The Holy Grail for Painting Flesh Tones

Such a pronouncement isn’t just cause for a zealous quest, but is reason enough to headily believe that such a thing even exists.  Whispers and murmurs of secret ingredients will ever keep the romantic side of me optimistic, but steady and earnest experiments in the studio have begun to suggest that perhaps there is no such thing.


Well, for starters, there are many different kinds of flesh, both in color and technique (just open up your books and compare Caravaggio to Velazquez or Titian to da Vinci).  So why should I be silly enough to think there is one magic color or color combination that connects them all?  I guess sometimes desire can be enough to make you believe what you want to be real.

And yet, my recent investigation may not have been futile; what I thought to be one color might be many: that is, the colors that compliment what we identify as the “local color” of the flesh.  In other words, maybe it is the colors of the highlights, half-tones and shadows—everything but the flesh color—that play the magic role and ultimately make the flesh color flesh.

Try this: look at a face or figure and identify the “flesh points”—those shapes that you would name as the actual color of the flesh—then start to consider the various colors of the shapes that surround them.  I think you’ll find that the actual flesh points are less than you might have imagined.  Further, push yourself to see the significance of the color change from from light to half-tones to shadows rather than the subtlety.  Then work to soften and unify.  Ultimately, many shifts in flesh are subtle and below the surface.

This idea worked very well on my painting of Leda yesterday.  In particular, it helped me avoid something that can easily happen when pushing my lights to near-white: a mask effect that appears to cover the face, rather than the light being a part of the face itself.  (Sometimes even the Old Masters slipped up on this when they too were learning; have a look at the old woman’s face on the far left side of the composition in Velazquez’ Christ in the House of Mary and Martha… though there the mask effect may have more to do with edge than color.)

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