How to Paint Skin - Expert Advice from Andrew James
Artist Andrew James is a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and an Artists & Illustrators Advisory Panellist. Here he shares some tips for how to paint realistic skin tones when painting faces
Painting skin for more than 20 years has been a fascinating and demanding pursuit. I have applied every effort to attain that perfect impression of our physical reality, skin into paint. An enormous range of works have inspired and guided me: Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh and Freud mark the pinnacle of that elusive goal. They all convey personal insights and responses to the rendering of flesh.
But how should we approach painting skin successfully? Picasso said: “Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?” For me, this quote is key to defining one’s own departure point. Knowing our own psychological stance to the human condition, and what its physical reality might be, will lead us ultimately to our own method.
My journey has lead to where the expression of the feeling of skin – to be inside its reality rather than outside looking on – is of primary importance. The tactile qualities of weight, texture and presence convey my reality more vividly than a more measured pursuit of realism.
Skin lives when I can apply paint freely and expressively. Energy is created within the surface by tough striations of paint crashing against heavy textures. Strong colours appear in all their uncompromising power, matching the velocity of the mark-making. The cumulative effect of this heavier and unpolished method corresponds most precisely with my perception of skin.
To start with, I draw or paint the face as broadly as possible, familiarising myself with the subject, making every effort to respond to the freshness of the new image, capturing it with abbreviated but accurate marks.
Distinctive features are made in broad forms, described tonally but also allowing colour to shift towards a strong degree of character, all the while trying to keep warm and cold values in apposition. Bold precision, along with indifference to small details, should be maintained. This process might last three to four sessions – 10-20 hours.
After session one I will use all 13 colours, working wet-in-wet during sessions 2-4, trying to broadly shape and reorder the existing paint, enabling me to achieve the internal patterns and rhythms the painting requires. Searching for new and creative combinations of gesture, colour and texture stretches one’s vocabulary, offering a chance of a unique outcome.
From session 5 onwards the long battle begins to include all that’s relevant and eliminate extraneous information. Ultimately, reality is the suggestion or revelation of an essence rather than a visual stock-take, and most time is spent looking for this balance. All decisions are considered in relation to the impact upon the whole painting.
Andrew's suggested colours for realistic skin tones:
Yellow Lake, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow, Orange Lake, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue, Phthalo Turquoise, Ultramarine, Prussian Green, Burnt Umber, Paynes Gray, Titanium White