Painting Skin Tone With Watercolors | Melissa Lee | Skillshare

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      Making Creative Color Choices


    • 4.

      Color Combinations for Realistic Skin Tones


    • 5.

      Gradient Practice: Mixing and Blending Colors


    • 6.

      Sphere Activity


    • 7.

      Final Demo


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About This Class

In my experience, one of the most difficult things to color in any medium is skin tone, whether it's light or dark skin. And for many, watercolor is already a difficult medium to control. In this class, I’ll show you the different color combinations and techniques I use, as well as take you through my methods for mixing, blending, and layering colors, shading and highlighting, and controlling the flow of color.

Everyone is welcome, of course, but if you don't feel confident in your portrait drawing skills, I recommend taking my previous Skillshare classes on illustrating faces, as this is not a portrait drawing class and focuses solely on painting skin tones. 

My hope is that by the end of this lesson, you’ll gain the understanding you'll need to come up with your own color combinations for skin tones, and overall, feel more confident in your ability to create realistically colored portraits.

Meet Your Teacher

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Melissa Lee

allow yourself to fail before you succeed

Top Teacher

Hi! My name's Melissa Lee, and I'm an illustrator and surface pattern designer living in the hilly forests of Northern California. Alongside doing freelance and art licensing work (I am a proud Riley Blake Designs fabric designer), I've spent much of my time cultivating my love of sharing what I know and encouraging others to nourish their creative side through teaching online art courses here on Skillshare. I love making patterns, character art, and watercolor paintings. I'm endlessly inspired by animals and nature (whether living today or extinct), science fiction and fantasy, space and astrology, witchy things, and bees.

Always bees.

The classes that I teach on Skillshare focus primarily on surface pattern design, watercolor techniques, and character design. See full profile

