Friday, August 19, 2011

Skin Tones and New Colors

Whether showing my work in my studio, in a gallery, at an art festival, or--if I'm really lucky--in a national publication or competition--my portrait and figure work has consistently received more attention than my landscapes or still lives. While I'm really okay with that, it still makes me think about the quality of my work and wonder where I could improve. I'll be the first to tell you that I'm relatively new to landscape painting; the freshness of it and the required quick reaction time when on location are things one can perfect only with hours of practice. Still life, like landscape, is a genre that's been done time and again and there's nothing new under the sun. For both landscape and still life, only the very best will stand out. Portraits and figures, however, are a different kind of challenge. My conclusion as to why viewers, jurors, and collectors alike prefer my portrait work to everything else is this: (1) figurative work is just plain difficult, and (2) they can all tell where an artist's true passion lies. My absolute favorite thing to paint is skin tone. There's nothing more mysterious, luminous, or colorful.

About a year and a half ago, I was challenged by another artist to take a good look at my work and see whether or not I was really getting somewhere with my painting in the area of color. One can't really be a painter, of course, without an obsession with color... however, this person essentially told me that while my local colors seemed spot-on, there was something lacking in the area of chromatic "nuance and vibration". What did he mean by that? Well, I started looking at other artists' work and seeing things I had never noticed before -- beautiful greens, purples, reflected lights, and much more, mingled in hair and skin tones -- all a direct result of careful observation of the quality and temperature of the light. These little gems of color did not detract from the paintings or make them look unrealistic; on the contrary, images with such color nuances seemed more realistic. I'm thinking particularly of modern masters such as Dan Gerhartz and Scott Burdick, but even some of the Academic painters of the 19th century have a bold understanding of color while maintaining a tightly realistic style.

Detail of painting by Daniel Gerhartz
Portrait of Gabrielle Cot, by William Bouguereau.
To see a high-resolution version of this image, visit the Art Renewal Center here.

What is "local color"? According to, local color is "the true color of an object or a surface as seen in typical daylight, rather than its color as seen through atmosphere or interpreted by the taste or imagination of the artist. Thus the characteristic local color of a lemon is yellow." The problem with painting everything according to its local color is that color is completely dependent on light. So the color of a thing will change based on its relationship to everything around it, including the light source, the temperature of the light (warm vs. cool), and the local colors of surrounding objects.

All this to say: I'm on an ongoing mission to explore the nature and nuances of color (as if mastering brushwork, values, and drawing weren't difficult enough!). To give you an example, here is one of my current works in progress, "Taylor's Dance" (60" x 36" - oil on linen):

I am studying the relationship of the red cloth and the model's skin, as well as the nature of the very cool light source. The areas that are in the light should be cool, but the shadow areas are warm. When there is a warm light source, the shadow areas should be cool. Additionally, there are subtleties in the skin tones that emanate blues, greens, purples and pinks depending on the anatomy (veins, arteries, muscles, etc.).

See the greens, blues and purples in the feet? There is so much beautiful color in skin! Now, I have a number of favorite "recipes" for skin tones. My go-to green is Viridian; I've also come to enjoy using Cobalt Violet because it's very subtle. Brilliant Pink is perfect for lips and cheeks, and the delicate warm tones found in fingers and toes. Lately I've also been adding some supplimental colors to my palette, including a spread of "Radiant" hues from Gamblin. I find that they are a wonderful addition for cool skin tones. I'm curious to hear from other artists what you enjoy using for skin tones. Thoughts?

There's always the problem of less-than-exciting skin tones when working from reference photos. Should the artist make up colors that aren't there? Well, no... but having a solid understanding of skin tones under different lighting conditions is key. The more you practice by working from life, the more you'll be able to "fill in the blanks" when working from photos.


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