Brian Neher is a professional portrait painter whose work has been featured in American Artist Magazine and on national television. He has studied under world renowned portrait painter, Joe Bowler, and his paintings can be seen in both private and corporate collections throughout the United States.
Instructional Courses by Brian Neher
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How to Mix Flesh Tones for Painting Portraits
Transcript From Video Above
And each portrait is different, each painting is different so that all depends as well. The portrait I’m going to be working on today is an outdoor portrait which is a very high keyed portrait which means the value range is very high. So, instead of going all the way down to my darkest value, I’m actually using half the scale. Basically, three-quarters of the scale I would say. Instead of using my darkest dark, I’m using more of a middle dark value range, using those values up, so it all depends.
If I was doing an indoor portrait I’d obviously mix darker values as well and darker colors. To go ahead and get started here, I’ll show you what colors I have laid out here on my palette. These are all Winsor Newton colors. What I have here is Raw Sienna, Gold Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Red and Cadmium Red Deep, and then Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and then this color here, this sort of flourenscent green color is Cadmium Green Pale. I have a Sap Green, a Prussian Green, I have Viridian, Manganese Blue Hue, and a French Ultramarine Blue. And then down here for my white, I have Titanium White.
The way I organize my palette is based on temperature, so basically the warm colors are over here, it moves from warm over to cool colors. But then also, within each of these different color families I have a warm and cool version. Like a Raw Sienna is cooler than a Gold Ochre, the Cadmium Yellow Pale is warmer than the Cadmium Yellow, the Cad Orange is warmer than the Cad Scarlet and so forth. The reason they get cooler is because they are moving towards the cooler side. So say I have a Cadmium Yellow Pale.
The reason Cadmium Yellow is cooler is because it has more red in it, so it gets cooler in that respect. And that’s basically how I lay out my palette. I don’t use black on my palette, not to say that I don’t use black. Occasionally I will, but I use it for more of a blue, actually. If you mix an ivory black with a little bit of white, you’ll get a bluish tint.
There’s nothing wrong with using black at all, John Singer Sargent used it very well and was able to incorporate it into flesh tones, but he used it as more of a graying agent, as more of a bluish color. But, anyway, let’s start mixing colors here. Basically when I’m mixing colors, I’m using some warm mixtures to start out with. I like to use a Gold Ochre and then sometimes I’ll mix the Gold Ochre with a Cad Scarlet and mix those two together.
I’ll add some white to that and then basically I get a warm color to start out with which is fine because later on I can add the cooler colors into it, particularity the complements. You get different values here by adding different degrees of white. It’s interesting to note that the more white you add to a color, the cooler it actually makes that color.
OK, that’s Cad Scarlet and I could do the same thing if I took Cad Red and mix those two together and add some of that white in there and you get a slightly different version or variation because it leans towards the red side, whereas the Cad Scarlet leans toward the orange side.
It’s actually in between a Cad Orange and Cad Red. You can see the difference here if I lay them side by side. This one definitely has more red in it. Anyhow, I’ll move it back here to keep it over in it’s family. Now I’ll go ahead and mix a lighter value as well. The reason I put so much white on my palette here than any other color is because I go through a lot of white when I mix flesh tones. Talking about palettes, this palette is actually just a piece of glass that I’ve laid over top a piece of foam board.
And basically what is does is it provides me with, I prefer to start out on a white canvas, there are some artists that work on a toned canvas, which means you put a light wash like a burnt umber or some sort of an earth tone on there. Some people tone their canvas grey. It all depends on how you work, but the way I like to work is on a blank white canvas.
So by putting a white piece of foam board underneath, it just gives me, allows me to judge colors a little bit easier. And I’ve done this for so many years, I’m just used to working on a white palette. Joe Bowler, an artist from Hilton Head, South Carolina, a fantastic portrait painter, got me started using a glass palette back when I was in college, and I’ve been using one ever since. Actually, this whole color scheme here, the way that I set up my palette, is basically Joe Bowler’s palette as well, give or take a few colors. You don’t necessarily need all these colors.
As an artist, a lot of these are convenience colors, meaning that you don’t have to mix every one in order to paint. When it comes to working with color, you really only need the three primary colors, a very limited palette You could do it with a yellow, a red, and a blue, and then white as well, and mix a huge variety of colors that way. But for me, I just like to use the extra colors. It just makes it easier for me.
