What Colours Make Skin Tones? 

Every artist has their own recipes.

For your palette only use a few colours. Skin tones are muted colours, this means mixing more variety from a few colours.


Two colour           example Mars Black and Ochre, make nice greens too.

Three colour        example Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, a Red, underpainting in green.

Using only warm colours makes no contrast so you need to use some cool colours. In the past, they gave a face a white scarf or another object to make the face look warmer.

The painter Rubens used a white scarf and a red scarf in the shadow.

The painter Rembrandt used warm and cool colours. He started with warm brown shadows, added cool half tones, then the light tones would be warm and the final highlights were of a cold whites or yellows. His darks are many layers over each other.

Rembrandt:  From right to left: white border cool, warm cheek, cool highlight on nose, warm shadow next to nose cool light on eye and cheek warm shadow on face, cool background

The cool half-tone can be done in two ways;

  1. Bluish pigments
  2. Turbid medium effect:  a light transparent colour painted thinly over a warm dark tone will appear cooler than if painted over a light tone. Lighter colour thinly over a dark tone. Even if both colours are warm, the effect will be of cool over warm.

Imprimatura for skin:

Rubens and Rembrandt                 Cool Raw Sienna

Boucher and Fragonard                 Blue-Grey

Velasquez                                         Raw Umber and White, cool underground, the Raw Umber works like a muted green complement to the red

Working matter

Light are done impasto with palette knife or with a stiff brush and hog hair. Add some cobalt or liquin to shorten the dry time. In the past they used Lead White whiched dried quickly. I use a mix from marble powder with paint and dammar varnish—this drys very quickly. Just using fat paint will dry over time to be more flat than with a filler from marble powder or wax. They even think Rembrandt used bread flower and clay to give the paint body.

Use stand oil for your more exact fine work and a soft brush.

Shadows are created with very transparent layers if you’d like to work like the old masters. The impressionist used direct colour, and all impasto. For the transparent shadows use turpentine.

I retouch varnish the painting almost totally with a colour to get the harsh tones out of my painting and take it away in the lighter places. The light retouch colour will stay in the impasto places more, this gives a feeling of more space.

Another way to make strong colours, that haven’t been mixed well, is by using grey over too colourful places to dull them down.

Rembrandt used a three brushstroke technique, he used his dot of paint three times in the skin, so the colours are on three different places and keep them together.

Then glazing especially in the darker places and scumbling the lighter places.

For hairs, you can etch them in with the other side of your brush in a light dry imprimatura with a wet dark colour.

Generally the neck is cooler than the face—use more green or blue in the neck.  Although Breitner does it the other way around.

Breitner, Zittendnaakt met lichtblauwedoek

Colours used for skin

Skin tones are warm colours, and close to earth tones with some cool colours :


I use Naples Yellow and sometimes add some Cadmium Yellow as I find the Naples Yellow from Winston and Newton is too white for me.


Fast drying, some brands have it as a semitransparent, nice for glazing. I need to try Gold Ochre semitransparent to get a little warmer feeling.


Vermilion                             for a very light red skin, Vermilion makes it glow with a more fleshy hue

Alizarin Crimson                 Alizarin is cool so is nice for light skin

I use Madder Lake or Golden Baroque red (from the brand Scheveningen Old Holland, they are more warm and I paint mainly darker skinned people.) It is nice on the lips ears and inside the nose and corner of the eye.


I mix a little Madder Lake in Burnt Umber.  Burnt Umber has a slightly greenish undertone. Some people use Vandijke Brown—I find that too grey for my skin and it changes over time meaning it is not lightfast. Indian Red is sometimes used, but I find it too strong.


Burnt Sienna is transparent from some brands, nice for glazing, but if you use it thick and opaque it can make your painting looking dull. Under the skin you have veins that make the skin appear blue or green.


For dark skin I use blue Ultramarine Blue


For light skin I use Earth Green or Viridian Green.


You can mix it from Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna or Black, which is also nice for glazing. I like to make my own grey from mixing complementary colours. Viridian Green and Madder Lake are complementary and make a nice grey. Raw Umber with a hint of Sap Green also makes a nice grey.


Mars Black, is fast drying, good for underpainting and was used by the painter Titiaan. Ivory Black can be used as a blue, which painter Anders Zorn used. I do not like using black because it dull the other colours too much—most starter painters end up with a dull painting because of this.


Van Manders : “Be careful not to light up the flesh tints in either sex with too much white; no pure white is visible in the living subject.

Rubens stated, “Be careful not to let white insinuate itself into (your shadows); it is the poison of a picture except in the lights; if white be once allowed to dull the perfect transparency and golden warmth of your shadows, your colouring will no longer be glowing, but heavy and grey.”

Tintoretto and Titia painted their grisaille in Lead White and Carbon Black, layered it with Red, Yellow Ochre and Vermilion plus Lead White in the lights. And even Rubens used white to create reflected light so that his instructions must be understood within the particular method in which they were employed.

I don’t use much white, there is already white in my Naples Yellow, but I paint impasto white under the light parts of the skin.

Oil Sketches by Peter Rubens, Abduction of Dejanira, white under paint in skin.

Rubens, Venus in Fur Coat 1630-40, Rubens outlines are often red, make skin more vibrant.