How to Draw the Perfect Skin Tones


Colored Pencils


When I started drawing with colored pencils in September of last year… I wasn't sure how to make the colors right for skin and shadows. I was mostly afraid of putting too much color on the paper especially for light skinned people. I had read some tips on colors (Prismacolor) that you should use to layer and get the right values. While that tip worked at first and people loved my drawings… it didn't look right to me and the process was frustrating. I think the tip was designed with Prismacolors in mind but I was having issues using that particular brand because the pencils are very waxy and within an hour of putting them down you see a "wax bloom" where the wax in the color separates and floats tot he top of the drawing almost like a white film. This wax bloom was very annoying to me as I'd have to go over all the colors one more time before I used a fixative to seal it to prevent more bloom. And for some reason even when following the tips from well known colored pencil instructors online and in books I wasn't happy with my results. I felt sure there had to be a better way. So I started practicing with other brands of pencils. It wasn't long that I realized that the pencil I use makes a HUGE difference in the result I get. So I started thinking about the qualities of each pencil and playing with them by mixing brands in the same drawing... gradually increasing the types of pencil for each drawing. Each brand seemed to bring something new to the table that I had not experienced before. I felt like I was really getting to know a bunch of different people and personalities. :) Even today.. I bring in new members of the team with each drawing, exploring the way that the new pencil can enhance my drawing. 

After really experimenting with a lot of brands, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the pencils. But then there was the paper! How would I decide which paper to use for which project and which brand. I ended up buying about 10 different kinds of paper... even ordering some that you can only get in the UK. I eventually discovered that I had 2 consistent favorites. I LOVED my Strathmore Bristol/Vellum paper. And I LOVED my Stonehenge 100% cotton paper, especially the colored papers. Most recently I've discovered that the new Strathmore colored pencil paper is about halfway between the properties of my two favorite papers. So I guess now I have three favorites. 

So back to the topic of skin tones! I had just chosen the subject for my next drawing which has been titled "Wisdom". The photo was taken by a talented Photographer in the Lubbock, Texas area named Surender Bodhiredddy. He granted me permission to draw the photo. Before I started.. I stared at the photo for a long time over the course of several days. I studied it carefully... every line, every wrinkle, every pore in the mans skin. I decided to go with my gut instinct and throw out everything I had been told about skin tones using Prismacolor and the 19 or 20 layers of color you have to lay down to get the right tones. I just wasn't a believer. I knew that I could do it my way and it would work! So finally when I sat down to draw the piece, I picked ONLY colors that my eye could see. If I didn't have that color, I made it by combining two colors. I used mostly Polychromos pencils from Faber Castell but I found that using the Derwent Drawing Pencils and Derwent Coloursoft pencils actually enhanced some of the color that I put down with my Polychromos. I wanted to discard all of my Prismacolors because of all the frustration they caused me but I just couldn't find a black pencil that was dark enough for my liking so I opted to keep the Black Prismacolor in my drawing. I figured at the end it would be easy enough to just go over the black again to get rid of the wax bloom. Also at least the black Prismacolor was one of the highest lightfast pencils Prismacolor makes so I knew it would meet the CPSA standards on lightfastness. Over half of the pencils by Prismacolor do not meet that standard. Call me a perfectionist but I want the pencils I use when creating my art to be the best they can be. :) Thankfully the drawing went very smoothly. All the colors that I had chosen just went on effortlessly. Some of the skin areas only required maybe 2 or 3 layers of pencil rather than the 19 or 20 that was recommended for the darkest skin tones using Prismacolor. Even in the darkest areas, I was able to reach the tone with only a few pencils. And I wasn't afraid to lay the pencil on thick. Even when I draw light skinned people, my pencil is thick and rich. I don't want any of my paper showing. I found light pencils that would actually draw on top of dark ones. Every stroke that I made was with a purpose. That purpose was to replicate every inch of the photo that I was copying as closely as possible. I would not leave a square inch of the drawing until I was satisfied that I got it as CLOSE to the photo as possible. 

After successfully creating the piece "Wisdom", winning awards and gaining recognition which included being slotted for Colored Pencil Magazine in May, I decided from that day forward I would use the same process for each new drawing. I basically threw away all information that I had received about creating skin tones to date. I started fresh. My new practice was to draw what I see and not listen to what others call the "correct process" to achieve real looking skin tones. The difference is incredible and can be seen in my work when you look at everything I created before the piece Wisdom and everything after. I learned to pull colors that are not typically recommended in skin tones. It has been suggested that maybe I actually see more colors than the average person. I'm not sure. I just know that by following my heart and grabbing the pencil that I know should be used, my work looks much better than following a rule. I honestly don't even think about the colors I'm using when drawing. I don't look at the names of the colors until I need to replace them. When I'm drawing, I just reach and grab. Somehow, when I'm in the "zone"  my brain just knows which color to use. Sometimes it feels very surreal. Especially when I lose the pencil I want and I look everywhere for it. I can't find it so I grab an alternative and the alternative is like the PERFECT color. Then I will look back at my pencils and the lost pencil is staring right at me. It's almost as if my brain does not allow me to use the pencil I want to use. It steers me towards the correct one. I really feel like my right brain takes over when I am drawing. I feel a sense of calm and I almost hear a voice inside me that says.. "Don't worry, it will be perfect, let me do this.. I got this." And so I let go, and my hand just follows my brains instructions. :) I know I sound a bit like a wacky artist but that is the best way I can describe how my process works. 

My advice, if you feel moved to draw, at the risk of sounding like a Disney song is "Let it go!". Just literally let it go! Don't worry so much about technique or color and be willing to just grab colors that feel right and make up your own technique. It's kind of like holding a pencil. I remember being a child and being told that I was holding the pencil wrong. I hated being told that. My handwriting was perfect. My printed text was perfect. Why did I need to hold the pencil a certain way? I feel the same way about my art. I don't have to follow a rule. I don't need a chart that tells me how to get the skin tone correctly. I just need to "let it go" and draw what I see. Only then can I really feel free to express myself through my art.