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How I paint skin tones in watercolor

painting skin tones in watercolor

Not everyone who does watercolor paints people. However, for those who do, the absolute number one question is – how do you blend skin tones in watercolor?

Now here’s the answer you probably don’t want to hear. There’s more than one way to do it. Actually, there are dozens of excellent ways to do it.

Just like with music, I borrowed a lick or two from this guy and a lick or two from that guy. After borrowing licks, runs, and phrases from enough people, I ended up with my own style.

The same applies to painting. The more you borrow, the more you develop your own style. So read this article and take notes. Take what you want from my style and throw out the rest. You’ll end up merging a bunch of styles together anyways when you’re developing your own unique style.

How I blend skin tones in watercolor

I’m going to show two examples of how I blend skin tones in watercolor. One example painting I just finished. The other, I finished awhile back. I do like how both of them turned out.

Mermaids and witches. I have no idea why they dominate my artwork. That’s just how it ends up. The above is a mermaid painting I just completed. The below is a work in progress of two girls under a waterfall.

Opium Tales how I paint skin tones in watercolor example
Two blondes under a waterfall – work in progress


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.

This method works for painting white people. To paint darker people, combine a nice red and a nice green about 50/50 to get a nice brown. You’ll have to lighten it or darken it to find that person’s average color. I personally use perelyne red and hooker green to get my browns. I happen to like those two colors and combined, they get an excellent brown.

Mixing skin tones in watercolor – the four colors

We have two primary colors for my model’s main colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. What are the other two colors? A red and a yellow. Personally, my red is perelyne red and my yellow is hansa yellow medium.

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 the witch, 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.

Seven wet on wet layers

I get really soft skin tones by painting seven layers wet on wet. (I hope you’re using really good watercolor paper, because with cheap watercolor paper, you may be pushing it beyond its limits).

The first layer – I paint yellow for the highlights 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 the skin tone for the non-shadowed areas while painting slightly 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. Finally, 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.

  • Titanium White
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Yellow Hansa Medium
  • Perelyne Red

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!

Little succubus sister
Watch out for the evil succubus!

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. However, if you may take one thing out of this entire blog post and run with it for the rest of your painting career, I’d be flattered.

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.

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