Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tips for Skin Tones

-By Jesper Ejsing


I am quite sure of the exact moment I understood that I was doing it wrong. My skin tones, in my art specifically, were dull and too dark. I was sensing something was wrong but couldn't wrap my head around what was wrong... until I opened my Brom artbook to see if there was something I could learn from him. That was the moment it dawned on me! Brom did not use black or grey as shadows in skin tones. Especially if you look at some of his artwork that has delicate females. The skin is super light. I also noticed that as long as the light area of a face is really light the shadow doesn't need to be dark at all to read as shadows, as long as they are just a notch down on the value ladder.

When I think back I cannot believe how long it took me to get it right. I mean, there is tons of Old Masters Pieces that does this all the time. It is as if I skipped the week of painting class where they taught shadows... wait, that's it. I did not go to school at all. If only someone had told me. Wait, someone did... Donato told me... 15 years ago. If only I had listened. Now, you listen...

Do not use black or grey for your shadows (or perhaps even dark colours at all).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Think of it this way: Skin is a little moist. It reflects differently than cloth or fabric. Moist surfaces reflect more light and is lighter than the clothes the figure is wearing, since cloth absorbs more light and reflects less ( Well that is all the scientific explanation I can muster ). But it is obvious when you look at people in the street. The faces and hands are light pinkish blobs sticking out from darker colours.

Still, many artist, including myself, tend to paint skin way too dark. I think, for my part, it comes from doing comics and having trained for so many years in doing pencil or black and white illustration. I still see it as drawing process where I establish shadows and cast shadows to describe form. I should be thinking more about surfaces and blocks of elements, when painting.

Here are a bunch of good and bad examples:

Bad skin: Too dark and too much black.

Good skin tones: More color, lighter tones and no leaning against black as a shadow color.


  1. Thanks for this! :) I notice that all your examples are of pale/white skin. Out of interest is there any point on the skin colour spectrum where you think darker or even black-based tones would actually be suitable?

    1. Was just about to ask this myself. Thank you for doing so :)

  2. I'm also curious about the darker skin.

  3. great post, i love that you use your own work as examples, and it sounds weird but ive never thought of making something lighter in order for the shadow side to appear darker, i always thought in terms of " light and dark" not "lighter or darker".

    i really dig the blue mages' face and the female warrior in the bottom right.

    i also wonder about African or dark skin tones? i know there's not a lot in fantasy but ive seen your Drow elf illustration so would be interesting to know how you tackled their race

  4. To be honnest guys I have very little experience in painting Dark skin tones: Drows are my only versions and i never seemed to tackle them right. But I think that the theory about reflecting light is the same. But ofcause you would need dark colors to paint an african guy.

  5. sinix offers a good introduction to africaans skin , from there I would practice from ref (fail about anatomy and go pick up Hampton or Huston again) then deepen my enquiry by asking the right questions. goodluck

  6. A very interesting article.I noticed that Brom uses very pale skin tones a while ago , but I had a good look at some examples after reading this and was amazed how light they were
    Theres almost no areas of shadow.This lack of contrast does tend to render Brom's art a little 2D sometimes though.
    The examples above are impressive , keeping black out of the skins shadowing , has made the images much more realistic.The side lighting really helps with the look as well.

  7. UM. This sort of seems to assume everyone is white...? I mean, when it walk down the street, I see a lot of dark skin tones. Like, really dark. Definitely not pink. Just saying.

  8. My real-life observation of dark skin so far: potentially very high contrast, more noticeable than on light skin; dark sort of violet tones in the shadows, mid-tones any range of warmer brown/reddish/tan shades, highlights generally very light and slightly blue (if outdoors reflecting sky.) At least, those are my observations for sunny outdoor light... I'm still a bit hazy on other lighting conditions.

  9. Anyway you can include some example images of the darker half of the skin tone spectrum? The selection here is a little offensively narrow.

  10. I am sorry guys. I think I should have named the article "tips for Light skin Tones". I did not mean to offend anyone.

  11. Dark skin is a little more complex, but great fun to paint. The same general principals apply, you would simply move everything down a few values, both lights and shadows. So if you were to have a value range of say, 2 for a highlight, and 5 for a shadow... a darker complexion might have 4 and 7 respectively.

    Particularly dark skin reacts differently though. Because black skin is more reflective, you will see a lot of variation in the colors, like a lot more blues in the highlights and such. But that is a complex matter, and is deserving of it's own post.

    Also, keep in mind that this entire post is a stylistic choice. These are not RULES. There are many instances when black shadows are appropriate. Just look at the work of Caravaggio. Lightening the shadows is a technique that helps emphasize the features of the face more than the form. So choosing the right value for your shadows ultimately depends on what your goal is. That decision is relevant to ANY complexion, the important thing is, that your decision be a conscientious one.

  12. Awesome, thanks! It's really great when you can get an art tip encapsulated in a brief sentence, and then see examples - really helps drive the point home and make it actionable.

  13. Dr. Sirisha Singh – Best Dermatologist Cosmetologist Skin Specialist in Delhi provides affordable treatment of all kind of skin problems.

  14. I am very happy to visit this blog. All tips are so helpful for every all. I like your suggest:


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