Fleshtones and Color Temperature

This article on painting fleshtones, written by Koo Schadler, first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine

Juan by Numael Plido

Although my primary medium is egg tempera, for many years I studied oil painting with Numael Pulido. His portrait of painter Juan Ramírez, Juan (oil on gessoed hardboard panel,14×11), beautifully exemplifies the use of warm and cool fleshtones that Pulido teaches in the classroom.

There’s a simple principle for depicting beautiful, convincing fleshtones: Alternate warm and cool color temperatures. Nearly every painter in past centuries was attentive to this axiom, and it’s applicable no matter what the medium, working method or model. But before I delve into this tried and true approach, I need to explain traditional lighting.

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Duplicating the Sun

For millennia artists have used natural light to illuminate a subject. Sunlight is one-source lighting (versus, for example, a room with multiple light fixtures). Typical daylight also is balanced in the sense that it reveals both warm and cool color temperatures.

To most people, the color blue appears cool while reds and oranges look warm. These correlations are known as “color temperatures.” Every hue on your palette has a color temperature, ranging from the coolness of cobalt blue to the warmth of cadmium orange.

Light also has a color temperature known as “correlated color temperature” (CCT), and it’s measured in degrees Kelvin (K). Although the CCT of sunlight varies, painters of the past generally assumed or imagined a light source that was neither too warm nor too cool but somewhere in-between. They wanted the look of balanced illumination because that lighting best reveals a range of color temperatures. (See Before the Bulb, below.)

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BEFORE THE BULB

When a light source steps outside the parameters of approximately 5000 to 7500K, it has a more pronounced color temperature, which changes the patterns of warm and cool described in this article. 

Did painters from the past consider lighting conditions outside the norm? Mostly they did not. Traditional painters did not simply chronicle the material world as it presented itself to them. They took subject matter from everyday life and then imposed upon it organizing principles of design. Paramount among those principles was the pattern of visual contrasts (varying values, chroma and color temperatures) created by one-source, balanced light. The subject matter, personality of the artist, tastes of the time and other circumstances might have influenced the expression of a principle. For example, a subject’s halftone might have been a green, purple or blue version of his or her skin color. Yet within these variations, the larger principle of “cool halftone” was maintained.

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Traditional studios relied on light from a north-facing window, but you can approximate this even, one-source lighting electrically by illuminating your subject with a single 5,000 to 7,500K CCT bulb (Balanced Illumination, below).

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Balanced Illumination

Balanced Illumination

I took photo A with the subject illuminated by a 3000K bulb. The colors in this image all tend toward a warm temperature. For example, the scarf, which is a genuine blue, appears purple. I took photo B using a 5500K bulb to illuminate the model. The image reveals both warm and cool color temperatures. Photo C is a detail of photo B, showing more clearly the shifts from warm to cool fleshtones on the three-dimensional form of the face. Note, for example, the hints of green halftones near the subject’s mouth and chin, and the warm, deep shadows in her nostrils and at the back of her neck.

Girl With Lock and Key by Koo Schadler

In my painting Girl With Lock and Key (egg tempera on true gesso panel, finished with oil; 11¾x8½), I applied a glaze of burnt umber over the far right side of the subject’s neck to emphasize the warmth in the deep shadow area. Adjacent to the deep shadow, on the side of the right cheek, is the halftone, painted a grayish green that appears relatively cool.

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One-source, balanced light creates predictable changes on a three-dimensional form as it makes the transition from light to shadow, as can be seen on a sphere (see Fleshtone Spheres, below).

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 FLESHTONE SPERES

light on a sphere

As light on a three-dimensional object makes a transition into shadow, distinct areas appear that define the sphere’s form. Teachers’ opinions vary on how many zones there are or what to call them. I think the four areas labeled in the above sphere are the most important and distinct. These designations are relatively simple to work with, yet sufficient to create convincing three-dimensionality.
The area that tends to cause the most confusion is the halftone. Halftones aren’t fully illuminated, as are light areas, nor is illumination completely obscured in a halftone, as it is in deep shadow. The halftone lies between light and shadow. It’s a transitional area where illumination and darkness overlap.

Fleshtone spheres

Most apparent is a progression from light to dark values. Local color (color unaltered by light or shadow) also is affected. It varies in purity, ranging from bleached out (in the highlight) to varying degrees of saturation in the light, halftone and shadow areas. The appearance of the materiality of the sphere changes too. Highlights and lights appear solid, an effect conveyed by opaque paint. Halftones and deep shadows look progressively atmospheric, suggested by transparent paint. Finally, there are shifts in color temperature. Under traditional lighting, the local color of an object alternates between relatively warm and cool versions of itself. The highlight is cool, the light warm, the halftone cool, and the deep shadow warm (see Shadows on the Wall, below). These color temperature shifts have important consequences for the depiction of fleshtones.

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Shadows on the Wall and Color Temperature

SHADOWS ON THE WALL: The distinctly blue shadows on a whitewashed wall might lead you to conclude that natural light produces cool shadows; however, those blue tones are neither fully illuminated nor in true deep shadow. They’re actually halftones and, thus, appear predictably cool in temperature. The deep shadow above the door lintel makes a transition to a genuinely darker color, and a hint of relative warmth becomes apparent.

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.Warm , Cool Fleshtones

People often think of skin or fleshtones simply in terms of its warm, local color: various shades of pink, brown or black; however, because we live in a world illuminated by the one-source, balanced light of the sun, people also are familiar, consciously or not, with alternating color temperatures in three-dimensional forms. Fleshtones  painted with only warm hues appears overheated or unrealistic. Including warm and cool versions of the local color of flesh helps it appear natural and convincing. These contrasts also create more beautiful complexions. Pink cheeks seem lovelier alongside a cool, greenish halftone, and the warmth of darker complexions appear more vibrant next to a blue or purple version of their local colors.

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Focus on the Halftone in Fleshtones

Alternating color temperatures within a portrait may seem complicated at first. To simplify the process, I suggest focusing initially on the cool halftone.

Why the halftone? Highlights are very light in value and, therefore, depicting them requires white paint. Adding white to a color generally cools it, so highlights tend toward a relative coolness. There is also an inclination to render the light and deep shadow areas with warmth, since the local color of flesh is itself warm. In other words, the color temperatures of the highlight, light and deep shadow of fleshtones come more naturally to most painters. The cool halftone is the area with the most unexpected and, hence, overlooked color temperature.

There are various ways to impart a cool temperature to fleshtones , but the simplest is to add a bit of blue to a subject’s local skin color. For fair-faced sitters, the result is a greenish halftone. In ruddier complexions halftones have a purple tint. In darker complexions, they might appear a deep blue. (See Just Add Blue, below).

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Create halftones for fleshtones by adding blue

JUST ADD BLUEA simple approach to painting alternating color temperatures in flesh is to add a bit of blue to the local flesh color to create a cool halftone. The combinations seen here demonstrate a few possibilities.

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Once you’ve got the knack of imparting coolness to the halftones of flesh, the relative warmth of the light and deep shadow areas on either side becomes evident. You can glaze thin layers of warm, transparent colors, such as burnt umber or burnt sienna, over deep shadow areas to enhance their warmth and increase color-temperature contrasts. The results are skin tones full of life.

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Key to Visual Excitement

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “That which is in opposition is in concert, and from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony.” Traditional painting is commonly described as “realistic,” but it’s equally rich in contrasting, yet complementary, abstract elements. Warm and cool color temperatures are among the most important visual opposites. When you incorporate them into a portrait, you create both convincing imagery and visual excitement.

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Learn More

See the free preview of Chris Saper’s video Painting Oil Portraits in a Cool Light


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