Friday, September 1, 2017

Skin Color Experiments with the Pablo 18 Colored Pencil Set

Various skin tones achieved without portrait-specific, skin tone, or other specialized pencils.

I've been enjoying much experimentation and playing around with colored pencils, layering, and blending. I use the 18-color Pablo set here, which is artist grade and layers extremely well—plus all colors are transparent, which means any layer affects the layers above it and below it.

As a result, sub-surface scattering is something that can be rendered well in colored pencil.

For these skin tones, I blended with both with a tortillion—though in my case it was paper towel bits wrapped around the end of a wooden knitting needle and taped—and followed with burnishing with a colorless blender (the Caran d'Ache full bright blender). I use a putty eraser to lift the highlight.

For the lightest skin tones, I used liberal amounts of white pencil (the Luminance white pencil comes in handy, but the Pablo white is no slouch) and even burnish with white for very pale skin.

I'll note also that there's not really a way to create a skin tone recipe that works for all skin tones in specific ranges—people are really different, and the best way to create a skin tone is to look at color photographs of different folks and experiment.

Another note: skin will differ drasticly based on lighting as well. Remember your color wheel relationships, in particular complementary colors.

I also found How to Mix Skin Tones at the Virtual Instructor very helpful. You can mix skin tones with straight red, yellow, brown, white, and ultramarine pencils, or remember color theory to figure out how much of these basic colors are "in" any single pencil you own.

Example: More red, some yellow, a bit brown, lots of white can mix pale pink skin. But alternatively:

  • Two layers of carmine: some red
  • One layer of orange: some red, a some yellow
  • One layer of light olive: a bit yellow, a bit brown
  • Five layers of white: a lot white
This is the basic recipe for the first skin "ball" here. I layer carefully and create a skin tone sundae.

You might ask: why not just buy portrait-specific or skin-tone pencils? 

For myself, it mostly comes down to preferring the complex color effects from layering as opposed to using single color shading. It's the difference between the top green (alternating layers of cobalt blue and lemon yellow) and the bottom green (grass green, layered to the same value): 

A mixed green on top, and a single green on bottom.

I can control the complexities of an area of color if I layer a color with others, than if I use a single color alone. This has huge implications for shading, of enormous use in realism/naturalism—as well as my sliding scale of less representational styles.

Some artists prefer their colors to be smooth and flat; I like mine to vibrate.

Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.