panel shows through all the thin overlying layers, thereby simulating the porous appearance of real human skin. As compared to the expense of hardboard and the time spent gessoing, Claybord Textured™ is also quite cost-effective. If you do not have a work shed and the equipment needed to saw up the 4' x 8' board into a particular size, Claybord Textured™ is your answer! The best way to find out if Claybord Textured™ is right for you is to get a panel or two and experiment with it. I think you will find it especially useful in your portraiture and figure paintings, where lifelike flesh tones are absolutely essential.

About the Author
Butch Krieger is a contributing editor to the Artist's Magazine and art instructor at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington.

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