How to Mix Skin Tones

How to make realistic skin tones is one of the challenges of painting people.   It took me awhile to realize that there is no real formula.  You can mix every tone or color from the primaries red, yellow, and blue in watercolor.  With acrylic paint, a bit of black and white helps.   However, if you’re too realistic, you lose something.  A painting that’s like a photograph, or in my case, more like a doll.  Monotones and no personality.   I’ve learned to  paint using lots of colors and layers and collage.  I’ve learned a lot from Gwenn Seemel on how to look and react to skin color and the dynamism of the human face.  I’m trying to learn how to paint the light that shines forth from every being, and the prism of their personality.


I also like using no color at all, keeping color and race out of the picture:

12 bus stop



St Foster Keeper of Stolen Wisdom

But I like to use a mixture of every color, too.  It’s amazing to me how many tones and shades can be made by mixing and layering color.

IMG_4424 (2)

One of the things I liked about working with fabric sculptures years ago is that I didn’t have to use skin tones at all.  The figures could be any race, any body.

dream guide
Dream Guide

I’ve experimented lately with some fauvism in my journal:


I think the hardest thing to learn is that there is no “right” way to mix skin tones, you have to develop your vision, and the way you interpret life is your own — a blend of your skills, your materials, and your vision.

My mistakes teach me so much, if I look at them as teaching tools, instead of mistakes.

When I work in acrylic, I use a parchment paper palette and I store it on moist paper towels in a sealed plastic box, my own stay wet palette.  I got this system from this video by art teacher Ron Leger:

When the paper and paint start to show signs of age, I use up all the paint by just doing intuitive painting for back grounds and other projects.

I dripped leftover paint on this long canvas, then mixed a purple gray with the rest for another background.  It helps to have a few “beginnings” around the studio.  They speak to me, eventually and a painting gets started.

My last palette had all the colors I’ve used mixing skin tones on it.  As I was thinking about skin tones, I had to think about race and all the tension that continues to plague the world over skin color.

I have enjoyed looking through the Humanae Project by Anjelica Dass who is photographing all the skin tones she can find in a very eye opening project that speaks to our uniqueness and the wide range of colors that can’t be contained by simple reductive terms of race.

Still we fight and we have difficulties understanding the world.  Skin color is an easy way to draw lines between people.  It makes it easy for those who would manipulate us for their own gain to turn us against each other.  Skin color, race, identity are all volatile and vibrant ideas that swirl around our communities and countries.

So I took all these ideas, and all the  colors on my palette and made this piece:

10 skin tones (2)
How do you mix skin tones? by Joy Murray, 8×10″, Acrylic and collage on canvas

10 skin.jpg

What do you think?


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2 thoughts on “How to Mix Skin Tones

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