How to Mix Skin Tones with Primary Colors: Complete Guide

How to Mix Skin Tones

Like any artist, the first thing you'll need to accomplish is to get your work area set up. This should be an area with the right amount of light so you can clearly see all your colors. It should also include enough room to have your supplies readily available. Depending on the kind of tabletop you have, it should be flat and spacious. Your table also needs an area for all your supplies to be placed. Set-up as you like but select an area around the edges of your drawing paper to put your tools.

How to Mix Skin Tones with Primary Colors
How to Mix Skin Tones with Primary Colors

Organize your Equipment

If you have a drawing desk that has a slight angle, placing tools will be an issue. 

I solve this by adding plastic Tupperware trays attached with double-stick tape around my paper edge. My paper is often held with light adhesive masking tape. Tesa 4333 sensitive tape works great. You can also use yellow Post-it notes with similar results.

Prismacolor: Set of 36

Now this will be an essential factor to consider because you want to choose the right Prismacolor Premier package set. These include 36 colors that come inside a metal tin tray box. There are many different types of color pencil sets that include ranges of colors. Some are better for drawing landscapes, and some are for colorful seascapes. Prismacolor does have a whole kit that offers all of their color pencils available. I find that it's more fun to collect separate 36 color kits that come with various ranges. To read my post on the best color pencils for blending click here.

As I mentioned, there are landscapes and seascapes, some are better for exotic birds, and some are washed-out hues. It makes each kit viable for selecting a few pencils from each kit to use as your customized set. Since this project cannot rely on skin tones that already exist as pencil colors, it's vital to use primaries instead. I'll tell you how to mix skin tones with primary colors in a straightforward method I learned.

Graphite pencils

With so many graphite pencils you can use for sketching, you want to use professional quality as much as possible. If you can get your hands on an LYRA Rembrandt Art Design pencil set, it's worth every penny. You can try the cheaper Faber-Castell graphite pencils and get similar results, but for any kind of quality sketch paper, stick with the LYRA pencils. With a set, you can select from the various harnesses that come from each. Of course, bring along a good quality eraser that can be used to remove mistakes.

I would like to mention that there are eraser pens that do wonders and can be refilled. When an area is smaller, and you only want to erase single lines, an eraser pen will save you time. Forget getting a gum eraser or one of those oversized blocks unless you're erasing a large area. I highly recommend that you use a white highlight pencil to create accents. This is where the top leading edge can look more realistic with a few light strokes. It also helps to finish-off a color pencil drawing adding reflective effects or texture gleam. This post will give you a detailed review of the best artist grade pencils.

Bristol Strathmore Sketchpad

The best for using Strathmore paper is either the 300-400 series. The 300 is a smooth surface, and the 400 is a medium density. Besides that, the 400 series has a good layer of tooth for holding both the graphite and Prismacolors. It's also going to be a little bit more expensive than the 300 series. I recommend that the 300 is best if you're going to do any graphite pencil sketching. It's better to use the Vellum surface since this is great for colored pencils and shading.

This sketchpad size does have a pretty decent range starting with 9″ x 12″, 14″ x 17″, and 19″ x 24″. It's also an acid-free paper, so it will last a long time as your artwork piece that can be framed. When it comes to nice thick sketching paper, you can't beat the quality that comes from Strathmore. Read my post on the best paper for graphite by clicking this link.

Organize Your Primary Colors

While many beginners will have a harder time mixing colored pencils, actual colors used for skin tone are simple. It's always a matter of using primary colors that can be blended. These colors include red, yellow, blue, burnt umber and raw umber. To get the right hue that's needed for basic skin tone, these colors need to be mixed in sequence so that colors combine into a single color. This can be very difficult if you don't know what you're doing. To make this process work faster, I've selected 5 colors that are perfect for skin tones.

And while some of them remain a primary color, others are modified slightly so that there is less blending involved. These colors can give you a faithful reproduction of skin tone with minimal effort. I'll also review each of these colors and give you information on why they work so well. If you cannot find the exact color that is in this group, find the closest color that matches. I based my colors from the Faber-Castell color line, but Prismacolor has nearly identical colors that are named differently.

