Factors to Consider When Creating Flesh Tones

All students who strive to create life-like portraits at some point ask me, “How do I create flesh tones?” So, when I recently had occasion to put my answer to this question in writing—having been asked it by a former student via e-mail—I thought it might make a useful blog posting. With her permission, I have posted this student’s e-mail to me (for context) and the relevant portion of my reply. As always, if you would like me to explain any of this more fully, my studio door is open to you—as is this blog.

It’s Susan Dillard. A blast from the past. Still living happily ever after in South Carolina. . . . I am writing because I’m really struggling with my flesh tone palette and I was hoping you might give me a little direction.

When I came here [to South Carolina] and beg[a]n studying with Jean Pilk, who had studied for years with Daniel Greene, [she] directed me to use a palette of Cadmium Red light with Yellow Ochre as a base. From that she would mix variations incorporating different levels of grey. I have always found this combination to be unnaturally red.

Next, I studied Sanden’s palette, which again used red light and yellow ochre but calmed it down with viridian, or chromium green, or cerulean blue. His palette variations for halftones etc are very complicated.

I did a workshop in North Carolina last year with Rich Nelson. He simply uses Burnt Sienna for flesh tones. Adding other colors too it. Whoa!

Recently I ran across a blog Marvin Mattelson whose style and color are similar t[o] the flesh tones I have seen you use in the studio (although I have never seen your palette). He has taken ALL cadmium out of his palette. His goal is to create “natural not electric skin tones.” Here is his theory,

“I was drawn to the flesh tones of William McGregor Paxton, who in my humble opinion was the greatest colorist of flesh. Paxton theorized if we come from dust and return to dust we should use dust (earth colors) when painting flesh.” He says, “it is almost impossible to paint a bad looking flesh tone if you approach it intelligently. My flesh colors are, Venetian Red, Indian Red, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber, Ivory Black, and Flake White.”

He also uses in his palette Ultramarine Blue, Permanent Alizarin, Viridian Green also Michael Harding’s Naples Yellow and Michael Harding’s Vermillion. Plus, neutral greys.

This sounds like a great palette because I’m looking for more natural tones in my work. But I almost become frozen when I lay out a palette. Do I premix? What color are shadows? What am I doing? It’s very confusing.

Any suggestions? I have loved the colors in your portraits more than any I have seen and I would love to get your thought on flesh tone palettes or any book suggestions.

—Susan Dillard, October 9, 2011

Dear Blast from the Past,

 . . . . I like what you said about Marvin Mattelson and his use of color. His palette probably is not very different from mine. Pilk has a fairly decent idea with the gray but she would have very little variation because she has only one red and that one is not versatile. Nelson’s approach sounds limiting. Sanden is very efficient, obviously with all the commission work he does, but too systematic for me with all that premixing. I do think a really fine painting with fine flesh colors can be done with Mattelson’s palette.

 A few thoughts:

1. The white factor. The richness, vibrancy or saturation of a color is always diminished and made cooler by the addition of white, especially a cool white like titanium. That’s why you always have to make a completely different mix from the light area to the middle tone area to the darks. Burnt umber in the darks could be too hot but stone cold gray in the lights.

2. The transparency or opacity of a pigment has a lot to do with its quality of color and that can differ quite a lot from one pigment to the other. You have to experiment to find exactly the right kind of transparency or opacity for representing a particular color in nature, and to do that you have to put together pigments with the right combination of those things in the right proportions, i.e., if you use the translucent white flake for flesh it might be better to use a more opaque yellow like Naples and if you use a more opaque white like titanium it might be better to use a semi-translucent yellow like yellow ochre.

3. Every basic color should have a pigment on either side of it. Red should have an orange side like cad. red light, and one on the purple side like alizarin. In the earth colors the same thing: Venetian red or burnt sienna on the orange side and Indian red on the purple side. Flesh colors are difficult because they are so subtle. So the trick really is in knowing how to get yourself in the ball park, or to a general color that is close, and then to tip it this way and that, on either side of the hypothetical middle color, red or yellow or green or blue, and so on until it falls into place just where you want it. There is no way around that. No simple silver bullet.

4. Variations of the colors, sometimes beyond the perfectly real and natural, make flesh seem alive and lively. That could be just the very subtle differences in a reddish beige color that shifts slightly from a more orange type to a more purplish type. In the cool areas the same idea applies: a beige or brownish that shifts a little toward green here and blue or purplish there might do the trick. The face has natural areas that differ in color that way but you can make the lights, darks, and middles tip in different directions to accomplish that too. Between those areas you can shift the colors subtly from warms to cools to warms to cools.

—Richard Halstead, October 10, 2011

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