Oil Painting Techniques for Black Skin Tone

Today’s demonstration is excerpted from Chris Saper’s Classic Portrait Painting in Oils, which teaches readers great oil painting techniques to capture a variety of skin tones. In this lesson, she shares her tips on how to paint a portrait of a woman with black skin.

Painted in open studio, this life study of Faith was a pleasure to do. The studio was indirectly lit by a window on our left, and a full-length mirror on the wall opposite the window provided fill light. Overhead fluorescent lights and a very warm, artificial incandescent light slightly above and to our left also provided lighting. Th e overall setup was a bit complex, but the fluorescent lights read as cool next to the stronger incandescent
light. The strength and proximity of the artificial light overpowered all the other lighting.

1. Place the Figure: Place the figure horizontally and to the right of center on a 16″ × 20″ (41cm × 51cm) canvas roughly toned with Raw Umber and Raw Sienna. The direction of the light from our left and the diagonal design of the dress support leaving more breathing room on the left side of the canvas. I measured the head at 8 inches (20cm) from the top of the hair to the chin, then located the features, width of the face and hair, and general shape of the dress.

2. Mix and Place Color Notes for the Background and Skin in Shadow: Create the mixed green color note for the background and place swatches on the canvas right up against the skin, hair and dress areas. Mix and place the skin color in the slightly shadowed area just under the cheekbone on our left. The angle of the light is such that shadow areas appear on both the right and left parts of the face. For this study, treat the forehead as a separate color of skin in shadow. Cool the background color with violet by adding Ultramarine Blue + Flake White + Permanent Rose to reflect color from the dress. Pull some of the skin color used under the left cheekbone into the bridge and center of the nose.

Chris Saper Classic Portrait Painting in Oils

3. Place the Skin Tones Where Light and Shadow Meet: Paint the remaining areas of skin in shadow and continue to reinforce the shapes and locations of the features. The shoulders and chest are slightly lighter and slightly warmer versions of the first mixed skin in shadow, so you’ll need to get some wet paint on the raw canvas in order to have something to move around to modify. With Raw Umber + Asphaltum, measure and place the eye sockets, base of the nose and mouth. Make these drawing strokes more angular than circular so you won’t lose sight of the place where you see the lines of the forms breaking. Work out the planes and angles of the cheekbones and lower third of the face. The structure of the chin is complicated, so it’s important to try to locate its smaller planes. Restate the separate values of the neck and face.

4. Mix and Place Color Notes for the Hair in Light and Shadow and the Dress Fold in Shadow: Naturally gray or white hair is generally cooler in color, but Faith’s hair is a warm color, as it has been lightened by a hairdresser. When mixing the hair in light, note that it’s warmed by the light source. The hair in shadow reads cooler than the hair in light, but
only slightly darker. Paint a swatch of the dress in shadow, and pull a bit of skin tone in shadow into the neck area, generally finding the shape of the cast shadow on the throat.

5. Refine the Drawing and Paint the Upward Facing Planes of the Face in Shadow: Use Raw Umber + Asphaltum to locate the deepest darks in the shadows of the eye sockets and place the irises. Use Naples Yellow + Yellow Ochre to paint the plane of the barrel of the mouth in light, which will serve to create the shapes of the upper lip on our left and the under plane of the nostril just above it. Painting this place also sets up the color and value of the nasal-labial fold adjacent to it on our left. Slowly begin to bring up the value and warm the color of other planes of the skin in light. There are two areas where the facial planes in shadow face upward: the top of the cheekbone on our right and the top of the
ball of the chin. Mix the color with Flake White + Phthalo Green and place it over the wet paint already there to mitigate its intensity. One dark, warm stroke of Asphaltum sets up the ear placement on our left. Establish the brightest color of the red dress in light with a few strokes of Cadmium Red Light out of the tube.

6. Paint the Additional Shapes of the Hair and Shoulder, and Add Reflected Color to the Skin: It would be impossible (well, certainly for me) to paint Faith’s tiny curls; it’s more sensible to suggest the texture of her hair. Make quick, loose brushstrokes with the comb brush to integrate the edges of the hair with the adjacent background. Part of the fun in painting a subject with such strongly colored clothing is having the chance to fi nd additional places to put reflected color. You can place very light strokes of Cadmium
Red Light under the brow on our right, in the nostrils, and on the cheeks and upper lip.
Suggest Faith’s earrings with small abstract strokes, just enough to provide information about the location of her ears and to help balance the negative space on the canvas’s upper-left quadrant. To complete the ear on our left, use a 1-inch (25mm) brushstroke of
Cadmium Red Light. The light striking the earlobe is nothing more than a ½-inch (12mm) dash of Cadmium Red Light + Naples Yellow.

7. Sculpt the Planes of the Nose, Cheeks and Chin: Use Naples Yellow + Yellow Ochre, slightly desaturated with a bit of Cerulean Blue, to paint the lit plane of the forehead and cheek. Then add more Naples Yellow + Yellow Ochre into the mix and place it on the lit part of the nose and the tissue that connects the nose to the front of the face. This paint is applied thickly, and not blended, to preserve its strength. This is the first step in which you’ll actually begin to shape the lower lip. The small bit of Brilliant Yellow Light on the upper left of the ball of the chin helps to create a three-dimensional illusion.

8. Add Finishing Touches: As is always the case in an open studio setting, when you’re down to the last ten minutes, review the canvas to see what improvements you can and should focus on and try to make those right. Just as in other areas where skin touches skin, paint the mouth’s seam in your deepest, darkest, warmest colors—in this case, Asphaltum + Transparent Earth Red + Alizarin Crimson Permanent. Make tiny dark notes to indicate the corners of the mouth and a suggestion of lip separation from the center slightly to our right. A bit of Cadmium Red Light under the chin exaggerates the refl ected color of the dress on the downward-facing plane closest to it. Use a tiny drift of Flake White paint clinging to the tip of the pushpin to touch tiny points to suggest the highlights in the eyes. Don’t allow the pin point itself to touch the canvas.

Faith, Life Study
Oil on linen
16″ × 20″ (41cm × 51cm)

So there you have it, folks: step-by-step demonstrations on painting black skin tones in oils. Gorgeous, no?

You can find out more about painting skin tones in oils of all shades from Chris Saper’s book, Classic Portrait Painting in Oils.

Love painting portraits, but oil not your medium? How about realistic portraits in watercolor?



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