Select and List your Colors

• Cadmium Yellow

This is a lovely bright color that doesn't need to go on heavy. In fact, human skin by itself is a slightly yellow color. It simply has blood and colors underneath that give various tones and shades. Some less oxygenated blood appears blue, and this is why you see your veins.

• Cadmium Orange

Go figure that orange would be a skin tone, but if you look at artificially tanned skin, it does look orangey. You'll be using this color as the main shadow that helps define a base color. In particular, it looks better on lighter skin tones than others.

• Magenta

This unlikely color wouldn't seem like it can be used for flesh colors at all. But actually, when used in light shades, it gives excellent pink overtones and darker purplish shadows. It's subtle enough to pass as a purple color, but because the shade is lighter on the pink side also.

• Burnt Ochre

When it comes to a color that is always welcome for using a skin base color, burnt ochre is your best bet. It's perfect for creating varied mid-tones and also fill-in shadows. This is an excellent color to use for shadowing effects on yellow skin bases.

• Walnut brown

This color is as universal as you can expect to create deep dark shadows on all the skin tones. It not only makes dark skin tones, but it also works great for creases and edge lines. It works excellent with the magenta and becomes a fast shade color complimenting dark skin.

Create a Color Swatch Chart

Before you start any drawing, you need to make a color swatch chart. This should be done on a separate piece of paper that you can place nearby your drawing sheet. It acts as a guide or reference, but more-or-less it's so you can immediately see the change in values. As a beginner, you will find that this comes in hand once you've chosen a color to work with. Later it can be an excellent reference tool that tells you what each color can do.

Blend a range of values- light to dark

On a separate sheet, that's no bigger than 4″ x 5″ in size. You then start by shading a line about inches long using your lightest color first. You can make your drawing sheet larger but, this card size is a bit like a ‘flashcard' that you can save for later. This way, you can always return to this reference card on projects that need skin tones. So essentially, you will be moving your color pencil up and down, creating lines that gradually go from light to dark. Use soft strokes to zigzag up and down to create the shaded pattern.

When it's done, the right side should be darker to the actual color of the pencil. On the left side, it should be the lightest shading that you can see. This is a color swatch, and you follow each additional color with the darker shade after that. On the right side of your ‘Flashcard' will have walnut brown, and on the left is yellow. List each color at the bottom, so you know which color you used. Also, list the color code that's toward the end cap of each pencil.

Create Three Basic Skin Tones

For this exercise, you will be drawing a straightforward shape that anyone can do for the first time. When you become more experienced with faces and other shapes, shading will be more about where the light direction is facing. This practice lets you see how skin colors work on a compound object rather than an actual face. In this case, we're going to be doing a simple ball shape. This is an excellent shape to draw since the reflective quality of a round ball is easily achieved through shading. Then you'll learn how to mix skin tones with primary colors.

It's also an excellent way to see how the combinations of colors work together. Later you can experiment in creating in-between shades starting from light to dark skin. So what you'll need to begin is a tracing object. Look at your drawing paper and judge where the center point is. Depending on the size of your paper, find a round circle shape that can fit three circles on that sheet. This object can be a glass cup or a round tin of breath mints. As long as you can trace around it to get the circle shape, you're in business.

Use your graphite pencil to lightly draw a line tracing the shape all the way around. This is the edge line that you stay within while shading. If you have enough room to have three complete circles, now you can add some easy light references. This is the fun part since you need a small coin that you trace around. Perhaps a coin that is about thumb-sized is good. Place the coin on the upper portion just off the left or right of the circle. It should be halfway between the center and the edge, but certainly towards the top edge.

This is your reflection line, so make a light trace from your graphite pencil around it. The idea is that this coin tracing should be light enough to see without much effort. Do this in the same spot for the remainder of your circle outlines. Now you are ready to start shading.

