Iíve been asked how I get my flesh tones Ė more specifically, Northern European flesh tone. It is mostly a factor of getting some early vital training, working for decades in natural light and from life, and of course endless practice. However, over the past month Iíve been amusing myself by trying to work out a simple basic formula that might help some of you. Today I did a little experimental oil painting and took photos.
My demonstration panel is a piece of 6x8 inch ABS plastic material. I carefully sanded the shiny surface off, then toned it with a little Mars Black thinned with odorless mineral spirit and alkyd resin. I let these panels dry as long as possible.
ABS is far superior to hardboard with acrylic gesso, and if the painting doesnít work out, I can simply sand it off and paint a new one.
For practice work, I recommend ABS (I get it at a plastic wholesaler), or frosted Mylar, or high quality tracing paper. I did most of my early practice work on tracing paper. It doesnít need to be prepared and the paint doesnít soak through.
I added a little linseed oil to some of the stiffer colors. If I do my preparations right, I wonít need to add any additional oil or medium as I paint. My colors are the best I can buy, but I wouldnít worry too much about paint brands and until youíve mastered your craft, in fact, I wouldnít use the most expensive ones.
I mixed the oil into the colors using my painting knife, and then transfered the result to my palette.
The colors are: Titanium White, Ivory Black, Transparent Earth Red (sometimes called Transparent Red Oxide) Raw Umber.
The grey is my special flesh tone I invented to save time. I call it Mary Sauer Flesh Color, after one of my students whose delicate pale flesh inspired it. It consists of Titanium white darkened with Raw Umber, to which Iíve added Terre Verte.
Next is Yellow Ochre, and then a darker flesh color made of Gamblinís Caucasian Flesh Tone to which I added more Yellow Ochre and a little more Cadmium Red Light. Then follows Gamblinís Caucasian Flesh Tone. For those of you who cannot get Gamblin Oils, the color is merely Titanium White to which Yellow Ochre has been added until you get a light yellow. Then add tiny bits of Cadmium Red Light and be careful. The red has a lot of tinting power and itís easy to add too much and make this color too pink.
Next is Cadmium Red Light. Iíve learned to squeeze out very little color when I know I wonít need much of it. Then Permanent Alizarin Crimson, then a little Permanent Sap Green, and finally a little Ultramarine Blue. I donít think Iíll be using the blue in this demo, so this is just an in case color.
Rather than use my own reference material for this demo, I took advantage of the Internet and cropped and converted a shot to black and white from the mjranum stock photo site on Deviant Art here. http://mjranum-stock.deviantart.com/gallery/
The figure shots are excellent and large for download and printing. I got it in the Classical Nudes section, and itís labeled dancers 1. Usually I do head demos, but I thought a torso might be more useful. I donít need the color, so I made a black and white print. I think there is a whole section on Concept Art featuring useful figure reference sites.
I always try and use the biggest brush I can. I employ a Trekell long filbert #6 here. I think of my drawing as an armature. I try and get the big angles and shapes first. The oiled surface of the panel helps the brush glide. This is easier than drawing with a pencil! I like to work with a very light touch.
About 45 minutes later, I had the drawing down well enough. My paint consisted of Raw Umber and Transparent Earth Red. Raw Umber is a fast drier and I add it to as many paint mixtures as possible to speed drying.
I mixed Titanium White with a tiny bit of Yellow Ochre for my lightest highlights and put them on. Then I mixed a little of my darker flesh tone into my Mary Sauer Flesh tone and did some quick modeling with it. Then I mixed a background color of white, Raw Umber and Sap Green to give me a nice cool neutral around the figures.
Then I mixed a lighter flesh made of Mary Sauer and Caucasian Flesh Tone. I laid it on and made a few variations by changing the proportions of those two colors. I also mixed a ruddier color from Caucasian Flesh plus a tiny bit of Cadmium Red Light.
I think this is enough to show you where itís going. Oil paint is much less messy than acrylics and almost as tidy as watercolors. I only rarely clean my brush out in my mineral spirits pot. Usually I just wipe my brush mostly clean with the paint rag I drape over my right thigh as I sit at the easel.
