I’ve had quite a few people ask about my flesh tones palette. There are probably nearly as many ways to mix flesh tones as there are artists to mix them, and none is necessarily better or worse, other than how well it works for that artist.
My current palette is a slight variation on a system of color strings I learned from Douglas Flynt during the course of a figure painting workshop in 2008. I really like it in particular, because it is flexible, easy to recreate, and allows for “matching up” to a previous days work quite reliably.
The basic setup is a series of four color strings: one of neutral grays in nine values from black to white, one yellow string, one orange string, and one red string. I also keep some very high chroma (a measure of color intensity) reds and oranges on hand to punch up the chroma in areas like fingertips, lips, back-lit ears, etc., and for mixing certain dark tones as I’ll explain later. I’ll give a brief explanation of how I mix the strings, and then an overview of how I use them.
A quick note on pigments: I am currently using almost exclusively Windsor Newton professional oil colors, in part because they are readily available, but mostly because I am very familiar with them. There are certainly other very high-quality brands out there. I only mention this because there can be differences in pigment use between brands that use the same color names, and this can be confusing. For example, Windsor Newton’s Burnt Sienna contains the pigment PR101, and is definitely on the orange side. Old Holland, another quality brand, also makes a Burnt Sienna, but theirs contains the pigment PBR7 which is much redder. So my dear Artist, if you haven’t yet bought the paint, be aware that the actual color varies between brands.
To mix the neutral string, I begin by mixing a neutral black from roughly three parts Ivory Black and one part Burnt Sienna. Ivory Black on its own has a decidedly cool, bluish tint which the Burnt Sienna neutralizes pretty well. I put a pool of this black mixture on the top left-hand side of my palette (value 1), and a pool of Titanium White on the upper right-hand side (value 9). Next, I mix a gray halfway between the two (value 5) and place it in the top middle position. Then I mix a value 3 halfway between the black and the value 5 gray and a value 7 halfway between the white and the value 5 gray. Finally, I mix values 2, 4, 6, and 8. IF I do a good job of it, I have nine neural gray values evenly space from black to white across the top of my palette.
The yellow string is next. I mix it from Raw Umber which I place below the value 2 gray, Yellow Ochre which I place below the value 5 gray, and Titanium White (still value 9). I mix values 3 and 4 from Yellow Ochre and Raw Umber, trying to match the values of the corresponding grays. I mix values 6-8 from Yellow Ochre and Titanium White.
For the orange string, I place a pool of Burnt Umber in the value 2 position (in practice I often skip the Burnt Umber entirely and mix a value 2 orange from the neutral gray and Cadmium Orange if I need it). Then I place a pool of Burnt Sienna in value position 3. Values 4-8 I mix from Burnt Sienna and Titanium White. Note: Burnt Sienna is an extremely weak pigment compared to Titanium White, and it will not take much white to lighten it up dramatically.
The red string starts with Venetian Red in value position 4, and values 5-8 are mixed from Venetian Red and Titanium White. If I need a value 2 or 3 red, I mix it from a neutral gray and either Scarlet Lake (warmer) or Cadmium Red Deep (cooler). Note: as opposed to Burnt Sienna, Venetian Red is a crazy-powerful pigment compared to Titanium White, and it will take a lot of white to lighten it.
In addition to those four strings, I keep a pool of Scarlet Lake, a relatively weak but brilliant, warm red, a pool of Cadmium Red Deep, a very powerful, rich red that tends toward the cool side, a pool of Cadmium Orange, a powerful brilliant orange, and a mixture of Cadmium Red Deep and Cadmium Orange off to the side for kicking up the chroma of a color if needed and for mixing the odd darker value orange or red.
To make use of this palette, I identify a color I want to place on the canvas. First I try to place it on the value scale from 1 to 9. I’ll mix it from colors in that value row. Next, I try to place it in hue from yellow to red. Finally, I try to place it in chroma from the strongest chroma I have on the palette and a neutral gray of the same value. So I can mix a reddish-orange of value 4.5 by mixing red value 4, red value 5, orange value 4, orange value 5 and then knock its chroma back as far as I want with the addition of neutral gray values 4 and 5. It sounds complicated, but in practice it is pretty straightforward, and a very powerful way to think about color.
I hope that proves useful! Please feel free to comment if you have any questions. Happy Painting!!