And that’s pretty much the reason why I have so many colors here. Another thing that I’ll mention here is that the palette knife that I’m using is a larger palette knife. It has a larger trowel shaped handle which makes it easier. There are some that come with a straight handle, but when you mix paint you end up with a big glob of paint near the handle, so it makes sense to me to use a trowel handle. It’s a good size for mixing a lot of paint.
So, let me go ahead and mix some more paint. I’ve got some warm colors to start out with and then I’ll introduce some of these cooler colors, too. I’ll do a blue, a French Ultramarine Blue, which is a beautiful blue and doesn’t take a whole lot to change the color when you use that French Ultramarine. We’ll go with a darker value here. When I talk about Value, I won’t go into detail now, but value refers to different degrees of dark and light that are measured on a scale from black to white. So every color has a value that is automatically assigned to it whether we realize it or not.
As an artist, it’s very important to realize that so you can work with color more effectively. Value sets the stage on which color performs. In other words, color can’t survive without value, everyone of these colors I’m mixing has a value, whether its a lighter value or a darker value, but it’s going to fall somewhere on the value scale from black to white, somewhere in there. The reason I use the black and white scale is just for the fact that it’s easier to measure. Sometimes color can trick you, especially when using reds.
A lot of times when I’m judging values, I notice, for myself, that reds sometimes play a trick on your eyes. Sometimes I think they’re lighter than they actually are. If you take a photo, or a black and white photo, or convert your photo to black and white, you’ll notice you get the true value relationships. A lot of times that is what I’ll actually do when I’m working on a portrait. If I come across an area that I’m having a difficult time determining whether the values are too light or too dark because I’m working in very subtle skin tones, very subtle values, I’ll take a picture and convert it to black and white on the computer or on the camera and take a look at it just to see what the actual value is compared to the other values in the painting.
Anyhow, back to my demonstration here,. I tend to go off on rabbit trails quite often. Also to let you know, my children just got home from school not too long ago and they may barge in. If so, you’ll know the reasoning behind it, but hopefully they won’t. So what I’m going to do is mix some French Ultramarine and what I want to do is mix a little bit of Viridian as well. Viridian is a very cool green. The reason it’s so cool is because here you can see the Sap Green contains a lot of yellow in it. It leans toward the warmer side. The further up you go, you get to Viridian which has a lot more blue in it.
Because there is so much blue in it, it leans more, it’s a lot cooler in comparison to say a Sap Green. It takes a little more Viridian though. It doesn’t have the same tinting strength as French Ultramarine. When I say tinting strength, I’m talking about the ability to change, the ability to tint a color very quickly, meaning it takes more paint, more Viridian to get the same value when you mix it to white than it would if you mixed the French Ultramarine Blue with white.
Let’s get a little more of this white over here. When I start out, I like to get a bunch of different values of warm and cooler colors just so it makes it easier. It’s less time consuming later on. It takes a little time in the beginning, but you actually save time later on because I don’t have to go back and mix all these things and I can just start dipping into each one of them.
The reason I do the different values is because I’m trying to get similar values over here with the warmer colors and get the similar values with the cooler colors as well. Then when the time comes, which I’ll show you in just a few minutes, when I do want to mix a couple of these colors together, instead of changing the value every single time before I add it to one of these values, I can add a similar value, almost the same value and just change the color without changing the values, which is very important.
If I wanted to add more of a bluish, more of a blue to this color down here, just to kind of neutralize, kind of make more of a grey color for skin tones instead of adding this dark blue. If I added this darker blue into this, or even added straight Ultramarine Blue into this color here, I’m not only changing the color but changing the value, which you don’t want to do. When I’m painting portraits, I like to find which value I need first of all, and once I determine the value, I can then mix the color to match that value.
I just find it easier to do that as well. I’m going to take a little bit of this Ultramarine Blue and this is that Permanent Alizarin Crimson. I use the Permanent Alizarin Crimson. I used to use just the regular Alizarin Crimson but I guess they found out that it wasn’t quite as permanent. So now they have some a Permanent Alizarin Crimson.
