Chapter 3
So-Called Skin Tones

Since the focus of these pages is on pastels, then save yourself some aggravation by obtaining a simple palette, or set of colors. Pastels are different from oils and watercolors in that, for the most part, color mixing is done on the pastel painting itself. Also, you can only mix about three colors on an area of the painting before it gets extremely difficult to almost impossible to mix any more. It is for this reason that some pastel stick manufacturers offer many, many exact colors in their paint sets. Some offer color sets numbering in the hundreds of colors. Rich purists, who can afford these expensive sets, love it.

Not me (even if money was no object), for when executing a painting, gathering and remembering tons of color sticks can quickly become a problem. And, I see I am not the only one who feels that way as you can observe for yourself when you go pastel stick shopping. Your favorite art store showcases pre-selected pastel sets for landscapes, florals, and portraits. And, within the portrait category, you can even find flesh color sets. Of course, artists, who may or may not paint using the same colors you would use, selected these colors. So, there is a slight dilemma for you. As a result, I suggest you make it easy on yourself and use only a handful of colors as a reference in the beginning, then, after awhile, you can select your own chosen flesh colors.

Handful of Colors

However, you may discover that you can no longer obtain your chosen flesh colors anywhere, for the manufacturer stopped making them. That happens. So, to avoid that, you can just make your own, and as a bonus, you will get a better quality of pastel stick as a side benefit. I may show you how to do that, too, if I feel like it.

Now, exactly what colors do you use to begin your reference set? Take a tip from what history has determined to be the medium of choice, oils, and see what colors those artists use. The oil color sets vary, but you see pretty much the same dozen colors at art stores. Since we are dealing with pastels, I will list (as much as I can assess to be) the pastel color counterparts. Bear in mind that even different pastel manufacturers use different names for the exact same color. For example, in oil colors, a basic color is "cadmium red." One pastel manufacturer calls it "carmine, " another calls it "poppy red," another calls it "crimson lake," another…

Well, you get the picture. Whatever the name, I don't worry about it, for when I am painting, I just look at all the colors I have before me and select what I have that looks like a "lipstick color."

The Basic Dozen (arranged in color wheel order)

My soft pastel brand of choice is Rembrandt, which manufactures Rembrandt Soft Pastels, and I will give you the specific colors for your consideration. They are:

Light Yellow 201.5
Yellow Ochre 227 (some lighter tints)
Orange 235.5
Burnt Sienna 411 (most shades & tints)
Carmine 318 (some medium and lighter shades & tints)
Madder Lake Deep 331.5
Red Violet Light 546.5
Phthalo Blue 570.3
Ultramarine Deep 506.3
Chrome Green Deep 609.3
Olive Green 620.3
Burnt Umber 409 (most shades & tints)

Notice two things - first, notice that there are two versions of the primary colors (yellow, red, & blue) and two versions of all but one of the secondary colors (orange, purple, & green). Purple is the secondary color of which there is only one version. Second, notice that for the most part, one version is the actual pure bright color, or hue, itself, and the other version is an impure mixed dull version of it. For example, Light Yellow is basically a pure and bright yellow and Yellow Orche is an impure and mixed dull yellow. And if you are wondering where the purple is and whether burnt umber is a primary or secondary color, wonder no more. For there is not an exact pure purple, here, rather a warm purple (a red-purple), called red violet light, is indicated. By the way, whereas red violet light is a warm purple, there exists a cool purple, called violet (not given on this list), which is a blue-purple. And if you mix the primary colors of yellow, red, and blue together you will get a blah non-distinct no color known as "artist's gray," as I stated elsewhere in this eBook. And the closest color to that is burnt umber, which is really a very dull red-orange, duller than burnt sienna, which I also stated elsewhere. Other things to note - as you can now see, of the two oranges, burnt sienna is not really an orange but a red-orange. Both carmine and madder lake deep are both reds, and ultramarine deep is a blue color. You must be aware of these distinctions, despite the fact that neither the words "orange," "red" or "blue" appear in any of their respective names. Hopefully, this explanation of the basic dozen colors makes sense to you.

And, also include:

Black 700.5
White 100.5
Grey 704 (at least 6 tints & shades)

And I am throwing in Mars Violet 538 (most shades & tints) because the dark shade can be substituted for the dark shade of Phthalo Blue even though they do not look that much alike.

That being said, actually, you would benefit by having a large variety of colors, as can be seen with other formulas I will show you shortly in this chapter and the next. This is because that even though you can mix the suggested basic dozen colors to achieve your desired color, it would be much easier and to your benefit to go to the exact color you need. For example, if you mixed Light Yellow and Carmine to get a flesh color, and you really needed a slightly darker flesh color, you could switch from Light Yellow to Raw Sienna, which is not on this list, because Raw Sienna is a dull version of Light Yellow. Or if you wanted to paint your model outside in the sun, then use Gold Ochre, also not on this list, instead of Light Yellow. So, if you are able to get a supply of extra colors, here are described some more flesh tone formulas for you to play with:


Dark Skin: These three have similar results

1.) Ultramarine Deep covered with Burnt Sienna
2.) Black covered with Orange
3.) Black covered with Burnt Sienna

Black covered with (1) or Black covered with Permanent Deep Red covered with Permanent Green Deep

Blue-violet covered with light tint of Orange or Burnt Sienna covered with light tint of Phthalo Blue


Medium Dark Brown Skin: These three have similar results

1.) Burnt Sienna covered with Yellow Ochre
2.) Burnt Sienna covered with Orange
3.) Burnt Sienna covered with Gray

