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Flesh tones

The last sev­eral weeks, I’ve attended a local fig­ure drawing/painting ses­sion in which there is only one pose for the full time. The last cou­ple of times I’ve attended, I’ve done oil portraits.

The por­trait from the first week was pretty awful. Last night’s was not exactly good, but not nearly as bad. Maybe I’ll post them when I have some­thing a lit­tle bet­ter to com­pare them to.

This is the first work I’ve done with por­traits or fig­ures in about three years, so I am not sur­prised that some of my skills have got­ten rusty. One skill that has improved, how­ever, is mix­ing flesh tones. I remem­ber, when I was tak­ing fig­ure paint­ing classes, hav­ing a heck of a time get­ting flesh tones that looked even approx­i­mately con­vinc­ing, even when I could take my time over a multi-session pose of 9 or 12 hours. The poses I’ve been work­ing from lately are only 2.5 hours, but I now find paint mix­ing to be rel­a­tively straightforward.

Because these are pretty short poses, I have not wor­ried too much about get­ting exactly the right hue, instead choos­ing to con­cen­trate of value, chroma, and shape. I’m work­ing with a very lim­ited palette in which flesh tones are mixed from lead white, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and raw umber. (I’ve also used some black and some ultra­ma­rine for dark hair and back­ground.) The flesh tones are basi­cally con­vinc­ing, how­ever: oth­ers at the ses­sion have remarked on it and my wife, who remem­bers my pre­vi­ous strug­gles, has men­tioned that these flesh tones seem bet­ter. I should note that, thus far, the sub­jects have been Cau­casian, although I don’t think I would have any greater trou­ble paint­ing folks of less pallor.

I’m not sure why this aspect of paint­ing has become eas­ier, except for all the prac­tice I’ve put in mix­ing still life col­ors over the last cou­ple of years. The very sim­ple palette seems to help as well.

Now if I can just get the shape of the head down cor­rectly in paint, I’ll be just fine.


7 May 2009: On fur­ther reflec­tion, I think that one of the things I’ve learned over the last cou­ple of years, even with a very lim­ited palette, is much bet­ter con­trol over chroma. Many artists mix overly intense skin tones. Most people’s skin is very low in chroma. Even when using rel­a­tively dull earth col­ors, you often need to cut the chroma of your mixes to get accu­rate color. For these por­trait stud­ies, I’ve been using raw umber for that pur­pose, as it’s chroma is very, very low.

Posted in art technique, painting.

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  1. Dawna Gardner says

    awe­some site…very informative…I am a por­trait painter and have expe­ri­enced way too much dust ect on the linen canvas…i pick off as much of it as I can with a pin…is it dust? or is it the medium dry­ing caus­ing air bub­bles ect..i cant fig­ure it out!! very frustrating!!!!any ideas about this dilemma? I also noticed that when i used 1/2 liquin and 1/2 medium…to coat the paitning,it also caused sur­face stuff that left bits of sticky stuff all over the painting…I had to use turp full strength to wipe it all off!!!luckily my paint­ing was dry enough to with­stand the turps…please help!

    • David Rourke says


      I don’t know what’s get­ting into your paint. Dust could be a func­tion of paint­ing in a dusty envi­ron­ment or even lint from paper tow­els or rags you use to clean brushes with while paint­ing. You might want to try vary­ing your pro­ce­dures, such as slightly dif­fer­ent mate­ri­als or work­ing in a dif­fer­ent room, to try to nar­row down exactly what the prob­lem is. Note that vac­u­um­ing makes the air in a room more dusty for sev­eral hours until it set­tles. Ion­iz­ing dust fil­ters, if you use one, work by giv­ing sur­faces a small elec­tric charge that dust is attracted to, so they actu­ally cause more dust to attach itself to paintings.

      What is the medium you are mix­ing the Liquin with? Some mate­ri­als, such as stand oil, seem to attract dust. I per­son­ally don’t use alkyd medi­ums such as Liquin, so I don’t have any expe­ri­ence with whether it attracts dust. One option if dust is falling on your paint­ing while it dries, how­ever, is to hang it at an angle out­ward (with string and thumb tacks, for exam­ple). You could also put a cloth over it, arranged so that the cloth doesn’t come into con­tact with wet paint.

      Best wishes,


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