Level: Intermediate

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1. Introduction: Hello. My name is Melissa. Welcome to "Painting Skin Tone with Watercolors." In my experience, one of the most difficult things to color in any medium is skin tone. But it's a particularly challenging thing to master with watercolors. And for many, watercolor is already a difficult medium to control. In this class, I'll show you the different color combinations and techniques I use to achieve realistic skin tones. I'll take you through my methods for mixing, blending, and layering colors, shading and highlighting, and managing the flow of color. My hope is that by the end of this lesson, you'll gain the understanding you need to create your own color combinations for skin tones and overall just feel more confident in your ability to create watercolor portraits. So click "Enroll", and let's get started. 2. Materials: So for this class, when it comes to brushes, all you really need are a few different sized round brushes. I suggest a 10, a six, a two or a three, and a zero over zero for detail work. I also have a color shaper tool, which is a lot like a brush only it has a rubber tip, and I use this primarily for applying masking fluid. Speaking of masking fluid, you don't absolutely need this but it is a really nice thing to have, and I am going to be using it later. I like this Schmincke brand because it's blue and I can see it better on the paper. Paper towels, containers for water, palettes, any paper that's at least a 120 pound and Cold Press because it's a medium tooth or texture and if it's any rougher, it's harder to control and lift colors. So I always suggest it for watercolor beginners. You don't need masking tape for this but I just wanted to suggest scotch 232 because I've had the best luck with it and I've tried a ton of different masking tapes. It won't lift with water and as long as you're careful when you're peeling it, it won't ruin your paper. Most importantly, paint. I like to use both dry pallets and tubes and as far as color goes, you can get away with just red, blue, yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, and sepia. 3. Making Creative Color Choices: Before I get into the demos, I wanted to briefly talk about something I've learned regarding color and making creative color choices when you're painting, as well as show you some examples of watercolor portraits by other artists that I think exemplify this and will hopefully give you some inspiration. I think a mistake a lot of people make when they're first starting to color, including myself, whether you're working with acrylics, markers, colored pencils, or what have you, is not considering the fact that skin is not made up of just one color, but a combination of colors, and sometimes colors you might and unusually think about using. I majored in studio art in college and I had this one painting teacher who taught me a lesson that will never leave me. What he did was he had us look at the wall of our classroom, and it was a white wall and there was an open archway that cast the shadow on part of the wall, and he asked us to tell him what colors we would use to paint the portion of the wall that was in shadow and what we'd use to paint the portion that was in light more. Everyone shuffled awkwardly for a bit because we were like, well, the wall is white and the shadow is gray. But that obviously wasn't what he wanted. He was basically trying to force us to see the colors that were there underneath the obvious base colors. We eventually were able to answer by saying that you might use a small amount of purple for the shaded side and yellow for the light. He did that throughout the semester. He asked us to suggest colors that weren't the obvious color. He pointed something blue and we weren't allowed to say blue. We had to say colors we'd use to shade and highlight it with. Doing that, made me analyze color in everything I see, and I think it's giving me such a better understanding of how color works. I almost never choose black now when I'm shading something, and you rarely should. Because I know it usually just muddies the vibrancy of color, and you can get so much more dynamic results with more creative shading and highlighting options. In summary, be creative with your color choices and don't automatically default to black and white when you're shading. Also don't automatically default to the obvious color when you're making your color choices. 4. Color Combinations for Realistic Skin Tones: Something that I've found pretty useful. I made a color reference journal to help me choose colors when I'm painting. It's particularly useful for dry pallets because it's difficult to see how the color will translate onto paper, and this just makes my life a lot easier. I've also made these skin tone charts that you can download under the Your Project tab. As I said before, the colors I use most often when painting skin tone are the primary colors, burnt umber, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and sepia. For light-skin tones, I use burnt sienna or raw sienna, plus red or yellow. Sometimes I just use cadmium red and cadmium yellow if I'm painting a very pale, rosy cheeked person. For mid tones, it's usually burnt umber plus any of those other colors. Then for blue dark skin combos of bright sienna, sepia, and blue. 5. Gradient Practice: Mixing and Blending Colors: Okay. I'm going to demonstrate really quickly what I did to create these color gradients. I'm using a size 10 brush, I have burnt umber, burnt sienna, and raw sienna on my palette, and then I'm going to be using cadmium red, and cadmium yellow from my dry pallet. First, I take some water, I'm going to do a combination of burnt sienna and red, and I'm just going to put some water in here, a little bit of burnt sienna, and from a dry palette I'm picking up a little bit of cadmium red, and mixing them together. It's a little bit too much red, so I'm just going to apply some more, raw sienna in there. That's probably a good color. You can always test it out on scratch paper I don't want it to be dark like that yet, so I'm adding a little bit more water. Basically, just mix it up and create a little puddle of color. With gradients it's easier to start light to dark, so that's why I'm adding water like this. You start with a very small amount of paint and a lot of water on your brush, and I'm just going to start painting a rectangle. You're essentially just pushing this puddle of water along, then make sure that the edges stay wet so that you can smoothly add more color and it'll be a nice gradual gradient. I'm just adding a little bit more pigment as I go, oops, I added a little bit too much red there. That's okay, we can easily blend in some more of the second color, Watercolor does this frustrating thing where it dries about 50 % lighter than it goes on, so it's always a good idea to wait a minute, let it dry, see how it goes. As you can see it did a pretty nice gradient, I actually could've done better with this, but that's okay. I essentially just let it dry and then because I wanted to have the denotation of the rectangles I then just added another glaze of the same color over the top to get darker and darker. I'm just dipping my brush in water, and I know it's off screen so you can't see, but as I'm dipping my brush in water it's getting lighter, and lighter, and lighter. I think for this one, I'm going to just add a lighter shade to the bottom because I can, you can go light to dark or dark to light, just depends on what you find easiest. That's a really shoddy way of doing that. Essentially, the more water you have on your brush, the lighter and more pastel your tones, and the less water and more paint, the more saturated it'll get. Try not to do what I did and go back and mess with it because if you want a really nice smooth gradient, you should just do it all in one, because when you go back you'll create these little water textures, which isn't a bad thing because that's part of the charm of watercolor, but if you do want a nice smooth gradient, be sure to go over in one pass, and if you want to rework it after that wait until it dries and then go over it again. And I'm talking really, really dry. because if it's not really, really dry you'll just reactivate the same color on the paper rather than just glazing over the top. I'm just going to demonstrate this again with a different color, same process. A lot of water color work is knowing how to push around puddles of water and control it how you want to. There you go. I think I did a little better with this one. It's a good idea to practice making gradients with multiple different colors, not just skin tones because I think it helps you learn how to control the flow of pigment and water and helps you build a sort of muscle memory for it. Another good thing to practice is two color gradients, it's essentially the same exercise only you start with a medium amount of one color on your brush and then slowly blend the second color in. Be sure to clean your brush once you get near the end so that when you dip your brush in the second color you're picking up the pure color. 