Painting Skin Tones in Watercolor

1. See through it. Select transparent hues such as brown madder, burnt sienna, raw sienna and ultramarine blue. These colors are good for painting all skin types. Too many opaque colors, such as cerulean blue, cadmium yellow or cadmiumm red, can make skin appear chalky or muddy.

2. Keep it up. For watercolorists, painting with your paper and support board upright or tilted can help skin washes go on more smoothly. Washes can only move in a downward direction, creating fewer opportunities for the pigment to make backwashes or “blooms.”

3. Vary the temperature. Paint skin colors that are both warm and cool to avoid figure paintings that look like mannequins. For instance, note where the skin might have a cool blue highlight and where it might have warmer, brownish hues in the shadows.

4. Get in and get out. When painting skin it’s crucial to keep your washes looking pristine and translucent. Spending too much time painting an area leads to washes that are muddy and overworked. Mix your colors a little darker in value than you think you’ll need, knowing they’ll dry lighter. Apply them swiftly without too much manipulation or dabbing.

Geoffrey Gorman is an artist career coach ( in Santa Fe, New Mexico. John Howard Sanden is a prominent portrait painter in New York City.

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