Cobalt Blue covered with Burnt Sienna or Ultramarine Deep covered with Orange

Yellow Ochre covered with a light tint of Phthalo Blue or Carmine covered with light tint of Phthalo Blue


Medium Light Brown Skin: These three have similar results

1.) Burnt Sienna covered with Light Yellow covered with Gray
2.) Blue-violet covered with a light tint of Orange
3.) Phthalo Blue covered with a light tint of Orange

Yellow Ochre covered with Permanent Deep Red covered with Cobalt Blue or Blue-violet covered with Orange

A light tint of Yellow Ochre or Phthalo Blue covered with light tint of Yellow Ochre


Light Skin: These three have similar results

1.) A light tint of Yellow Ochre
2.) Light Yellow or Yellow Ochre covered with a tiny amount of a light tint of Carmine
3.) Phthalo Blue covered with a light tint of Orange

Phthalo Blue or Blue-violet covered with a light tint of Carmine, or Blue-violet covered with a light tint of either Yellow Ochre or Light Yellow

A light tint of Phthalo Blue or a light tint of Light Yellow


Rembrandt Soft Pastels classify their pure colors as “.5,” their dark colors (shades) as “.3” and their lighter colors (tints) as anything over “.5.” For example, if you are looking at the selection for Burnt Sienna, you would see:

Burnt Sienna 411.3 (the dark shade)
Burnt Sienna 411.5 (the pure color)
Burnt Sienna 411.12 (a light tint)

Your math teachers probably told you that “.12” is smaller than both “.3” and ".5" and they are right, but, here, it is the opposite. This is art, not science, boys and girls.

All of the above listed soft pastels can be seen on our Art Store page.

Skin tones are mixed using just a few of these, and the other colors are used for coloring whatever else is to be included in your paintings, such as clothing, setting and background depictions. Other colors are added to these basic dozen when you discover that an exact match for what you are seeking does indeed already exist.

Pink and Orange

Earlier, I said that white people are either pink or orange. I also said that the simplified flesh color formula is:

Flesh Colors = two warms + a cool

I gave a few examples two warm color mixing, but I said nothing about what happens when cool colors are added. The masters generally painted only white people, and the cool color of choice for them was green. Their paintings look splendid, so, let's go with what they used. My guess is that they used green because of its all-purpose manner of graying down intense colors used for skin tones. I guessed that because, logically, since people are not really bright colored, but are really rather dull, then adding a cool color to the mix is a good way to tone the intensity down.

Hopefully, that sounds convincing enough for you. However, something else may be really happening. So, forget that supposed “graying down” concept for the time being and let's think of some possible alternate explanation. With intense observation you will see green around the features, especially deep in the eye sockets, in the smile lines, around the nose and around the mouth area. Besides these, you may also see green along the hairline; but to me it is strongest radiating up from the jawline. What I am describing can be easily seen in selected random photo clippings from magazines, but is most definitive to me when I am watching reporters on TV and in videos, specifically on local newscasts and on national news magazines.

Maybe green is an optical illusion or mere imagined fantasy, but I do not think so for people are in the orange family, and orange is yellow and red, together. That being the case, I continue analyzing ...

The yellow portions of the flesh which happen to be juxtaposed to the dark shadow areas, cause our eyes to blend these yellow and dark (yellow + black = green) sections at the edges of the shadows, thereby forcing us to think we are seeing green. Then again, maybe it is not an optical illusion but merely a case of yellow + purple = brown, that is, yellow flesh in the face next to the purple in the shadows causes an “almost brown” to emerge at the edges, where the edges can be seen either as red or as green, depending on the complexion of the model. And, with that realization, sure enough, in photos where I cannot see green at all, I wind up seeing the beginnings of red materializing.

That takes care of orange, along with the green factor, now, how about pink? Pink is red plus any light color including white. Since red is a warm color, then another warm color is needed, in this case, a light one. The only light warm color I can think of is yellow. But, what yellow to use? Actually, any yellow works just fine. So...

Pink = carmine + light yellow
Pink = carmine + yellow ochre
Pink = carmine + raw sienna
Pink = carmine + gold ochre

and, on and on.

To save you some trouble of adding to the basic dozen, I have already discovered that this pastel pink is already being manufactured under the name of "Light Oxide Red 339."

Suggestion: For the most part, you will only be using two shades of pink, Light Oxide Red 339.5 and Light Oxide Red 339.9, mostly the latter. So, definitely buy the second one, and get them both if you can.

Remember, that we are limiting ourselves to only three colors when mixing on an area of the painting, so whenever possible, find the exact color, especially if you are going to be using it over and over again. In painting portraits, you will indeed be using pink (or whatever looks almost pink) a great deal. And, what else looks like pink? When I run out of pink, I look down to see what I have that is very close to it, and that turns out to be the lightest shades of burnt sienna on my palette, and I call those pink for the time being. And, even though purists may rebel, the results look pretty much the same, so who cares? I hope I don't come across as arrogant with that statement, however, I repeat what I wrote earlier, art is just that --- "art," and not an exact science. Some purists say, “don’t use burnt sienna,” “don’t use brown,” “don’t use black,” “don’t, don’t, don’t.” Now, what is it that defiant children playfully say in a singsong fashion? Oh yes, they sing --- “I don’t care what mama don’t allow, I’m gonna to do it, anyhow.”

In this eBook, we are successfully breaking all of the “don’t” rules just listed. Look out for more non-conformity in the ...

continuation chapter: Cool Colors & More

Share this page:
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.