6. Sphere Activity: For the class project, the first thing I want you to do is to practice painting three different skin tones on spheres. It's a good way to practice not only mixing your colors and layering them, but also controlling the amount of pigment on your brush, shading, and highlighting without having to worry about ruining your under drawing. When it's just a sphere that you're painting, you can let go and experiment and see what works best for you. I started by applying masking fluid to the mid tone and dark tone spheres. Because dark skin tends to be more reflective while light skin tends to be more diffuse. The highlights on dark skin are a little more contrasted. I forgot to wait for the masking fluid to dry completely, which is something you should avoid doing because it can damage your brush if you get any of the masking fluid on it. The first layer is just a really basic light undertone layer; really dark skin often has a bluish purplish undertone, which is why I started with this color for the first sphere. When you are layering your colors, you want to let the first layer dry before adding another. Because if you don't, the first layer of color will just be reactivated by your wet brush, and it's helpful to have a consistent even undertone. I'm using a combination of cadmium red and cadmium yellow for the lightest sphere, and then I'm using burnt umber, burnt sienna, and some raw sienna for the mid tone, as well as some cadmium red to warm it up. Then I'm using mainly bluish-purple, sepia, and a bit of burnt sienna for the darkest one. So I'm just continuing to layer my colors until I get the intensity or vibrancy that I want. I know I've said this before, but keep in mind that watercolor dries about 50 percent lighter than it goes on. So you can be pretty bold with your colors. This is particularly relevant with light skin tones I think. I used to be a lot more timid when I was painting and sometimes that resulted in my dried paintings looking a little dull. For light skin, try adding a lot of bright yellow or orange or red and waiting for it to dry and then seeing how it turns out. It probably won't end up looking as bright as you thought it would. You can remove masking fluid by gently rubbing it with your fingers or using an eraser. When I softened the edges of the highlight, I ended up painting over the whole thing, so I just took a tissue and dabbed at it to lift the color. Here I'm using a reddish purple to shade the mid tone and a more blue purple to shade the light tone. Again, each time I layer, I wait for the paint to dry so I don't reactivate the color underneath. You can also soften and blend the edges by lifting color with a tissue. I'm adding one more bold pass of purple for the shading. Here I'm blending the color out by cleaning the pigment off my brush and passing over the edges with water. I felt like both of the darker tones needed more warmth, so I added one more glaze of red over them. You should end up with something similar to this. This is just a really good way to practice without being super attached to what you're doing. You feel a little more freedom to experiment and you don't worry so much about messing up. 7. Final Demo: First of all, I've drawn two portraits because I wanted to demonstrate the differences in painting light and dark skin tones. There are definitely different challenges you'll come across in both. If you're wondering what these blue spots are, it's the masking fluid I use. For this portrait, I'm using a picture of a very dark-skinned model for reference, and I've mask these areas that I want to be highlighted because on dark-skinned people, that contrast between highlights and the rest of the skin is much higher than on light-skinned people. So I wanted to make sure that the masking fluid will keep these areas free of pigment while I'm doing my washes. First of all, there's an underlying purplish hue to her skin tone, so that's why I started with a mixture of purple or blue and red, and sepia for the base of her skin tone. The model I'm using for reference for this character is very light-skinned, so I'm just starting with a mixture of red and yellow and quite a lot of water. I waited for the paint to dry a little before filling in her lips with a different color. It's kind of fun to work on a couple of different figures at once because while you're waiting for one to dry, you can work on the other. So now I'm getting much more bold with my colors. Try to remember to keep the edges wet so that you can seamlessly smooth and blend your colors. As I did in the sphere activity, I'm just continuing to layer my colors until I get the intensity or vibrancy that I want. When painting dark skin like this, you can very easily cover up your pencil drawing, so you have to be careful to block in shading in the appropriate areas. So for instance, I keep adding more color to the edge of her nostrils so that it doesn't get lost. With lighter skin you don't have to worry about that so much because you can still see your pencil marks. But I think it's a really fun challenge. I switched to my 0/0 brush for detail work, and I'm using a highly concentrated mixture of sepia, blue and red. You can't tell in the video, but I made sure to wait for the skin surrounding her lips to dry completely before painting her lips with a different color, so that the colors didn't bleed together. This is one of the most important things to remember when it comes to painting with watercolors. You have to work in sections and be mindful of how dry or not dry your paint is. This also applies to when you're layering your colors. As I've said before, you want to let the first layer dry before adding another, because if you don't, the color will just be reactivated by your wet brush. And really, you can't avoid reactivating your pigment a little bit, even when it's dried, but you'll get better results if you wait. I'm using a bit of burnt sienna here to add some warmth. Wait for the painting to dry completely before removing your masking fluid, or you'll risk damaging your paper. To smooth out the highlights, all it takes is a bit of water on your brush. You can use the reactivated pigment surrounding it to blend the edges. Moving on to the second model, I want add some red to her cheeks, so I'm adding a little bit of water to the area before I add paint, because it helps to keep the edges smooth. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, and I still don't quite manage it sometimes, so another thing you can do is take a tissue and gently dap the edges. I wasn't being bold enough with my colors, so I'm upping the amount of pigment on my brush. I know I keep repeating myself, but it's key to remember that the paint will dry lighter than it goes on. These intense colors I'm adding here may look a little bright, but they'll look much better once they've dried. I'm using a mixture of raw sienna, red, and yellow for the first pass of shading on her jaw. The pink spread further than I wanted it to, so I'm going to wet it with a clean brush first, then add more raw sienna and orange. For the shading, I'm using a reddish purple. I gathered some burnt sienna on my brush and did a splatter effect to create most of her freckles. I forgot to film myself when I was painting their hair, so sorry about that. Maybe I'll do a class in the future on painting hair with watercolors. I don't know. We'll see! Anyway, one last thing I wanted to say... If you don't feel confident in your portrait drawing skills, I recommend taking my previous Skillshare classes on illustrating faces, as this is not a portrait drawing class, and I really wanted to just focus solely on painting skin tones. That being said, I don't want you to feel intimidated by this, so your drawing for your final portrait painting can be as stylized or cartoony as you like, if you find that easier. As long as the skin tone colors are realistic. I'd also like you to do the sphere activity and include a picture of that in your class project as well. Thank you so much for taking this class! I really, really hope that it was helpful for you.