The Colour of Skin

From Titian to Freud, skin has been a subjection of fascination for many painters throughout history. The first thing to bear in mind when embarking on this topic is that there is no such singular thing as ‘skin colour.’ Skin is an organic surface and, as such, it varies in local colour throughout. In the diagram next to the delightful painting by Rubens above we see the shifting colour temperatures Rubens employs as we move through the classical order of light. Note that the real warmth in the skin occurs in the light halftone and that the skin cools significantly in the dark halftone, before entering into the warmth of the shadows. A similar progression of colour temperatures is seen in many classical paintings as they were often painted in the cool North light typical of Western artist studios. Please note this diagram is not meant as a formula but rather as a way of opening the student’s eyes to just how varied temperatures in the skin can be in nature.

One of the most difficult challenges when painting skin is to maintain colour harmony within your work. Colour harmony, in this context, just means that the colours are sufficiently close to each other on the colour wheel. A common beginner’s mistake is to overstate changes in hue and saturation, often making the warm colours too chromatic or stating the cool halftones as literal purples or greens. Using this gorgeous master painting by Nicholai Fechin to help us understand better, we can see where this mistake stems from. In places the warm tones appear positively orange. However, when we take a little of this colour and isolate it within a patch of full chroma orange, we find that is in fact a far duller colour than it seems within the painting.

Similarly, within the huge variety of temperatures found in the work, some of the cool halftones certainly appear as purples and greens, but, again, when we take a little of these colours and isolate them within patches of true purples and true greens we find that they are in fact only low chroma colours in the red/orange family. The variety of colour temperatures Fechin finds in the figure so successfully expressive skin precisely because he maintains this colour harmony.

The best way to practise achieving colour harmony is by using a limited palette. At LARA we take the students through several limited palettes. The most famous is called the Zorn palette, which consists of white, yellow ochre, cadmium red and black. Because there is no true blue in this palette, students are limited to hues, of varying saturation, in the red/orange family. ‘The Chamber Door’ by Anders Zorn, the namesake of this limited palette, demonstrates a beautifully harmonious sensation of skin.

by Charlie Pickard

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