It’s a little more expensive, but I’d rather use a paint that is going to last, especially when it comes to a commissioned portrait, because you are creating an heirloom that will be passed down from one generation to another and you want it to be able to last. So what I’ve done here is make two different versions of this purple color. I have more of a cool version, which has more Ultramarine Blue, and I have more of a warm version which has more Permanent Alizarin Crimson in it.
Now I can take those and I have to get some more white here, but I can take those and add more white in them as well. Color is a very intuitive thing. Every artist sees color differently and every artist mixes color differently but it’s an intuitive reaction. Whenever I’m painting and put a color down on the canvas, I’m always reacting to it, whether it’s too cool, too warm, whether the value is not right, or just in general whether or not I get a feeling of whether or not it works. And if I don’t think it works, I’ll go ahead and put down another color or I’ll adjust the color somewhat and it’s that back and forth reacting to color that is very important.
It’s not a set method every single time for each painting because every painting is different and requires different color combinations. And, actually, color itself, when it comes to mixing flesh tones, there is no one particular color that is going to make up flesh tones or give you the illusion of skin color. When it comes to color, one of the keys to painting flesh tones is the combination of colors- how you mix warm and cool colors together and how you get, what I call, grays which are different mixtures of complimentary colors in different degrees which I’ll show you here in a minute. But you can’t just have something like this color for flesh tones because this is just way too warm. And you can’t have something that is too cool. If all the flesh tones are too cool, it will tend to look lifeless, and doesn’t have any life in it, so you have to strike a balance between the two. A lot of times when I’m painting a portrait, the end game of a portrait is really somewhat difficult.
It’s more than somewhat difficult. I’d say that it’s one of the most difficult parts of the portrait.That is one of the most difficult stages for me because it’s at that last stage that I’m trying to balance that color, trying to get enough warm and enough cool and enough grays in there to balance each other out so that it gives the illusion of life inside that skin, just like when we see flesh tones in real life there is a mixture of warm and cool colors. When I talk about grays, grays happen when the form turns. Say you have a light coming down on a subject and it goes around where the light meets the shadow. In between there, that’s usually where grays occur. For an indoor portrait, it’s definitely more of a grayish color.
For an outdoor portrait, it’s actually more of a color change as well. You might go from a warm color directly to it’s compliment and then switch over to more of a warmer color so that it goes warm, cool, then warms up again as the bounced light is being reflected back into that shadow. But the way I mix grays, once I get a basic mixture like this, is by taking these cool colors and warm colors and mixing them together. So over here we had the Gold Ochre and Cad Red. So that leans more towards the red side. So if I took a little bit of this Viridian and I mix that together, I’m going to get something that ends up what I call graying down.
It becomes more of a grayish color. See how that works? And that gray is very important because I can take it and and introduce it into the flesh tones and it helps to balance out all this warm color that is going on. I can take another, a darker, you can get all sorts of variations, and it also depends on the value. Like I said earlier, the value is extremely important so I try to determine the value quickly at the beginning. Now I can take this, the Ultramarine Blue and mix it into the Cad Scarlet and Gold Ochre because the Cad Scarlet leans more towards the orange side. So if I took this and mix it in here, I’ll get a different gray. Now the reason it’s so important to mix compliments is because by mixing the compliments, you are always going to get the correct gray.
If I was to take black and mix it into these mixtures to try and gray it down, it wouldn’t be the same. Even though these two, you see I mixed the Ultramarine Blue with this mixture over here. When I place this gray, I’m not sure if the camera will pick it up, it’s so subtle, This gray is different than this gray. This gray is warmer, it’s a little different. It’s a different color.
Now if I took, well, I’ll show you what happens if I didn’t take the compliment. Instead of taking the Ultramarine Blue and mixing it into this combination here, if I took a little bit of that Viridian and mixed it into this, I’m going to get something different. It’s not going to be the same. Try to warm it up there, but you see, it’s different. You can use this in the flesh tone somewhere, but the reason it’s different, it’s going to different than the other two all together, is because it’s not the compliment. When I talk about a complimentary color, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue.