• How to Color a Basic Pale Skin Tone in Pencil Color

For this light skin tone, you will need to use the orange and magenta color pencils. The orange color will be the first to go down. If you aren't used to shading, you can use a light back and forth motion to add color. One easy way to get light shading is to hold the pencil towards the end opposite from the tip. This method keeps excess pressure from pushing down on the color pencil tip. Then gently drag the color back and forth until you see the color going onto the paper. Avoid the area where you've drawn the coin outline.

Reduce your back and forth scratching when going around this coin line and also around the circle edge. If you go over the edge a little, it's ok, you'll be going back over these areas later. The next color is the magenta, and you repeat the same process over the whole circle. Try to avoid the coin area as before, but lightly give a layer over the orange. After you're done, you repeat one last layer or orange. Make varied strokes at a different angle to get an even layer everywhere. You can then use your finger to lightly blend these colors further.

The next color is the burnt ochre, and this is where the magic happens. You will need to create your shadow line that creates the transitional shadow opposite from the coin outline. It can be rounded to match the curve of the under edge of the coin line. Start with shading around the edge, laying down the ochre along the lower left side edge. Gradually bring this shading up to the edges of your coin line edge. It should not extend past the upper portion of your coin line at the outer circle edge. Once you start to see the shadow line with this color, it will be easier to continue.

Even the lower edges toward the bottom can have a stronger darker edge drawn in to give better contrast. The last color is walnut brown, and this is used to make the darker edges stand out more. This will take a light touch, too, so you don't ruin the 3D effect of this sphere. You can use your fingers to help blend the colors further or use your big eraser to lighten spots inside your coin circle area. Always try to keep your ball texture looking smooth and blended. Additionally, you can always warm up the darker edge by going back and using the magenta to give the shadow line rich color depth. Your first circle is now done.

• How to Color a Medium Skin Tone in Pencil Color

The colors you need for making a medium ton are different than the first. Start with using the cadmium yellow the same way that you did as before with the first sphere. Follow the same steps until this is shaded evenly. This is then followed with the burnt ochre to start forming the gradual shadow line that you follow up to the lower coin edge, just like the first repeat the shading doing the same exact steps. The third color is the walnut brown that defines the hard shadow edge. By now, you can see a significant difference this color makes.

Towards the bottom of the sphere, you can use heavier lines that require a feathering technique. This is lightly scratching the color pencil upward towards the lighter half of the ball. As you lift the pencil upwards, the stroke gets lighter and makes the transition color have a different look than lightly shading does. Don't bring the walnut very close to the coin outline edge, so instead, let it feather-off. This is so you can use the orange color to fill in where that color begins to change.

Now you lightly add the orange to that area around the coin line. To finish this circle off, add some more yellow over the entire circle to help blend in colors. Perhaps you can use some burnt ochre to add some color depth and blend rough shadows that aren't working. To finish this completely, use the magenta to rim the edge of the shadow side and add some color to the edges.

• How to Color a Dark Skin Tone in Pencil Color

You don't need a lengthy description of the coloration steps, but for your darker skin tone, you start with magenta. Repeat as, before only this time, you can add a darker layer since this will be darker skin. As the second color, you will add a layer of burnt ochre layers over the magenta. When this is completed, you now go and add some shadowing layers with the walnut brown. This can be heavier than before but try to keep as much off of the coin line as possible. When that is complete, you use the burnt ochre again to tie the colors together.

Your drawing paper will be creating texture depending on which type you use, so this is why heavier shading can be helpful here. Around the lower edge of the coin line, you add magenta to create the 3D depth and add some burnt ochre along that shadow edge to blend into the darker walnut brown. To finish this off totally, you can use your finger or eraser to remove spots that had mistakes. You can also go back with a similar color to blend areas that stand-out. Now that these are all finished, you see how three different skin tones are created.

And while you only used five color pencils to make these three different colors, in between colors can also follow. By varying the base colors when you start, each color can be combined into a gradual shade. You would then have 5 different skin tones using only 5 different pencil colors. Once you complete this project, you must surely create the in-between ball colors to see how simple skin shades can be. I hope you've enjoyed how to mix skin tones with primary colors using my easy custom method.

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Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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How to Mix Skin Tones with Primary Colors_ Complete Guide