I might take this up in a few days and add a bit more too it. I like translucent/transparent colors and I like brushwork. Itís better if I stop before I think I should so as not to wreck the good parts. If I were to do one more thing to this demo, it would be to lighten most of the darker values a little.
For this demo Iíve wanted to keep my materials simple and easily obtainable, especially for those of you living outside the USA. However, I couldnít remain entire pure, because I enjoy working with a little Oleogel from www.naturalpigments.com. This is merely a gel medium made of linseed oil with silicate added. The silicate thickens it and a jelly medium will stay in place easier than pure linseed oil alone. The tendency for linseed oil to slide down a vertical painting surface has traditionally been checked by adding a resin to the oil. I donít particularly like resins, so Iím a fan of Oleogel.
I usually turn Oleogel into an even softer jelly by at least doubling the volume with more linseed oil. I keep my soft mix in a black film can.
Yesterday I decided to work more on the torsos and take a few more snaps.
My palette is the same as I gave at the beginning of this post except for a few more colors of convenience. Just up from the grey at the lower left, is Gamblinís Asphaltum. It is simply Blackplus Transparent Red Oxide. The mysterious dark color just below my Mary Sauer Flesh grey is a mix of Raw Umber (1 part) and Terre Verte (2 parts). Just below it is Raw Umber. Both are very useful. Above the Mary Sauer is my dark Flesh mix. This shot makes it look much lighter than it really is. Next is Gamblin Caucasian Flesh, (also appearing to be much lighter than actual fact) then Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Light and then a very useful mix of Terre Verte and White. The rest of the colors are not really important here.
When I prepare my palette, I often add a little more linseed oil to each paint pile, mixing it up on a glass palette with my knife. If Iíve done it right, I donít need to add any additional oil as I paint Ė or only just a little for the thinnest applications. I almost never thin my paints with solvent.
Then I rub on a very fine layer of Oleogel (or simply linseed oil). I often wipe it down with a paper towel too. The oil on the surface is negligible. I do this to bring out colors that have sunken in and to help my brush glide a little better.
Then I made a glaze from my Raw Umber-Terre Verte mix, and a little Transparent Earth Red. I added enough oil to make the paint transparent, and brushed it on the shadow areas. I was pretty sloppy about this. It took about two minutes.
The brush I used: Trekell #4 Long Filbert. I rested it across the top for Show-and-Tell.
I keep a very soft white cotton paint rag on my right thigh as I sit at my easel. I wiped my brush off on the rag and then began to pounce, tap and feather the glaze. This took another five-ten minutes.
After years of playing with colors, I have evolved a good paint mixing system. I mix up what I think I want on my wood palette, dab a very tiny bit on the painting, study it, and either darken or lighten it or modify the color until I can dab something on that works where I want it. After that, I often use that base color for other colors and keep dabbing them on with a very soft touch until I feel good. As long as a color or value stays within a related range, I don't dip my brush in my cleaning pot, just rub it out on my rag. Of course if I'm working with a black and then decide to go to a white, I rinse my brush out. Usually though, painting in oils is much tidier than most people think.
I started with a mix of Mary Sauer and my Dark Flesh, laid some on, then made a lighter flesh with Gamblin Caucasian and my Terre Verte/White mix. I eventually put in my lightest lights with a mix of mostly white with a tiny bit of yellow ochre and/or Caucasian Flesh. Other dabs lean toward pink and grey-green (Mary Sauer plus Terre Verte/White.) Finally, I mixed a grey of simply black and white and laid it on the background in a very broken way. My #4 brush with the grey in it is shown across the top of the painting.
Now remember kiddies, Mr. Squint and Mr. Bad Eyesight are our friends! I took off my close-up glasses and picked up a ratty old sable as a blender and began to blend here and there, lightly working the most obviously awkward transitions I could barely see. Itís a good idea not to go too far!
I now felt I had to do some serious bread-winning painting, so I stopped playing around with this demo and set it aside to dry. I will probably work on it again in a few days just for fun and for this posting. Work from broad to fine. Always stay as loose as possible, even if your work ends up super-tight. The human eye delights in connecting the dots. True!
An oil technique like this and working in Photoshop are very similar. If I were starting my career today, Iíd recommend Photoshop for Illustration and oil painting for wall art. Mostly though, Iíd recommend doing what brings you the most joy. Therein lies your art.