Midnight Repose, 12 x 16 inches, oil on linen
I often like to paint figures in a lower key. The darker, moodier palette appeals to me somehow. I think it's the sense of mystery that I am drawn to.
This type of tonalist approach to skin tones is fairly straightforward. With a very limited palette of Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Transparent Iron Oxide Red, and Ivory Black, it's easy to keep your color harmony in check. In fact, it's rather difficult to get out of harmony.
If you mix the red (Iron Oxide) and the yellow (ochre), you get orange. Add a little white, and you get your basic starting point for skin tones. Add more white to get lighter, less to get darker. Simple enough, right?
For the shadows, I mix the same colors with just less white to begin with. But this mix is usually warmer than the lights, which is backwards. So I add a tiny bit of blue (Ivory Black) to knock back the warmth.
From here, you can mix variations in values and colors by adding a little bit of red (Iron Oxide), yellow(Ochre), blue(Ivory Black), white, or any combination thereof.
That's basically it.
A couple of things to help you along;
- Warmer areas of the lit side has no blue in it.
- Adding white makes a color cooler, so when you're using it in lights, don't over do it. Be sure to add yellows and reds to warm it up.
- If the shadow side doesn't have blue in it, it'll be too warm, making the light look too cool by comparison.
- If your lights look "chalky", it's because lights are cooler than the shadows. You got it backwards.
- Deeper, darker parts of the shadows where you can't see much of anything, has no white in it. I keep it very transparent.
- Reflected lights has some white in it, so it appears more opaque.
- The lightest shadow (reflected lights, usually) are still going to be darker than the darkest light (halftones)
- Halftone areas tend to be warmer than highlights, especially if a figure is harshly lit. This is because there's lots of white in the lightest areas, and white is very cool. But as long as it's surrounded by warmer lights before transitioning to cooler shadows, it'll read.
- Unlike high-key, impressionist color systems, a lower key tonalist painting typically has big value jumps between light and shadow, but small, if any, hue jumps between light and shadow. A high-key impressionist approach would have a big hue jump and a small value jump. You can have a big value jump or a big color jump, but not both.
- In a tonalist painting like this, light side and the shadow side of the skin (or whatever you're painting) stay pretty much in the same hue family. (in this case, orange) In an impressionist approach, there may be such big temperature shifts between light and shadow because you are emphasizing the color of the light sources, that you actually see a clear hue change.
- Opaque or transparent. My rule of thumb is, if it's lit, it's opaque. This includes reflected and ambient lights. Opacity and transparency are independent of value, so yes, technically you can paint it however you want. But if you juxtapose opaque and transparent colors, opaque side tends to come forward and transparent side recedes. It makes sense to take advantage of these tendencies.
- You can get back a sense transparency in an area where you have already painted opaquely by letting it dry and glazing it with transparent colors. In which case, the opaque colors need to be lighter than you want to end up with, because transparent glazes will darken the value.
Tonalist paintings can be monochromatic, but they don't have to be. Even with this very limited palette, you can get richness of color by juxtaposing subtle variations, as long as you don't mush up the stroke edges. Subtle color notes don't work too well if you blend them - they just become one color.
So if you're struggling with skin tones going all out of whack, limit your palette! Simplify your approach and gradually get back to complexity.