A Recurring Question About Painting Figures: Part 1

-By Ron Lemen

I write this blog post while here at the 9th annual Illuxcon in Allentown Pennsylvania.  It is an amazing show in a great museum with a wonderful permanent collection; all this diversity in amazing art at once can be overwhelming but at the same time energizing to the artist, both amateur and professional alike.    

I was surprised to find out that a big part of this convention includes students showing their portfolios to all the professionals here in hopes of making connections, getting feedback and possibly getting work.  This post is a response to a commonly repeated question I have heard at least a dozen times already from students showing their portfolios to the professionals here.  The question that keeps coming up is “how do you paint flesh tones?”   This is not a new question exclusive to this show; I hear it all the time with students or would be artists everywhere. 

Before I start this breakdown, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for any artist to start their training traditionally.  I might sound like some old art codger here grumpily chewing on the fat of another generation shift in the arts, but I am not.  Mixing colors traditionally from physical paint helps solve so many problems with where color comes from and how to control color tones and color shifts from those mixtures.  If you just buy the tubes of paint just to practice mixing them without painting anything I would still recommend doing so.  It is time well spent and the knowledge you will gain from the physical act of mixing is invaluable to say the least.

So I made this bucket list and included a few images as examples to help illustrate some of the concepts.  Here are a few things to consider:

-Flesh is translucent-light passes through it and internally illuminates it to a certain extent depending upon the power of the light source.  As an example, a part of what we see when we look at a model under a spot light is surface illumination and the other is the slightly internally lit flesh depending upon the powerfulness of the light source.

-There is local color, the color localized to each object; in this case we are concerned with the local color of flesh.  Flesh has a range of hues from yellowish to very dark, almost blue - purple in hue.  But no flesh is identifiably a straight hue, red, orange, green, etc.  They are all muddy versions of the root hues.

-There is the color of the primary light source that mixes an additional hue to the surface colors distorting them towards a temperature bias complementing the light source, warmer lights a warmer mixture, cooler lights a cooler mixture.

-In most cases, there is indirect lighting or the ambient light that fills the spaces that the direct spotlight does not influence. If the sun is the primary light source then the sky is the indirect light source.   In most universities and ateliers, the spotlight is the direct light source while the fluorescent overheads and the light coming through the windows from the sky are the indirect light source(s).  In contrast, north light studios are primarily lit directly from the sky (cool temperature) and the indirect light source is warm.

-All forms turn, therefore not all of the surface of an object will be directly lit.  In addition to the shadow side there are the turning surfaces between the direct light source and the shadows.   These planes that are not perpendicular to the light are called oblique planes.  The direct light hitting these surfaces drops off in its directness as the surfaces turn away from the primary light source and start taking on the influence of the indirect light source.

-Whatever the temperature of the direct light source the indirect light source will be the temperature opposite.

There are several ways to think about painting flesh.  There are a few formulas that stem from the old masters and I have two of those examples here, classical and romantic lighting.  Classical lighting was the typical approach to lighting a painting until around the mid 1800’s.  Classical lighting was based upon a single powerful light source.  Caravaggio is a perfect example of this lighting scheme.  This type of painting required layers upon layers of scumbling and glazing colors to achieve the brilliant light and the magnificent lifelike quality of rendering.  The palette of colors available at this time were not as vibrant as we have now so to keep the hues colorful they needed to be applied in their pure state (glazing), unadulterated by mixtures with other hues.  Most of the flesh tones were not so colorful as they were tonally correct to how flesh looks and feels.  Color was most chromatic within the reflected lights in the shadows tones, drapery, etc.

These are examples of both Classical and Romantic Lighting.

During the mid 1800’s new colors and brighter hues were invented and at this time the kind of painting also shifted away from the high contrast lighting to a flatter less harsh look called romantic lighting.  This lighting scheme allowed for the hues to exist to a greater extent throughout the surfaces of the flesh tones.  In addition the light planes and the shadow planes were neutralized and reduced in contrast.  Delacroix has been claimed to have started this shift in color/lighting but I think Bouguereau took the technique and just ran with it.


We see another big shift in color schemes in the mid 1900’s with illustration.  I refer to this period of color as the color recipe era.  Illustrators were competing to have their magazine covers seen, pulp novels were huge and the only way to get a product to stand out was to engineer a crafty color scheme that would feel unique against the rest of the covers.  During this time the color wheel was invented as a tool for concocting these recipes (Munsell’s color sphere and color wheel). Monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, quadratic, and tetradic schemes were invented and color has never been the same since. 

Robert McGinnis One of the most prolific colorists in illustration
I include this Andrew Hem painting in this color recipe section because e is definitely doing something very different with the figure and the colors he chooses to use to represent his flesh tones.

Here are a few of the endless color recipes and a way they are built.

So, heading back to the original question asked, “how to paint flesh color” the first objective in your own art is to determine how you are going to use light to tell your story.   Are you going to use normal lighting or staged lighting, or are you going to use the color wheel and find a range of colors as a recipe to paint your picture?  This will determine how realistic you will need to depict the flesh in your piece.  The more realistic the piece the more work that goes into making every surface change feel correct.

The next thing to consider is the palette you intend to work with.  If you are working digitally this is almost more important because there is no basic palette to begin the painting, the programs you use have every available option ever conceived and if you do not understand color theory then there is no starting point to cull down the colors required to make an image work.  As you first learn to paint flesh a really good basic palette would be the primary palette, consisting or red, yellow, blue, along with black and white as shade and tinting tools respectively.  To give more options to the range of flesh tones in the lights and shadows create the primary palette with a warm and cool version of each hue to work with.  Having the options of different temperatures per each hue gives you a greater chance of making convincing light and shade tones.

And then finally there is the act of color mixing which I will explain in the next article.  I will show how to set up the palette and a way of mixing colors for direct painting that I learned from my mentor Sebastian Capella and later from my years studying the Reilly method.

Whenever you get the chance, visit the works of art in your local museum or in a museum wherever you travel.  It is so important to study what has come before you; all the answers are there in every canvas including how the paint is applied and in what order it is applied to the surface.  This detective work will help you understand how to create your own canvases.  For now I leave you with a few amazing examples of some fantastic paintings with unbelievable flesh tones from the permanent collection here in the Pennsylvania Art Museum.  I learned a ton looking at these canvases and helped me to better understand how the old masters used to layer color to achieve the look and feel of their work.  But that’s for another article.   
This is a painting after Rembrandt or attributed to his studio.
This beautiful Carracci really shows the extend of scumbling and glazing.  You can literally see the dozens of layers on the canvas.  This was one of my favorite learning moments in the museum.
Franz Hals
John Singer Sargent
This Henry Mosler is amazing, and to show you how absolutely deceptive photography and art can be, check out these two close ups below.  Yeah, wow, right?

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