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The ultimate guide on how to make skin color

It always amazes me how often people ask me these questions: How do you mix skin tones? How do you mix dark skin tones? What color is skin? To answer all these questions I made the ultimate guide on how to make skin color for beginners. 

 

This theory applies to paints (watercolor, oils, acrylics) as well as digital (Procreate, Photoshop etc.) and even colored pencils. Let’s start!

The ultimate guide on how to make skin color

To understand this topic a lot better I recommend that you read Hue, Value, & Saturation first. It’s a very short and simple read which will make you understand this guide a lot better!

Skin tones explained

How to make skin color

No matter what style you go for, skin tone theory stays the same. These skin tones are the same except the realistic one has blended edges and added detail. Let’s figure out how the above skin tones are put together.

What colors make skin color?

Hue

Skin tones all originate from an orange hue. This orange hue can lean towards yellow, red, or something in between.

skin tone hues

Value

the value of a skin tone speaks for itself. Light skin tones have a light value (towards white) and darker skin tones have darker values (towards black) and anything in between.

value skin tones

Saturation

The rule is: the darker the skin tone the more saturated it has to be. The lighter the skin tone the less saturated it has to be. If we desaturate dark skin too much it’ll look lifeless. That’s why we need to increase saturation for dark shades.

saturation hues for skin tone

If we put these components together we get a skin tone.

How to mix skin tones: Light skin

Let’s pick the right hue: orange. Decide if you want to lean to a yellow, red or a neutral orange. Next, we need to lighten our value. We do this by setting the value slider to a high value (or by adding white when you use paint). Now we adjust the saturation. Since we have a light skin tone we only have to saturate it slightly.

How to make light skin guide

There you have it! Wasn’t that simple?

 

This is a great base layer for your light skin tones. You can use it as a mid-tone. Go lighter and darker to create your shadows and highlights. Remember to adjust the value and saturation accordingly.

How to mix skin tones: Dark skin

Let’s start with an orange. This time, we need to make sure our value is not as light as the previous one. Remember the rule: the darker the skin tone the more saturated it has to be. Let’s add more saturation than our previous skin tone.

 

There’s no right percentage of saturation or value. Play around and see what looks right!

 

How to mix dark skin

There you have it!

 

Super simple, right? This is a great base layer for dark skin tones. Just as with the light skin tones you can add 2 more tones to make the shadows and the highlights.

How to make skin color paint

So, when it comes to mixing skin tones with paint it’s actually exactly the same process! You just need a basic understanding of your medium. (If you want to lighten your value in acrylics you add white. But if you want to lighten your value in watercolors you need to add more water).

 

To adjust the value we need to add white or black. To adjust the saturation we need to add grey or we need to add the opposite color on the color wheel. So, for orange that would be blue. Blue and orange make a grey. Be sure to only add a tiny bit of blue!

 

So:

  1. Choose an orange 
  2. Adjust value by adding white or black
  3. Add a tiny bit of blue or gray to adjust saturation
  4. Adjust if necessary

Note: Adding white or black (step 2)  can adjust your saturation automatically. Check if you actually need to go through step 3!

If you have a set of paints it will often come with browns. You can take a brown and lighten or darken it. Maybe add some red or peach to warm it up.

 

Remember, a brown is a dark red, orange or yellow. A peach is a lightened and desaturated orange. So these colors have done most of the work for you. You can adjust them to your needs. 

 

Learn the difference between warm and cool colors to nail this technique!

Mixing skin tones with a limited pallete

If you are on a budget you can easily use a limited palette to mix skin tones. All you need is either a red, blue, yellow, white and black or cyan, yellow, magenta, white and black.

 

How to mix light skin tones with red blue and yellow

  1. Create an orange by mixing red and yellow. Decide if you want a yellow based or red based skin tone (or a neutral one).
  2. Adjust the value by adding white or black
  3. Desaturate the mixture by adding a tiny bit of blue.
  4. Adjust if necessary .

You don’t have to use white or black. But that means you can’t adjust your value, so you’re stuck with 1 shade. Red, blue and yellow are pretty dark colors so your skin color will come out on the mid to dark side. 

 

Cyan, yellow and magenta are lighter in value. If you use these colors your skin tone will come out lighter. 

How to make skin color with colored pencils

I have an entire article dedicated on how to color skin tones with 3 colored pencils!

