Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Skin Tones in My Portraits Look Wrong

Capturing flesh colours in portraiture is a common problem. The colour of skin looks artificial or too uniform. The subtleties in flesh colours may be elusive to the painter. Facial contours are illustrated as lines, making the portrait look harsh and amateurish. Portrait painting is often viewed as the artist’s last frontier, the fear of producing an unsatisfactory portrait faring a bigger deal than say, an unsatisfactory landscape painting.

Common Problems with Portrait Painting

The following practices are often the culprit of a portrait painting with unconvincing flesh colours:
  • Including a painting pigment labelled “flesh tint” or “flesh hue” Within the artist’s palette, creating an idealistic impression of how skin should look.
  • Using black or a dirty earth colour to darken the flesh colour
  • Painting with presumptions about how skin should look, for example by mixing red with white
  • Using delicate tones throughout, resulting in a bleached out or flat portrait
  • Forgetting to observe the subject matter whilst painting, falling into the habit of simply finishing the painting
  • Painting lines to delineate facial features, for instance, wrinkles or cheekbones
Tips on How to Improve Portrait Painting

The following simple measures will help the portrait artist with improving the practice of portrait painting.
  • Skin colours contains the most unexpected hues, such as violets, crimsons and even greens, which can be seen on reflections from neighbouring objects
  • Similarly, skin often contain deep tones, some of which may appear almost black. Adding a cool colour, such as blue or violet, will darken the skin colour more effectively than black
  • Dispense with black altogether except for painting pupils. Similarly, dispense with “flesh tint” or such hues that merely reinforce the idea that skin “should” be beige or pink.
  • Mix the flesh colour from scratch by using no more than three colours and white
  • Prior to painting the portrait, apply a neutral coloured under-wash of thin acrylic paint to kill the off-putting white of the painting surface
  • Paint the skin colours prior to the features, such as eyes and lips, as these colours could contaminate the delicate skin colours
  • Try painting an isolated feature such as the nose or lips, to get to grips with flesh colours before having a go at the entire portrait
  • Complete the portrait in several stages. Don’t try to rush it at the end when tired, or this will ruin the painting
  • Accept that the portrait will make little sense until it is completed
  • Going over the portrait painting two or three times is sometimes necessary to make tonal and colour adjustments
Painting Children and Older People

All portraiture should have the same approach. Facial features often consist of subtle changes in tone and colour, which beginners perceive to be linear. Children’s faces seldom have lines, only subtle shadows and shifts in hue. Similarly, wrinkles are not simply lines, but are subtle marks. Half closing the eyes and standing back from the portrait will help the artist garner the most important aspects of a portrait, as opposed to sitting too close to the photograph and illustrating each eyelash.

Art Demo on Painting Shadows on Skin

My youtube clip below shows how I painted Vermeer's The Pearl Earring via underpainting and then shading techniques in oil on top. Notice the heavy shadows on the near side of the face, which almost equals the darkness of the background.

Essential Art Materials for Painting Portraits

Good quality sables, such as Kolinsky, available from Daler Rowney or Winsor Newton are crucial for portraiture. Round brushes sizes 3, 6 and 9 should suffice. Burnt sienna and white makes a good base colour for skin. The inclusion of ultramarine will take the creaminess off and result in a cooler skin colour. Permanent rose, pthalo blue and burnt umber in small amounts, are also useful pigments to include in the skin palette. Introducing a little colour, as opposed to too much will result in the desired mix. Lastly, linseed oil will take smooth out any unwanted brush marks from the painting.

Links Relating to Portrait Painting


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