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My Current Flesh Tones Palette

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!!




By |2018-09-06T22:19:58+00:00May 18th, 2018|Art Theory, Artwork, Conservation & Best Practices|10 Comments


  1. Barry Long (Barrylongfineart on IG and FB) May 20, 2018 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Wow! This sounds pretty complicated at first glance. I have considered taking a color theory class to help me better understand the nuances of color. I really appreciate you taking the time to share this info! Your work is incredible! Do you ever hold workshops?

    • Bryan May 25, 2018 at 10:25 pm - Reply

      It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but it makes a lot more sense if you can see it used. I’ve never held an official workshop, but I have a few ideas in the works. In the meantime, if you want a really incredible workshop on color, I believe Douglas Flynt (the incredible instructor I learned this palette from) does teach the occasional workshop, and also does some online instruction. You can find more info on his website: http://douglasflynt.com/

  2. Dawn Frost May 27, 2018 at 5:51 am - Reply

    I agree, thank you very much for explaining your process – it’s great to see it all laid out. I want to approach figure painting but the color blending process for it is a bit daunting to figure out on my own (and seems pretty different than what I’ve done for landscape painting). I used to live near a teacher and would have taken a workshop with her, but alas I’ve moved before I could. The one thing that I haven’t really been exposed to so far are the concepts around chroma. I’ll go look online, but if you have any recommended videos or reading, I would appreciate your input. Thank you – Dawn

    • Bryan May 28, 2018 at 7:44 pm - Reply

      Figuring out how to paint flesh tones on your own is seriously tricky business. I personally beat my head against it for more than a decade before I decided to seek out some real instruction. Workshops are a great way to get that instruction. I cannot over-state how incredibly valuable the two weeks I spent in Douglas Flynt’s figure painting workshop were for me.

  3. Dawn Frost May 27, 2018 at 5:55 am - Reply

    And of course, as soon as I Google…I find a page immediately that helps me understand chroma! Ah, disregard my request…no need for you to do any work. Again, thank you for sharing!

  4. Dale Andrus June 12, 2018 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing Bryan! I really struggle with skin tones but this should really help give me some direction. I would love to attend a workshop if you get something put together let me know. Time to go buy more art supplies!

    • Bryan June 26, 2018 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      I hope it is helpful, Dale! I’ll certainly keep you posted about possible workshops, etc. In the mean time, feel free to write in with any questions. Happy painting!

  5. Hilary July 19, 2018 at 2:55 am - Reply

    I’m happy to see this. I have been painting with a similar palette for flesh since art school. I have seen other palettes with many other colors I would not know how to use with flesh. For a long time I thought maybe there was something I couldn’t understand or was not perceiving. Your post has reaffirmed my belief in my pallette. I was searching for a missing link that wasn’t there.

    • Bryan August 23, 2018 at 3:28 pm - Reply

      It’s such a powerful and versatile palette! More importantly, if it’s working for you and you’re getting the results you want, then go with it.
      Happy painting!

  6. […] as a guide for color decisions,  and using my color string flesh-tone palette mixed as described here, I begin a single color pass over my […]

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