 

Spoiler alert: It’s exactly the same theory but with some adjustments for colored pencils ;)

How to paint realistic skin

Our examples so far have been rather simple. But realistic skin isn’t that much different. We use the excact same colors. The only difference is that we need to blend our edges to get a smooth transition.

realistic skin tone tutorial

After this, we add detail. The easiest way to do this digitally is by using special brushes. You can find a ton of free brushes online.

  1. Base layer
  2. Add Highlights and shadows
  3. Add skin texture (in the color black) on a new layer using a skin texture brush > set blend mode to luminosity > lower opacity
  4. Add some freckles and other ‘’imperfections’’ the same way you added skin texture (step 3)

I just wanna mention I don’t think freckles are considered imperfections at all! With imperfections I mean what makes skin look realistic. So things that will most likely be covered up by make up.

 

See how massively the difference is? All it took was some blending and texture!

How to make hyper-realistic skin

Okay, so the previous skin was aimed to be ‘’beautiful.’’ You know how make-up companies are aiming for realistic skin? With realistic, those companies mean it has texture.. But for skin to be truly hyper-realistic it needs hue variation.

 

Skin around the eyes and nose tends to be redder. Dark circles below the eyes make the skin bluer. Cheeks have some redness as well. Sometimes you can see a vague suggestion of a vein or two peeking through the skin. They can be greenish or purplish. Just adjust your hue, not your saturation or value!

hue variations in skin
  1. Have your basic skin ready (including skin textures)
  2. New layer > sample the color of your skin > change hue to desired hue (red for example) > change blend mode to hue > paint > lower opacity

Color zones of the face

The face has 3 color zones:

The forehead tends to be pale: white or yellowish. The middle part of the face (eyes, cheeks, nose) is the reddest part of the face. This is because there are more blood vessels running through that area. The bottom part of the face tends to be cool (grey, blue or green). This is because of facial hair (beards on men) and because of reflected light from clothing or the surroundings.

 

Just note that, especcialy the bottom part, is very subtle. Decide if your characters need these subtle color zones, or if you’re a-okay without it.

 

The old painters did this quite often, like American artist Rembrandt Peale.

How does light interact with skin

Subsurface scattering (SSS) in skin

Usually, light hits an object and reflects back. Subsurface scattering means that light, instead of hitting an object and reflecting back, penetrates an object and scatters inside for a while before exiting out again.

 

You can see this when there’s a light source behind skin or other organic material. (Put your fingers on a flashlight and see how your skin lights up).

subsurface scattering

Reflected light on skin

Surroundings affect your subject. If your character is standing next to a green wall the green wall will become a source of light (may it be subtle).

 

 

Light will bounce off the green wall and hit your character, which will turn green where that reflected light hits. This can add a lot of interest to your character’s skin!

reflected light

In the image above you see a woman with red and green light hitting her face.

Her left side is the iluminated side and the right side is in the shadows.

 

It may seem like the green on her cheek is just as bright as her left side but it’s not! Just look at the values I swatched above. I swatched it directly from the photograph. The green is actually darker than every shade of red in this photograph.

 

Don’t let this illusion fool you. Reflected light is still part of the shadow side.

The color of the skin is a mix between the color of the light (or reflected light) and the local (true) color of the skin. 

Ready made skin tone palette with codes

Feel free to save this skin tone chart with hue, value and saturation codes!

 

You can add this photo in procreate and then sample the swatches :) Enjoy!

Skin color mixing chart

Click here to download a skin tone mixture chart. You can print it on watercolor paper and start swatching your skin tone mixtures!

 

Name them or add some extra info below the swatches.

Congrats if you made it all the way here! Do you have a better understanding of how to make skin tones? I use this technique everytime I design a new character. I hope you will too! 

 

See you next week,

 

♡ Laura

Bonus tips on how to make skin color

In stead of using white to lighten your value, use a lightened hue that’s closest to yellow (but still adjacent to your current hue).

 

Example: I want to make a highlight for a blue. Instead of white I add a lightened green.

Example2: I want to make a highlight for a red. Instead of white I add a lightened orange

If you use primaries to make your skin tones, don’t mix them 100%. Make sure there’s some marbeling of the original hues.

 

This enriches your mixture and adds interest to your skin tones!

Go to makeup websites to ”steal” their foundation swatches. Simply take a picture and them sample it in your software!

 

Or use it to compare your paint mixtures :)

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