Every so often I get asked what colors I use to mix skintones. And my first response is “It depends on the skintone and the light”. While that’s true, there still is a loose color-mixing strategy I start with, and it’s pretty simple.
I use some version of the three primaries, red, yellow and blue. That’s it. Which red, yellow and blue? That depends on what is currently in my palette and on the range of colors( Notice the plural, I rarely use a single, even mix of a color) I want to achieve.
I made this little chart for a lesson in my online class ‘Figure Sketching Made Simple‘, and you can see how the 3-color strategy can produce many tones with just one 3 color mix.
And then changing out the colors in the mix give you even more tones. The three color mix on the left generally gives me lighter skin tones, with more red giving me ruddier tones that go on tips of noses and ears, and deeper, bluer tones for shadows.
The color mix on the right gives me more bronze-colored tones just by switching out my yellow to an ochre. And my darks can get much darker when the blue shade I’m using is Ultramarine Blue.
Of course you can get a lot more complex with color mixing, but keeping it simple is really useful as an urban sketcher: my palette is simple and I work quickly this way.
The other trick is to never use the exact same tone across a crowd of people, however similar tones they may be. Vary it up slightly, always.
When I’m not sketching on location, I may add more variety to my tones, even bring in some more colors to the mix, but the basic color strategy remains the same.