African-born artist and educator Samuel Adoquei discusses the subtleties and nuances of painting skin tones in art
When you look around at big cities across the globe, you will see our advancing universe and the growing skin tones everywhere, as well as the new creative challenges and advantages it offers for today’s portrait painter. Artists can no longer idealize the unique beauties evolving around us. We are no longer limited with paints—we have the colors to paint almost any figure, so we need to take advantage of our new skills, styles and movements to help us paint our beautiful growing skin tones. I hope the tips in this article help you enjoy our changing universe, for the age of beautiful skin tones is here. May colorists and figurative painters share the beauty they see when they paint people. Below, I’ll be discussing ideas and tips to help today’s portrait painters.
Samuel Adoquei, Skin tones and flesh tones study, oil on linen, 40 x 54" (101 x 137 cm)
Samuel Adoquei, Melancholia (Theresa) (detail), oil on panel.
Skin Tones and Flesh Tones
Skin tones, sometimes called complexion, refers to the actual color of a sitter’s skin (black, brown, red, yellow, white, etc.). In art we often call this local color. Flesh tones, on the other hand, refer to the different nuances within the actual color. Within the black, brown, red, yellow or white skin color, there are several subtle combinations, or nuances, that are known as flesh tones. Like the yin and yang idea, many colors come together to make one color, and in one color exists many different colors. A sum of those nuances makes a local color.
If you wish to explore beautiful skin tones in order to create successful paintings of people, you must understand that the method, which explains techniques that capture true natural colors of flesh tones, is impressionism. The works of Joaquín Sorolla, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne are more revealing than any other colorists. Impressionism forces you to put colors close to each other—or to “juxtapose” them—in order to compare, relate and judge the colors, allowing you to get your colors as accurate as possible. I’ve based this on the idea that in life colors shimmer and look the way they do because of what’s next to them. To be good at skin tones, the artist must train to develop three skills: to observe in order to see well; to mix correct and natural colors; and to use color effectively. These are the methods and skills used by Sorolla, Monet and Cézanne.
Three skin tones studies by Samuel Adoquei, painted for World Skin Tones Day. From left: grisaille, color study and study in nuance.
The Colorist’s Approach to Painting
The art and science of mixing natural skin colors begin with the acceptance that local colors change due to influences like the color of light as well as the color of nearby objects that reflect into the local color. Thus, a skin tone retains its original color, but the nuances that form its local color will vary. Local colors travel back and forth within light and dark, and while making the trip, they get interrupted, changed, interfered with, influenced, adapted and reflected into, according to the light source, surrounding objects and the environment. Because of this, it is unnatural for any color to remain the same when put next to or into another color under any light conditions.
The impressionistic approach to painting portraits differs a bit from other traditional styles. The entire canvas is always attacked right from the start of a painting. This makes it easy for the artist to compare, relate and judge the colors amongst themselves. For example, a nuance on a forehead is put down and related to other parts of the face. Nothing is put down without considering its relationship to other parts of the skin. This is done with the philosophical idea that colors look or appear to look a certain way because of where they are. And the only way to achieve this is by constantly comparing and relating every color. My motto for understanding this technique is as follows: compare carefully and relate religiously. It is not how many colors you have, but how well you observe and aim for a desired color (that is, the way you see, mix and use that color). Read more