An Introduction to Airbrushing Skin Tones

By Kevin Mayes

Painting the human skin can be intimidating, to say the least. There are several things to take into consideration when painting the skin. Light always is the first to consider. Is the light natural or artificial. This makes a huge difference in the colors of the skin. Shadows–are they cool or warm? Again, this effects the colors seen. What is the base color of the skin I am painting? With caucasian skin, the base color can be red, yellow or blue. Asian’s generally are yellow, orange or reddish-brown. African and Middle Eastern people are typically reddish-brown to bluish-black. In this demonstration I will be doing caucasian skin tones since this will allow you to see more easily just how the colors work together and where the differences are between light and shadow. Once you see how the skin tones are effected by light, shadow, exposure to weather and age, you can adjust these colors to any ethnic group without too much trouble. With a bit of practice doing ‘swatches’ on paper of different skin types, you will soon build a reference book on skin that will prove invaluable to you as you grow as an artist and do portraits and figures in your paintings.


What I will be using:

Crescent 100 Illustration board


Paasche AB-Turbo

F&W Acrylic Inks (opaque and transparent)

Flesh tint

Red Earth

Burnt Umber


Liquitex Acrylic Paint (tube)

Ultramarine Blue

Mars Black

Hansa Yellow

Liquitex Acrylic Gesso

( Used as white instead of paint)

Prisma-Color Colored Pencils

Various Colors-primarily earth tones

Sepia, Cream, Yellow Oxide, Jasmine, Burnt Umber

and Burnt Sienna


Although this demonstration is done the way that I choose to work, the technique used would remain the same for a work done without a comprehensive under-drawing. I will also use the white of the board for the white areas as opposed to paint. When white is called for, I use gesso instead of tube white since the texture and opacity of the gesso is better and gives a truer white. I am using a limited palette for this painting, however, if I were to be doing a photo-realistic work then the palette would be larger in number of colors. The palette used here is more typical for illustration and pin-up work and not necessarily typical for portrait, photo-realism or fine art.


It is important to note that your color should be built up slowly and deliberately. Start with a very light application of color… you can always increase the value of a color. Then move on to the next color and, starting lightly, apply the color to the intensity that you want. You should repeat this procedure throughout the painting. Try to avoid going back in with the lighter tones! Spraying the initial light tones over areas thathave already had the deeper tones applied will cause the darker tones to ‘bleach’. That is to say, the darker tones will turn to a bluish gray and will be difficult to overpaint to restore the color. For learning purposes, try this on a scrap piece of board to see what this does. For this project I used a photograph that I had taken several years ago for my reference source. Having drawn the subject onto the illustration board, I proceed to do the under-drawing with a Sepia Prisma-Color pencil. Sepia is used to avoid the drawing turning an ugly grey when the color is sprayed over it.





Once the drawing is completed, I go back with Mars Black for those areas that are to be solid black.



The background will be the first thing painted, so I have masked off the subject to protect it from overspray. When this is done, the mask is removed and the background color is applied around the head making the background fade into the hair. This is done so that, when the hair is painted, it over- laps the background naturally.



The head is now masked so that the face is ready to paint. Beginning with the ‘Flesh’ color, paint a thin layer over the  entire area, then shape the structures of the face using the  same color. Follow the under-drawing or your reference to build this first step of establishing your shadows and highlights. Note: Do not mask the hairline. Let the color of the face and hair overlap each other slightly. This will help you to achieve a more natural looking hairline.





Now, apply the ‘Red Earth’ color. Begin by spraying lightly and build the color slowly. What you want to do at this point is to deepen the shadows and shape the head further. This is the point where you will want to start being more precise with the painting.



When you feel that you have what you want with the ‘Red Earth’ stage of the painting, clean the airbrush and begin with the Burnt Umber’. Use the same methods described in the previous step. Work slowly and deliberately, building up color slowly to the value you want.





At this point, block in the colors and form of the hair. Don’t get lost in the details of the hair! All that is needed is to introduce the colors and shape of the hair so that any weakness in the colors or shape of the face and head that are needed will show up. If your colors are weak or too strong, it will show up at this point. Make any adjustments that are needed, spraying the colors in the same order as originally done. To deepen any of the dark areas use ‘Sepia’ lightly and slowly build up to the desired color. To make these shadow areas a bit deeper- use blue very lightly over the shadow.




The hand and forearm are done the same way as the head. The depth of the colors is the only difference in how this is  painted. The observations you make of your subject are what you will want to rely on here. Is the subject tanned or pale? How this question is answered will determine how you paint. As a rule, the hands and arms are more exposed to the sun and weather. Therefore, they are darker in tone compared to the rest of the body.



Mask off the areas you have just painted and paint the shirtand phone cord. This done, we will begin on the eyes. Now, I am sure that you have been wondering if the subject was going to have normal eyes or just go gothic. Mask off the area around the eyes. Since the eyes have not been masked throughout the painting, the overspray  has done some of the work for me. Since I do not want hard lines I will freehand the iris and shadow on the eyeball cast by the eyelid. The eyes, teeth and nails all are the color of the flesh – only much lighter. To make the highlight in the iris scrape carefully with an x-acto knife or use gesso tinted very slightly with yellow. Avoid using stark white. By tinting the gesso with yellow the white becomes warm and more natural in appearance. Remove the mask and check the color around the eyes. If needed, deepen the color of the shadows and eyelash lines to the desired depth.



The hair needs to be done now to get everthing to work together. Earlier, I mentioned that the edges of the hair should blend with the background and the hairline with the face. By doing it this way, the hair becomes a part of the head and face as opposed to looking like it is a bad hairpiece. The hairline should never be done as a hard line. Like a forest, the hair does not cover absolutely. The thinner the hair, the more you see – the thicker the the hair, the less. Using the Prisma-color pencils, draw the hair. Loose strands, indications of individual hairs toshape it and the transition from highlight to shadow are what you want to achieve. Creating the volume of hair and the ‘wispy’ strands are what will give the hair a realistic appearance. And don’t worry about crooked lines or uneven spacing of hairs– nothing in nature is perfect! It’s the flaws that help that ‘natural’
look work.




With the completion of the major areas, you can now paint the details that bring the whole thing together. The highlights on the phone and its cord are simplified to bare minimum. Only those
tones and highlights that define the shapes and light direction are necessary. The same is true with the highlights on the skin. By painting only what is necessary, you allow the eye of the viewer to ‘see’ detail that isn’t really there. The human eye and brain will ‘fill in’ the gaps. This is where a lot of artists get into trouble when using photographs as reference. The tendency to put in every little wrinkle, fold or crease in a painting happens because they try to mimick the camera. The camera ‘sees’ absolutely everything….the human eye does not. It’s the principal upon which the impressionist painters took advantage. They allowed the eye to complete the details.




Although this demonstration may seem very basic, I hope that it will help some of you with your own painting. Look for more detailed demonstrations in future issues and thank you for taking the time to read this one.

Kevin Mayes

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *