How to Paint Fleshtones for a Portrait

How to Paint Fleshtones by Artist Tom Root
 (portrait in oils)

I started this painting as a live model demonstration for a Friday night open house at the Root Studio School. The sitter was one of my students. My surface was a medium-weight linen, primed with clear acrylic gesso to show the natural tone of the fabric. (Sometimes I use this as a quick alternative to my preferred toned, single-primed oil ground.)

1. First I mixed with my brush a color approximating the middle tone of the flesh. Because the sitter was lit with a warm incandescent lamp, the fleshtones were rather yellow. Roughly, I scrubbed this light, warm tone onto the canvas in the shape of the lighted skin of the head and neck. 

Without guidelines, I blocked in the main passage of light, keeping the edges loose and undefined, as I looked for placement and the general shape. I used barely a drop of M. Graham walnut alkyd medium—I wanted the paint to remain fairly sticky so I could go back into it without lifting it.

Next I took a brush mixture of light red and Winsor & Newton Prussian green and started lightly drawing into the wet paint the darker accents of the face, starting with the eyes and moving on to the shadow under the nose and the shadows of the lips. I can get quite a bit of subtle drawing and modeling with very simple means by taking advantage of blending wet into wet. I painted the darks a bit lighter than I saw them, knowing they would naturally appear darker when I built up my lights. I took my time doing this, trying to stay relaxed and to put down only what was well-observed and truly felt.

2. I continued with my drawing and massing. For the darks of the hair, I introduced Winsor & Newton Prussian green and Lefranc & Bourgeois strong violet. For cools in the skin, hair and background, I added Gamblin Torrit Grey mixed with white and Naples yellow. (The violet and gray aren’t my usual colors; I was given them and was just using them for the fun of it.)

 Most of my painting and drawing at this stage was done with a Robert Simmons Signet natural bristle filbert No. 6. I’ll use the same brush to scrub in masses, or I’ll turn the brush on its edge for lines and hold it parallel to the canvas to gently stroke into wet paint.

3. Because my sitter was unavailable for another evening in the following days, we had to work in the daytime and try to re-create the conditions by blocking the windows. This was only partially successful. Using the sitter and my previous work as a guide, I mixed with a palette knife the fleshtones for the face, using the same colors as I had for the previous session. I didn’t try to find a single “correct” fleshtone, but rather preferred to make several lines of colors in descending tones. My next step was to develop the form of the head by modeling with light tones. Because of the lamp lighting, I felt that the shadow shapes, particularly on the neck, were too strong as I saw them, so I raised their tone in my painting so they wouldn’t upstage the form.

4. I adjusted the tones of my masses as needed for directing the eye in the painting. I tried to make the darks of the hair seem dark without actually presenting a distracting contrast with the rest of the painting.

 I continued to refine my drawing, redrawing the neck and the hair and headband. I decided that the ear needed to be raised and brought forward just a tad, which meant totally redrawing and repainting. If I’d had more time, I would probably have done some other things: I feel that the modeling in the head could have been simplified—and the hair better designed. But sometimes it’s good not to have more time. I like the restrictions presented by painting from life. It keeps me from fussing and niggling.


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