Butch Krieger demonstrates how to use natural earth pigments from Daniel Smith to create convincing flesh tones.
An earth color or natural pigment is any pigment mined from the earth. Natural pigments have great benefits for artists, especially portraitists and figure painters, for four reasons.
For one thing, earth pigments tend to look like skin colors. Some look so much like flesh tones that you can use them without even mixing them with other colors. And when you do need to combine them, it seldom requires more than two colors.
Earth colors also work well for making flesh tones because of their large particle sizes. Large particles let more light penetrate the paint film, strike the underlying layers of color and the gesso beneath them, then ricochet back to your eye. Building up colors in translucent layers of this type is called the indirect technique or old masters technique. It's ideal for simulating the actual appearance of skin.
"earth pigments tend to look like skin colors"
I did the portrait above in what I call the NEW Old Masters Technique. I began by modeling the major shapes of the face and hair, as well as the shirt and tie. I am using what is essentially an alla prima technique with just Burnt Umber, which I have thinned with Daniel Smith Medium for Oils and Alkyds. Because this is an alkyd-based medium, it dries to the touch completely within two days. (In ideal conditions, it will even dry over one night.)
Next I use a mixture of Burnt Umber, Buff Titanium and Mixing White, to which I have added some of the same medium, to re ne the modeling. I then make a red glaze of the medium and Minnesota Pipestone, which I layer across the entire surface of the skin. I put more of the red into the lower middle forehead, the upper cheeks and nose, the lips, the upper part of the chin, as well as part of the ear.
When that has dried, I glaze the surface of the face and ear with the medium and just a touch of Malachite Genuine. This subtle green hue is the complement to the red hue that I have previously applied. Thus it offsets the red and subdues it. I then finished the painting with glazes of Lapis Lazuli. I use this magnificent blue color in two ways.
First I use it to create a sense of depth, by glazing it into the receded areas, such as in the socket of the nearest eye, and the ebbing planes along the opposite side of the face. And, finally, I use the Lapis to darken areas that are still pure Burnt Umber.
Fundamental color theory applies when mixing flesh tones using earth colors. Here, I set up a basic primary triad. The red, top left, is Burgundy Red Ochre, the yellow is Burgundy Yellow Ochre, and the blue is Lapis Lazuli. At the bottom left is a flesh tone I made from the two ochres, along with some Mixing White. In the middle is another flesh tone I mixed from the two ochres, with a little less white and a touch of blue.
On the right I used even less white and more blue. With just these three colors, you could match the flesh tones of everyone in the world.
You can also mix very lifelike flesh tones with complementary colors, especially reds and greens. Here, I used Minnesota Pipestone, upper left, and Malachite Genuine, upper right. I thinned them with Daniel Smith Painting Medium for Alkyds and Oils, rather than mixing them with white. On the lower left is a pale flesh tone I made by simply mixing the red and the green together with the medium. At the lower right I used a greater proportion of green and thinned it with a little less medium. You could match a wide variety of skin colors using just these two hues.
Remember that earth colors can vary considerably from one manufacturer to another. At the left is Daniel Smith Raw Umber. Next to it are the Raw Umbers of two other companies. The difference is self-evident. If they didn't have the same name, you'd never know they're supposed to be the same color. This not a "brand" comparison - the other two brands are not inferior, just different - but that difference can have a major consequence when you are mixing flesh tones. This is typical of earth colors, which are rarely interchangeable.
"Earth pigments are coarser than most manufactured colors, and coarser pigments yield more lifelike skin texture"
Particle size also affects the appearance of pigments. Earth pigments are coarser than most manufactured colors, and coarser pigments yield more lifelike skin texture. Daniel Smith Lapis Lazuli, for instance, is made by crushing stone into microscopic bits which are jagged and irregular in size. Its manufactured equivalent, Ultramarine Blue, has very uniform particles that are even smaller, producing a much smoother paint.
The fourth reason earth pigments are great for painting skin colors is that they are chromatically unrefined. When the desired color of an earth pigment is separated from the stone or ore, it is not totally refined into a chemically pure form. The presence of residual impurities traces of other colors mutes it just enough to help emulate the subtle color of human skin.
Like the term earth colors, the phrase flesh tone is easy to define, but harder to understand. A flesh tone is any color, or combination of colors, that you can use to paint the color of human skin. Given this broad definition, all colors are flesh tones. You can use any color, either by itself or in a blend, to match a flesh tone.
Some pigments, however including most of the earth colors just lend themselves to making flesh tones. I call these my human palette. Generally speaking, the more earth pigments you use to paint flesh tones, the more natural the skin colors will look. Some manufactured pigments work well, too: Daniel Smith New Gamboge, for example, mixed with Daniel Smith Minnesota Pipestone, creates some soft and very appealing tones.
Remember that natural-looking flesh tones involve both the hues that you use to paint the color of skin and the chromatic context within which you paint your model. If you paint your gure with a greenish-gray background, for example, you can, and usually must, use some of that same hue to paint your model's skin. It's unlikely to be your base flesh tone, but it must be one of your flesh tone ingredients.
I painted the accompanying illustrations to show how well earth colors work for creating skin colors. These are not fixed flesh tone formulas, but you can give yourself a kick-start by using the combinations of colors used here.
About the Author
I have been a full-time artist for over thirty years. For the first 18 of those years I was a television news artist, specializing in courtroom illustrations. My clientele included CBS Network News, CNN and PM Magazine, as well as the Associated Press, United Press International, USA Today and the German news magazine, Neue Review. I am now a portrait painter and sculptor, as well as a figure and tromp l'oeil still life painter. I have done many portraits of cowboy celebrities, some of which you can see in the GALLERY.
As a painter, I mostly use modern adaptations of what is called "the old masters technique," which is also called "indirect technique." This is a method, in which one builds up a painting in accumulative layers of paint. Although very traditional in this sense, I take full advantage of modern materials that the old masters did not have.
This element of traditionalism notwithstanding, I am an alternative portraitist, and not restricted by stylistic convention. Like the portrait artists of Europe, I prefer to be innovative and eclectic. I choose to do work that is different from the run-of-the-mill portraiture. I also choose to do paintings that will stand on their own as works of art -- and are desirable even to those who have never even met the sitter.
I work in a variety of mediums, but do most of my commissioned portraits in Genesis heat-set oils. This is a non-toxic and non-flammable medium that remains wet indefinitely until you apply heat to it, in which case it dries immediately. Thus a portrait will be ready for varnishing and framing within the day after it is complete.
The prices of my commissioned portraiture begin at $5,000 -- plus the expenses of travel and lodging. I usually work from photos that I take myself. I prefer to take the photographs out on location, where the sitter is more comfortable within his/her own environment. You can see examples of my portrait art in the GALLERY.
I am also a writer and workshop instructor. I write for Artist's Magazine. (a Contributing Editor), Pastel Journal, Watercolor Magic, The Portrait Signature (the quarterly journal of the American Society of Portrait Artists) and for North Light Books (the world's largest publisher of art instructional books). You can order my latest book, Watercolor Basics: People through your local bookstore, or on-line dealer.