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Tutorial: How to paint skin

Tutorial: How to paint skin main article image
Posted on March 19, 2021 by Giada Buccarella
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Today we’ll dive in some basic notion of painting human features, in particular we will see how to paint human skin.

What we will going to see today is a first basic and easy approach to understand basics notions that may be helpful for some of you interested in painting. 

You can try this technique with anything you like : PC, iPad, procreate, it doesn’t matter. The following tutorial has been made using procreate with an iPad Pro, but it would be the same on any kind of device. 

We will see all the steps from sketch to painting. Let’s start!

Step 1 – Prepare your sketch

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As you can see from the image here, a clean sketch may be very helpful. It is not mandatory, but it’s very helpful. Now if you want, you can find some reference pictures of human faces online from different websites such as Pinterest, or Pexels, just be sure the reference image you are using is a clear image, try to avoid extreme close-ups of the face, instead, choose for a picture that is as clear as possible, so that you can exercise easier. In this case, I used a picture from Pinterest as a reference image. 

Step 2 – Choosing your base color

As your sketch is done, it’s time to choose a flat color, which will work as a base for the following steps. Now keep in mind that it could be really any color, but in this case I recreate a Caucasian flesh complexion so I am choosing accordingly. Later I will explain how to change from one skin tone to another.2

Step 3 – First dark areas

As soon as I have my sketch and flat base, what I usually like to do is draw a few rough darker areas, as you can see here below. This helps me as I like to work with more layers of colors, from the darkest ones to the lighter ones. Now when you are about to pick a new color to start painting shadows or mid-tones what you need to know is you want to be sure to pick a color that is equally saturated, and I am explaining better this concept in the following picture: 

As you can see, when choosing a darker color to go with your base, you should pick within a range of a “C” curve, not picking down to the darker and desaturated ones. This because you what a darker tone that still has saturation and avoid a “mud” effect when painting, and this is true also for the light areas, but we will see this later. 

Now here we have some dark areas of color. You can see how the shadows have been applied, accordingly to the face anatomy: on the eyelids, under the nose to create a drop shadow between the tip of the nose and the mouth, a little bit under the lower lip, and inside the inner area of the eye. In this instance, we are not focusing on other facial features, or the neck, but we are only working on the face.

Step 4 – Setting Lights 

The next step I usually do is setting up some lights, so I know where are the areas that I want the skin to be lighter; this is as a preparation that will bring me to the final result. 

Here you can see I have placed some lighter areas. My method is the same you could see when contouring your face with makeup. In this case it’s important to note that I did not use white create light areas, but I use a very faint yellow in ADD mode on procreate. Alternatively, there are always at least 3 shades I use when I want to create light, and you can see what these are here below.

These are the 3 colors I use when I want to add lights on human skin, always in add mode. The reason why I don’t use white is that in nature, the skin is naturally translucent and it absorbs the light, and then reflects the light back, but it’s never 100% white.

When lights hit the skin, the skin absorbs the light which enters into it, then the skin reflect and emits the lights back. But when the lights are remitted on the outside of the skin they are never white, they in fact, tend to be affected from what we have inside our skin which is made by multiple layers, but in general we can say we have blood vessels basically everywhere so this is why sometimes we have also an effect of “glowing” luminosity, as you can see in the picture below , depicting a trim light. 

Those reds areas are created  by an imaginary ray of light that hits the face and the skin, getting inside the skin, reflecting and re-emerging back. 

Additional Details

I like to add additional details to enhance the skin and make it look “glossy” and vivid. Sometimes if my blending has been a bit too much, I go back and reapply some details. I also like to increase the saturation a bit more, so I can have a more vibrant complexion.

You can see here, a lot more details have been added: shadows between the hair and the forehead, more shadows on the eyelids, more under the nose. At this point of the work, I like to add some red to specific areas, such as the nose and the cheekbones.

At this point, I only add some very tiny highlights to help me achieve a more glossy effect:

The skin is well-made if can be modified into different colors without losing consistency; in other words, if the colors are correct, your skin will work also in other skin tones, as you can see here below. 

You know the skin is coherent in terms of color values because it can be changed into different tones and still create a good result.  

This is true also for black and white: if you turn all of these 3 faces in black and white you can see the color values are working fine for all of them : 

You can again turn this into one color and still be able to have a good images because the tones and the values (aka shadows and mid-tones and lights) are consistent: 

We hope this tutorial was helpfully and we cannot sit to read your comments, tips, and opinions about this technique!


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