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How To Mix Paint For Skin Tones

Getting Started With Skin Tones

Determining skin color

The colors you select depend a great deal on the skin tone of the person you're painting. Sure, it may seem easy to determine if the skin is dark, medium, or light, but you also need to consider the undertones of the skin, such as blue or yellow.

Creating a Family of Tones

It's good to create a "family" of tones around your chosen skin tone so that you can add accents. As you can see on the palette above, the same skin tone is mixed with a little bit of blue, yellow and red in each spot of color. Save these accent colors for attaining details on the skin.

Tips for Mixing Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint looks a little bit darker dry than when it is wet. So make the paint color slightly lighter than you'd like the final outcome to be.

It can be tough to recreate a specific color using acrylic paint the second (or third) time, so if you're looking for the perfect tone for a large piece or an ongoing series, make notes of the colors that went into the mixture. Better yet, mix your acrylic paint in large batches so that you will have plenty on hand.

While white paint is helpful to attain skin tones, use black paint very sparingly. Black paint can react with the yellow in skin tones to create a greenish, muddy cast. If you need to make a skin tone darker, use a small amount of each primary color in equal quantity, rather than adding black paint to the mix.

How to Make Skin Tones in Acrylic

  1. Create a Palette With the Primary Colors: Yellow, Blue, Red

White and black are optional. Have a photograph or reference image handy for the tone you are trying to attain.

  1. Mix Together Equal Parts of Each Primary Color

Just about every skin tone contains a little yellow, blue and red, but in different ratios. Once you've done this a few times, you might start with more of one color or another. But to start, go ahead and mix equal parts of each primary color with a palette knife.

Your outcome will likely be somewhat dark. This is a good thing! In general, it's easier to make skin tones lighter with acrylic than darker.

  1. Now it's Time to Refine Your Color

As noted above, if you've mixed equal parts of each color, the blue in particular has probably made the color mix quite dark. Initial adjustments will be clear: if you need to make the skin lighter, add white or yellow. If you need to make it more reddish, add more red.

Once you make these obvious tweaks, you'll have the opportunity to refine, adding a little bit of this color, a little bit of that, until you've attained the exact tone you're looking for.

Advanced Tips for Painting Flesh Tones

Once you've mastered creating skin tones, you can set yourself up like a professional painter.

Mix Shadows and Highlights

Once you've gotten the exact right skin tone, create a "family" of tones around your chosen tone. This is a time when you can use black paint to your advantage. Mix a gradient of variations on your final skin tone with black or white paint so that you have paint in various related tones ready to create shadows or highlights in your work.

Blush Tones

If you want to create a blush tone for your skin — for areas you want to appear rosy, flushed, or recently kissed by the sun, perhaps — don't simply dab pink or red paint on top of your skin tone. (This is not like adding blush on a real person's cheek!) Instead, create a custom tone by creating a mixture of your skin tone plus red for a color that will look natural as a "blush" tone.

Painting Skin Tones in Tinted Light

There are times when you'll want skin to take on more of a cast from the surroundings. For instance, if a character is standing near blue drapes, a sliver of blue may appear on the highlights or shadows on the skin. So you'll want to create a mixture of the skin tone with each of the primary colors added in, as in the image below. While some of them might look funny on the palette, it's these nuanced variations that will make your final painting more lifelike.

If you keep these tips in mind, painting your next (or first!) portrait will go so much more smoothly!

Here are some examples of exaggerated highlights and shadows. This is to be used as a map to show  the basic idea of where to put the lighter colors and the darker colors. This will make your 2 dimensional painting look more 3-D.




Highlighting and Shading

Highlighting and shading are what defines an object. The shadows and highlights in a painting or drawing give the subject shape and form. They turn a flat red ball into an apple. To be able to add the correct highlighting and shading to your artwork you need to understand the basics of how light reacts with the objects it hits. When light hits an object it forms highlights where it directly touches the object. The areas that are hidden from the light are shadows. Shadows are formed by the object itself blocking the light. Always try and determine where the light is coming from in order to get the proper placement of highlights and shadows.


Most beginners use black for all of their shadows. In reality, shadows are rarely a true black. To find the right shadow color for your object add tiny amounts of black or the cool complementary color ( see my post on complementary colors) to the original color of your subject. So if you are painting a red apple, add a little black to the red or add a little of the complement to red, which is green. Add a little at a time until you get the color you want. You can deepen the shadow by adding a little more black or green. You can also use a chromatic black for the shading. Chromatic black is a mix of ultramarine blue and an earth color such as burnt umber. More blue in the mix will give you a cool black. More burnt umber will give you a warm black. This mixture gives you a rich dark hue that has more depth than just a flat black out of the tube. You can also add a little white to this mixture to get various grays.