And when I talk about a compliment to those colors, I’m talking the compliment to yellow would be more of a purple color. The reason that purple is the compliment to that yellow is because the purple contains equal amounts of the other two compliments, blue and red. The same thing with red. The compliment to red is green, the reason why it compliments red is because it contains equal amounts of the other two compliments, blue and yellow., so that is why it works. But you can see here, I can mix this flesh tone here that wasn’t the direct compliment, and you can see we have three different grays. They are very subtle, but these little variations are very important when painting skin tones.
Let me move this white out of here. I can take this yellow, this is a warmer yellow so the compliment to a warmer yellow is a cooler purple. So I’m going to take this purple here, and mix these guys together. That’s more than what I wanted, so let’s try a little more purple in there. As I mix these two together I’m going to get a different gray. You can see this one is different than all three of those. So we have different grays here that happen.
Let’s try a little bit of Cad Orange. Cad Orange is the direct compliment to this Ultramarine Blue. When I say direct compliment, when you have a color wheel, and you have one color and one hundred and eighty degrees on the opposite side of that color is going to be the direct compliment and that is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about direct compliments. When it comes to color and values and all that, the principles of painting is what I call them, the foundation, the things that you really need to know. I discuss all those in my instructional art DVD series that I came out with, so I won’t spend time on that now.
This is a different gray. You see all the different grays you get? That is just all from mixing compliments, just simple warm and cool mixtures together. Now if I wanted to, let’s see. This is just a paint scrapper that you can get at any hardware store. When you use a glass palette, it makes it real easy to clean it right up and just scrape it right off. If I take some Raw Sienna, a lot of times you can just use this, a straight Raw Sienna sometimes, if nothing else works. Not too much or else it will look fake.
Raw Sienna is a nice color. It doesn’t have a lot of tinting strength. It’s a weak color when it comes to using it in mixtures. It doesn’t take a lot of white to really lighten that up. So that is just one thing to keep in mind when using Raw Sienna. Sometimes I’ll use that, and then if there are other areas, like in hair, you can take some of this Cad Green Pale and mix that in there. You can use that in blonde hair. Sometimes there’s another thing that I use.
I’ll do this one too. Another color combination I use. It’s kind of strange. It doesn’t always work but ,sometimes it does. But basically you just try by putting it down and if it works, then use it. If it doesn’t, then scrape it off and try something else. Here is Manganese Blue which is sort of like a turquoise type of blue, kind of like a tourquoise blue. Definitely more of a warmer blue than Ultramarine Blue because it contains more yellow.
But sometimes I’ll take a Manganese Blue and mix it with a Cad Scarlet and then after I mix it with Cad Scarlet, I’ll take a little bit of that Raw Sienna and throw that in there too, and sometimes that works good,too, for a shadow area, but it doesn’t always work. You have to try different color combinations.
I will say this though, it’s interesting, when it comes to color, there are times that I go back and forth, warm and cool colors within a value so that I’m basically keeping the value the same but I’m changing the temperature within that value very slightly. So I’m changing,
I’m going from warm to cool within that value to help turn the form because I know that if I change the value, let’s say if I have a shadow area that I’m painting, if I lighten that value up, I’m going to make it bounce, make it pop out of there. The value is going to jump out and that is not what you want. You want it to stay in value but you want it to help turn the form, and by doing warm and cool color changes, it really helps to give you that illusion as well.
But that is just something for you to think about. So as I’m doing that warm and cool thing back and forth, a lot of times I’ve basically exhausted everything that I think that I could do. I’ve tried direct compliments, I’ve tried mixing more of an orange color, more of a red, I’ve tried basically every combination that I can and every warm and cool situation that I think would work.
And when I get in a situation like that, there are times when I throw everything out the window and basically I reverse the principle. So instead of being a warmer color where it should be warm, I will reverse it and make it cool and sometimes, for whatever reason, it seems to work. Sargent did that quite often, especially on an indoor subject.
There are times in drapery or in a women’s dress or something where the light should have been warm because the light source is warm, where he’s reversed it and made it cool and it just works perfectly. So there are times where you have to reverse the principle. If nothing else works, then reverse it and see what happens.
