How to Mix a Flesh Color With Watercolors

By Nicole Pellegrini
Earth tones combined with primary colors make the best flesh tones in watercolor painting.

Mixing flesh colors with watercolor paint is a challenge for many artists. The unforgiving nature of watercolors and the difficulty in correcting colors once applied to paper can intimidate an artist when working on a portrait or figure painting. Flesh tones in watercolors should contain a mixture of red, yellow and blue hues adjusted throughout the painting to realistically capture shadows, lights and variations in flesh coloration. Flesh tone palettes will also vary according to the skin tone and ethnicity of the subject to be painted.

Determine the base skin tone of the subject of your painting. These tones are typically pale, dark, olive or ruddy. Attempt to mix the base tone on your watercolor palette using an appropriate combination of Alizarin Crimson, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Burnt Umber watercolor paints. You may not need all four colors.

Test your mixed base skin tone on a scrap piece of watercolor paper. Apply it in both a heavy and light wash with your watercolor brush, wetting the brush with clean water for clarity of color. Adjust the mixture as necessary and concentrate on the primary, mid-value tone of the skin only.

Wet your watercolor paper with a brush and clean water. Cover the entire area of the paper surface where flesh color will be applied. Wetting the paper will allow the paint to be smoothly applied and blended.

Apply the base flesh color in a light wash of paint, leaving the paper untouched in areas of highlights or light glare.

Mix highlight flesh color from Lemon Yellow, Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red. Lightly apply this highlight color to the areas of skin directly in full light, blending it in to the already applied base flesh tone as suitable.

Mix shadow flesh color from watercolor hues such as Cobalt Blue, Paynes Gray and Viridian. Choose the ones that best match the palette tone of the painting. Use greens for warmer shadows and blues and grays for cooler shadows.

Add additional Alizarin Crimson to areas of flesh which appear more reddish. These areas might include lips, fingers, cheeks and earlobes.

Tip

Clean your watercolor brushes frequently and only use fresh water when picking up paint to apply to your work surface; doing so will keep your colors clean and crisp.

Warning

Avoid adding white to your flesh color as it will turn your colors muddy and dull. For bright areas of the painting, allow the white of your watercolor paper to show through and only thinly apply glazes to tint the surface.

About the Author

Nicole Pellegrini has been writing science, arts and travel articles since 1997. Her work has been published in the American Chemical Society's journal "Macromolecules." She holds a Bachelor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, both in chemical engineering.