Types of Shadows

Form Shadow: The part of the object itself that is furthest away from the light is called the form shadow. It is the darkest part of the object. Cast Shadow: A shadow that is created by the object blocking the light is called a cast shadow. The shadow occurs on the surface the object is resting on or next to. The object “casts” a shadow onto the surface.

How to Paint Shadows

There are a few ways of painting a shadow. You can use your shadow color to paint directly onto your object or surface. Blend out the edges to make sure you don’t have a harsh line. Use various mixes of your shadow color to gradually lighten your shading and blend it into the surrounding area. You can also use a glaze to add shading. Mix your paint with glazing medium or water to thin it out so that it is almost transparent. Brush this dark glaze over the paint already on your subject to darken it. You may need several layers of glaze to achieve the effect you want. Shadows are not always dark. Snow and ice have very light shadows. The shading in very light subjects is more dependent on contrast than darkness. When I look at the snow in my back yard (we have almost 3 meters or 10 feet!), I see various shades of white and blue (blue reflection from the sky) and only tiny areas of a true dark color. I find the easiest way to paint snow or other very light or white objects is to first do a ground or base color. For snow I usually use a blue grey, then paint the white/blue snow on top, letting some of the ground show through which forms the shading in the snow. This is one of the reasons it is important to study your scene or reference photo before planning out your painting. Look at the underlying tints of color and see where the light is hitting and where it is blocked. Art is as much observation as it is creation.


It is tempting to add pure white paint where the light source hits your subject. However, as with shadows, highlights are rarely pure white. They contain hints of the colors around them. Pure white should be saved for the brightest highlights such as a sparkle in the eye or the light in a dew drop. Pure white should be used sparingly. Highlights are not as complicated as shadows, but they are the “icing on the cake” so to speak. Highlights can make your painting or drawing “pop” and draw the viewers eye. They also give more life to a piece. Since without light we cannot see, even the darkest paintings have some highlights. Trees with sunlight and shadows

Where To Put Highlights

Highlights are usually found at the highest point of an object where it is closest to the light source. Highlights are painted by adding various amounts of white to the color of your object. To highlight a red apple, add a little white to your red. If you are not careful, you can end up with a bright pink. If you are having trouble with this, try using zinc white or transparent mixing white. This is a transparent white that will not give you the milky color you usually get from pure white. You can also use the warm complement to your base color, so for red you would use a warm green. You really need to experiment a little with mixing these colors since they can also be influenced by the colors around them. Use a soft brush with a light touch for highlights. They should be subtle and the edges well blended into the surrounding color. Gradually build up the highlight rather than having a blob of light colored paint. Observe where the light hits your subject. There will be bright highlights and areas of more subtle lightening.

Experiment With Highlights and Shadows

Try this exercise to help you better understand how highlights and shadows  are formed. Place an apple or any simple object on a table in a dark room. Use lamps or a flashlight to shine light on the object from various angles. Move the light around and observe where the shadows fall on the table and on the object itself. Pay attention to where the light hits the object, where it is brightest and where it is more diffused.

Tips To Remember

Shadows are darkest closer to the object.

Highlights and shadows should be blended and never form a harsh line.

Shadows have darker and lighter tones, never a flat black.

Everything has a shadow.

Start lightly with shadows and build up with more layers.

Pay attention to the light source.

Shadows are not always dark. Sometimes they are more subtle such as the shadows on snow.

Squinting at a shadow will help you see the lights and darks.

Color is not the most important element in a painting. It is more important to get the values right – lights and darks. See my post on Value.

Take a picture of your subject and convert it to black and white to get a better idea of the lights and darks.

Sketch your subject in graphite first to get an idea of where you want your shadows and highlights

Practice often. The more you paint, the better you will get. Don’t get frustrated. Every brush stroke you make gets you closer to where you want to be.

I hope these tips help you to understand the basics of highlighting and shading. Take some time to practice on simple subjects.

Develop your own color preference and style for your highlighting and shading and most importantly, enjoy the process.

Picasso did what he wanted and used the colors that he wanted to use. The  ideas that I have given you will work very well. But if you feel like going abstract go abstract. Whatever you choose to do make sure that you give it your all.   I am positive that the end result will be amazing.

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