And of course if you reverse it and that doesn’t work, then don’t keep it there. Basically, the important thing is to experiment, to try different things. You are always a student, never stop learning, never stop experimenting. That’s the thrill and fun of being an artist because you get to play with this stuff all day. Of course by the end of the day you have to have something done on canvas, but you get to experiment and get to practice and get to apply different techniques and different color combinations, and you remember the things that work and definitely remember the things that didn’t and you don’t do them again.
Anyhow, this is basically how I get started on mixing flesh tones, What else can I show you here? Cad Scarlet by itself works really nice. Sometimes I’ll use that with Titanium White if I need a cool highlight. I’ll add some of that cool Cad Scarlet because it’s not as warm as that Cadmium Orange and not as cool as that Cad Red, so it’s a nice balance. It seems to work. I don’t want to use a straight Cad Orange because you will see it is much warmer when you compare it to this. This is much warmer than the Cad Scarlet mixture. And it’s the constant comparison to the warm and cool, that back and forth thing.
Let me grab a little more Titanium White. I’m about to run out of that. And then I’ll mix a little bit of that Sap Green, that warmer green I was talking to you earlier about. Sap Green is a much warmer green. You can see when you compare the Sap Green and Viridian. It’s more of a yellowish green. The compliment to a yellowish green is more of a purpleish red, so something in here, if I mix those two together and get a different gray. Another thing as I’m mixing paint, make sure you have enough to mix.
Don’t try to save paint, even if finances may not allow you to buy a ton of paint, because paint is not cheap. But if you skimp on paint and only mix a little bit at a time – let’s take one of these little palette knives here, and all I do is mix little things like this, the thing is, you are not going to get enough paint down because as soon as you dip into that, that paint is going to be gone in one or two strokes and you will have to mix more.
And by mixing more, it’s easier to mix a big pile of paint instead of going back and constantly mixing the same value, the same color and saves you time in the end. This is a different gray. Cad Red Deep is a beautiful red, let me clear some of this over here. I will use this when I want a cooler red in an area.
It doesn’t take a lot of Cad Red to do the trick. When you mix it with white, it looks a little more like a grayish red as opposed to mixing just a Cad Red. Cad Red doesn’t look as gray when mixed with white, or even Alizarin Crimson. Permanent Alizerin Crimson. If you are looking for a nice pink, a cool pink, Permanent Alizerin Crimson and white, Titanium white, is a nice, beautiful pinkish color. I should mention this last one here before I run out of space on my palette. Let’s do this.
Prussian Green is a beautiful grayish green that works really well in flesh tones. Let’s put a little white in there. It’s not as powerful as Viridian when it comes to tinting, but it’s a very nice in-between green, between Viridian and Sap Green. It’s not as powerful as a Viridian but it’s not as warm as a Sap Green either, very nice. You can mix that with some of these colors as well.
You’ll get some nice results. Anyhow, this is basically what I would do. I wouldn’t take this much time at the beginning, but this is what I would basically do before I start a portrait, or before I start painting on a portrait, just to get some different colors laid out so that when I want to go into painting, I can take a brush into these mixtues. I have something I can just dip into, if I need to gray it down. There are all sorts of beautiful color variations you can get by using warm and cool compliments and putting them together.
Anyhow — I hope this has helped explain a little bit better how I go about mixing flesh tones. This isn’t the only way to mix flesh tones and these aren’t the only colors you can get, obviously. You can get hundreds of colors in different variations just by doing this all day long. But, basically, it will give you a good idea of how I start out. And let me mention this too, the reason I start out with a warmer color and then add the cooler colors into it is because it’s much easier to gray a color down than it is to get color back into that gray.
For instance, you saw how easy it was for me to gray this color down, by adding a cooler color. I can gray that down pretty easily, but if I gray it down too much and then I realize I need to make it warmer and I need to get that reddish color back in there again- so let me go ahead and get the value right first- then we have to add some of that back in there. As I try to get more color back in there, it’s still becoming gray. It’s not as brilliant as when it first started out over here. It’s not as brilliant. So that is why I find it easier to mix cooler colors into warmer colors to gray it down.
It’s much easier to gray a color down than it is to try and warm it up again. Anyhow, hopefully this will be of interest to you. And pretty soon I’ll post how you can use these colors on a portrait and how they apply and that is coming sometime soon. I wish you guys all the best in your studies. Take care and I’ll talk to you soon.