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Skin Tones in Watercolor
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To Sleep Perchance to Dream
News for January
Skin Tones in WatercolorBehind the Art
by Annie Rodrigue
A good friend of mine nicely suggestion that I should do an article about skin tones. Especially about how to do them with watercolor. So today, I will try my very best to cover what I know about watercolor and how to use it to create believable skin tones. This will also be a very nice color theory revision, so for those of you who would like to learn more about colors and blending, we will also rediscover these topics in the following paragraphs.
Skin Tones: Overview and Study
Itís always important to start learning about the subject that we are about to draw, so let us look closely at skin. Since we are all covered in skin, let us start there. Take a good look at your hands and try to notice what color it is. No matter the tone of your skin (may it be darker or lighter, pale or bronzed, freckled or not) there are a few things that we all have in common: our skin is made of earth colors (a mix of yellow, beige, brown, brown-red in all kinds of tones) and some parts of it will be covered with a little more red and pink tones because of our veins. Skin is also wrinkled.
Now take your hand next to a light. (if you have some kind of colored light, it is even better) Chances are that if you take your hand closely to the light, the tone of your skin will become lighter and if the light is colored, the skin will also change color. I know all these things sound obvious, but we often forget them when we start drawing. Take notes of your observations, especially color wise.
Blending the Right Colors
Breaking down the colors to create skin tones is fairly easy. Usually, the formula is:
For pale skin: an equal part of white, yellow, and red
If your skin was a little more yellowish, than you would extra an extra dash of ocre yellow (a flashy yellow would make the skin look sick)
If your skin was a little more reddish: a dash of light red should do the trick
For darker skin: two parts of red, for one part of yellow and white, plus adding some very small parts of green until we get the tone we are looking for. No black. Black will dull the colors. If the color starts to look too green, add red.
Some of you might wonder why green and red. If you have a color wheel near you, pick it up and look at both these colors. You will notice that they are complementary colors. With watercolor, mixing two complementary colors will make them look darker. If for exemple we go with only red and green, if you have more red than green, the color will turn out to be dark red. If we have more green than red, than you will have dark green. Since in our case we want skin tones, by mixing those two colors with white and yellow, you will find yourself with very earthy toned brown. Perfect for skin tones!
Understanding How Watercolor Works
Watercolor is a wonderful media, but it loves to give you surprises, especially when it dries. And so we often have to work color in layers until we get it to our liking. That is where patience becomes a virtue.
First you have to keep in mind that the paper you will use will influence the way the colors will dry. Not only will different paper create different types of textures, but watercolor will dry lighter on some paper and even lighter on others. (I have yet to see watercolor dry darker, so we are safe there!) So learn about your paper. Make tests.
The second thing we have to be careful about: yes, watercolor dries lighter. While it seems like I am repeating myself, this is probably one of the most important part to understand. You will layer down your color on your paper and it will look just right. But you will come back to your canvas 2 minutes later and it will have lightened up. The more water you will add to your pigments, the lighter the color will dry and so, you will have to work in many layers of the same color until you get the result you had planned. It is important though, to wait until the layer is dry before adding another one. Adding water to wet watercolor will lift the pigments.
The third crutial element in watercolor: it is a transparent and additive media. Transparent because of the water and so if you layer a color and let it dry, then paint another layer with a different color, you will still see the first color you had layered on your paper.
Additive because not only with a color change if you layer another color over it, but the tone of the color will also change. I like to give the example of the Mutiply setting in Photoshop for those who also do digital work. It is very much the same. Basically, if I were to layer some yellow, waited until it dried to then add some blue over it, not only will the color change to green, but it will give me a dark green. If I were to layer two times the very same color, it would give me a darker tone of this very same color. And so, you do not necessarly need to create a darker color on your palette to get a darker color on you canvas.
Skin Tone and Shading
Now here is the tricky part. Somehow, shading always seems to be the trick question in art. You have to know where the light comes from. You have to figure out what kind of shadows it will create and then you have to decide what color to make that shadow.
Somehow, when we think skin tone, then the shadows seem very easy to do: darker brown or black! After all when we look at our own skin in the shadows, this is what it looks like no? Well, while it is true, some of you might remember the color theory column where we also saw that we could change those colors almost at will. I strongly suggest not using black for the reason I mentioned earlier. Black, most often than not, takes out the life in your colors. For those of you who know a little bit about my work, you might have noticed how I often use very bright colors for almost anything, even shadows. Here is an example of how I would do my shadows depending on a color scheme in a painting:
We have two opposites: Summer and Winter. I always work my first two layers in normal skin tone color (unless I was going for a monochromatic scheme). Then I will work a third layer of that same color to establish my shadows. From there, I will look at the general scheme of my painting and I will use one of the colors we fin in the painting to do my shadows. (For the summer painting, it was orange and the winter painting was blue) I make sure that my colors are well diluted in water though so that the shadows donít come too strong on the first wash. Sometimes, I will even use a third color for the shadows. In the winter painting, I also used a dash of purple and in the summer painting, a dash of red.
I guess this month's column was a little about skin tone and a little bit about watercolor. I was aiming on explaining how to do skin tones when I realised that there is no clear way to do them. With a lot of observation and some personal interpretation, there is always a way to pull it off, even without the right colors. Just all remember to have fun while trying things out!
I am thinking of doing a column about folds and wrinkles on clothing, understanding how they work and how to draw them also. I am always on the look for new ideas, so feel free to drop by the forum for suggestions!
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