Seeing Color In Faces When Painting

May 11, 2020
Brush pen and watercolor sketch of British Actor Anna Chancellor on TV. 9 x 12 inch Hahnemühle Mixed Media Paper.

In this sketch from August 2019 I played with large flat brush to lay in mostly transparent washes of watercolor.  

I was watching TV late in the evening and the actor Anna Chancellor came on. I paused the TV because I wanted to work on the angles of the planes of her face and particularly her nose. But I still work quickly, as if she might leave at any moment. I do not use a pencil lay in. I draw directly with the bold brush pen. I think ahead to how I’ll use watercolor so I can leave out unnecessary lines.

My intent in such a sketch is not so much to capture a likeness (though I think this is the closest I’ve come to capturing her in a sketch), but to explore the face and make what I consider visual notes—about the proportions of the different features and the way the light hits her face.

This note taking attitude allows me to keep working quickly, make fast decisions, and enjoy my process.

One of the things that was important to me here was to capture hints of color in her flesh tones, while leaving a lot of white paper to stand in for the glare of the lights.

I also set myself the task to do this with a large flat brush. I wanted to explore how I could use a one-inch-wide brush to make a variety of marks to define the planes of her face.

And my next concern was to develop some value contrast.

When my students see something like this however, they always ask me “why did you use teal, green, yellow, etc.?” They don’t see those colors there.

I believe they could see those colors there if they looked closely and for a little longer. And especially if they looked at and sketched people when they are out and about and close to the leaving, breathing model—either in sunlight or artificial light. Every encounter is the possibility to see more color in skin tones.

But even if you don’t see these colors and want to play with skin tone color in your portraits you can begin by looking for where the shadow areas are—these will be recessed areas like those shapes around the eyes, or under the chin.

Look also at the cheeks—are they warm with rich reds coming up? or is the skin white with lavender or purple tones coming up.

Some of this will be from the lighting. If you’ve observed people from life however you’ll be able to improvise with colors you’ve observed in other lighting situations.

Detail from this post’s portrait which shows the layering of the watercolor to create values and skin tones. You’ll see a little bit of opaque white was used near the tear ducts to create a lighter lavender and light yellow. I really enjoyed working on this Hahnemühle Mixed Media paper. It has a cold press texture which will accentuate your brush pen strokes as well as your paint brush strokes. But it has a bright white surface that helps with crispness.

Some of the color on a face, regardless of race, has to do with the the placement of the features on the face, and whether those features get exposed to light and they get “tan,” or they are in shadow and light doesn’t reach them. Think of cowboys, farmers, linemen, anyone who spends all their day in the sun. They have a tan line at the brow where their hat falls. But they also have a different range of color on the tip of their nose than anyone in their family with the same genetics but an indoor job. Think also about features of the face where the light bounces or reflects off.

But keep looking closely. When blood vessels come close to the surface of the skin they change the colors we see in that skin. And if that skin is sun damaged as in the case of many surfers from years of tanning without sunscreen, what does that do to not only the color seen in the skin, but the texture of the skin?

And so it goes, infinitely different for every individual. And for the artist, infinitely exciting and fun to delve into.

Next ask yourself which warm and cool colors on your palette you want to use. You’ll need a color that stands in for the basic over all skin tone, another color for the warm areas, and another color for the cool areas which are in shadow. You’ll want these colors to have a relationship to each other so you end up with a harmonious painting. You might use a triad to mix your colors or use some other color relationships to narrow your color selection. This can be the most rewarding and fun aspect of painting—selecting the palette.

Then you’ll be able to look at the face and think about where you’ll use those colors on the face. And ultimately you’ll ask yourself how you’re going to develop contrast in the necessary areas.

If you’re interesting in creating a photo realistic rendering you’ll need to glaze colors (if you’re working in watercolor) on so that the layers of color blend to create the three dimensional effect you intend.

If you’re interested in what paint does on the surface of the paper, like I am, and are interested in what you can make the qualities of color do through your application then you can go as far away from reality of color as you want.

I suggest that if you’re just starting these experiments that you look closely for colors you can actually see.

For instance my husband is a life-long swimmer with blond-ginger hair that bleaches out in the summer months. This has the interesting effect of taking on color properties from exposure to chlorine (used in pools for water treatment). When I stare at his hair I see green, I really do. Yes, it’s a dull, grayed out green, but it’s a green.

What I do with that green then is emphasize it, neutralize it less perhaps. And just make sure I add it in at the right value for where it is placed: and then it will read “realistically.”

Does it always work? No I make errors all the time. But when you make an error in a painting you can do one of the following things:

Paint over it with other colors to neutralize it. (Glazing)

Paint over it to hide it (opaque watercolor).

Accentuate it throughout the painting for a “TA-DA” I meant to do that moment. (A very fun option, filled with an acceptance of joy.)

Embrace it and adjust your other colors to work with it thus discovering an entirely new palette of colors that work together, or a new value range that makes things work…You may still not end up with a likeness or a wonderful painting, but you walk away from the session with so much of your mind and perception stretched that it’s totally worth it. 

The sense of understanding, I think, rivals the sense of accomplishment. Usually accomplishment stands one step behind understanding. So just remember that if you don’t accomplish what you set out to do, but have understanding, that means you’re a step closer to accomplishment. Isn’t that exciting? Isn’t that a reason to paint?

    • Paul
    • May 11, 2020

    Love how your bold angular brush strokes have captured the many planes of the face. Also appreciate how the green of her clothes is reflected in the judiciously placed green/teal shadows across her face and hair👍🏼👍🏼.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Paul. Thanks for noticing the other color references. I try.

    • Kare Furman
    • May 13, 2020

    So yummy, the brushstrokes, face planes and colors especially nuances in her hair. Reminds me of jewels woven in her hair. I ran to my Quiller Wheel (walked really) and looked at the color relationships (allowing for differences between paint and pixels). It’s like watching an animated conversation among a group of friends connected by playful, affectionate friendship. Love it!

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much Kare.It’s always a good day when we can pull out the Quiller Wheel and think about color!

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