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How I paint skin tones in watercolor

Mermaid Allie

I’m going back to my old method of painting skin tones. On another site, I talked about how I used to get skin tones in watercolors. I love to experiment and sometimes, my experiments don’t go too well.

But that’s the thing. If you’re going to be a great chef, you’re gonna burn some cakes. The same goes for any art form.

Heck, Robert Rodriguez said that everyone’s got six bad movies in them. It’s just best to get them out.

Well, I screwed around with some other methods of painting skin tones. I tried using more cool colors for shadowing and ended up with a disaster. My girl took two extra layers of paint to not look like a zombie.

You see, we all do things differently. If you take someone else’s method and try to apply it to your own, it may work. Or it may turn out to be complete shit. That’s even if their method works for them. Your techniques and their techniques may simply be incompatible. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just how it is.

My new vs old way of painting skin tones

OK, I explained this earlier but wanted to give yesterday’s example. Here’s the full piece.

pinup witch
Allie summons a snake

I primarily take two colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. I mix them until I get a nice light orange, matching Allie’s skin. Now if you look closely at someone, you’ll notice that nobody has just one color. You’ll see lots of colors.

The color you want to create is your model’s “average skin tone.” What the hell does that mean? Somewhere in the middle.

You’ll have to both darken and lighten it, depending on the lighting and shadows.

Now the method that I tried doing from someone else involved adding either a blue or a gray for shadowing. Using someone else’s watercolor technique, I’m sure that would work great.

However, I do layer after layer of wet on wet. That means you’ll get a lot of blues (or grays) over the rest of her body where it doesn’t belong. That’s what created the zombie effect.

So it’s back to my original method with only four colors and no cooling effect for shadowing.

The four colors

We have two primary colors for her main colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. What are the other two colors? A red and a yellow.

I use the yellow to mark what will later become highlights. I love the yellow effect. It shows through without showing through. You have to look closely for it to see it.

For the final color, I add a little watered down red to her cheeks. I use the same red for her lips to her cheeks. Except for her lips, it’s straight up red (not watered down). I love red lipstick on a beautiful woman. It pops out and really makes her smile/lips stand out. I love that.

For this particular piece, I used watered down red for her right nipple (you mostly don’t see her right nipple due Allie having really long hair) and also her fingernails. Allie has long, feminine fingernails. I love those. Now my wife does too after seeing Allie’s nails.

Anyways, so the first layer of highlights is yellow and I paint the main skin tone everywhere else. Then the second layer, the third layer, and the fourth layer, I paint the main skin tone everywhere.

For the fifth layer, I paint my skin tone mixed colors for the non-shadowed areas while painting watered down burnt sienna on the shadowed areas. For the sixth layer, I smear the regular color all over her and drop a little watered down red for her cheeks. For the seventh layer, I paint straight up titanium white all over her to even out everything and smooth out both the lightened areas and the shadowed areas.

The gold

This may sound weird. I use gold watercolor ground for the gold. Why? Because it gives it a 3D effect. Just in case you don’t know what watercolor ground is, let me explain. Watercolor ground is not exactly paint. It’s material you put over something like glass, metal, or plastic, then you let it dry. Then you can paint over it, so you can literally watercolor over glass, metal, or plastic.

The thing is, when you use the ground for paint, it gives it a little bit of a 3D effect because it sticks out a little bit. I love that!

There’s more than one way to do anything

You may try my techniques and hate them. That’s perfectly fine. Like I said before, sometimes different people’s techniques clash and don’t play well together at all. That’s part of being human. If my stuff doesn’t work for you, I’m not at all going to take it personal.

I’ve also heard some watercolor purists poo poo on the idea of using white watercolor for anything. Whatever. I don’t like rules.

I actually love mixing with titanium white. You get really weird mixes with it.

I initially tried getting skin tones with red and yellow. However, that combo caused me to throw out a lot of paint before getting the right formula.

With titanium white and burnt sienna, it’s very simple. Take the white, add some water, and add a little bit of burnt sienna until you get the right mix, depending on how light or dark your model is.

I like simple. Simple is good. Even better than simple? Easy to replicate.

When I run out of the mix, I don’t have any problem replicating the same colors, despite mixing colors being one of the hardest things to master in watercolor.