Monday, 22 November 2010

Digital Art Techniques - Painting Skin

Probably the most difficult part of any painting is the persons skin. It is quite a complicated subject which you could probably write a book on. I am certainly not an expert at it and I try to improve every time I start a new painting.

I am going to go over what I do and perhaps it will help you out of you are trying for something similar.

I actually have two different ways of painting skin so I will explain both and you can choose which one you like the best.

Technique 1 - Starting in black and white

 As it suggests in the title I start off with a grey block colour in to get the shape of the person - make sure your skin layer is seperate. Choose a medium grey colour and make sure it has sharp edges. Once this is done make sure your image is a large size e.g. 3000x3000 or bigger if your PC can handle it (this step is very important).

Next we take a big round 100% soft brush and choose black for the colour. Put the flow on about 5% (you can go less but it takes longer) and start to shade. You will need to have locked the pixels on the skin layer (read this if you do not know what means).

Then swapping between black and white I shade the woman until it is at a decent level. You do not want to go too overboard on how good it is at this stage because you are going to lose some of it changing the grey to colour.

I like to change to colour fairly early but you can choose when is best for you. Go to PS menu Image->Adjustments->Hue/Saturation and this is where you are going to change your grey into colour. Choose Colorize on the bottom right and you will see when you slide things around you get colour..slide over to the pinky orange colour like you see below. Now you have a base to work on but there is more to do.

The next stage is making your skin more realistic by putting other colours in there which are hard to see when looking. I always use references when painting but I do not usually stick to the colours they are. With a bit of trial and error you will get used to where the colours should go. It would be nice to say exactly what colour and where to put it but it is different every time you paint.

One easy way to get this stage without painting is use another tool from PS. Go to Image->Ajdustments->Colour Balance. This can change the colour of the shadows, midtones and highlights so it is pretty obvious what it does. So you are going to need to try a few things out here, e.g blue shadows and yellow highlights.

There are certain parts of the body that has lots of red in so choose a normal colour red and make sure the flow % is less than 5%, maybe even 1%. This means that when you paint very little of the paint will get on the only want a suggestion in most cases, not bright red. If you look below you can see some on her butt and shoulders - wherever the sun catches basically. Knees, Knuckles, Nose.

The skin is also reflective so when something colourful is next to it it will bounce off it. If you look carefully in places I have taken the colour right off the snake and put it into the skin. If the snake was green then you would see green reflecting off the womans skin. This goes for anything that is around the person, rocks, sky etc.

If the sky was bright blue and shiney you could use the same blue from the sky around highlights on the skin. One thing I learnt when painting skin is that the environment in which you place the person alters the skin considerably. So to make the skin look realistic it has to fit the colours that are around it and not just use the normal skin colours you expect.

In the last step I have just added textures to the skin to make it have marks on will be able to find out how I do that when I explain textures later.

You will find this way of doing skin a little easier than the next one because you get to worry about shades and tone rather than colour getting in the way before you have some form. Next I will show you how I do it from colour right away but it is largely similar.

Technique 2 - Starting in with colour
This is pretty similar to starting with grey but you need to make sure you choose the right colours from the start. You need to start with a set of at least  three colours, dark, medium and light. If you do a google search for skin colours you will get plenty of sets to use rather than making your own.

Here is an example of a set of colours you need:

Block in your colour as usual at 100% using the middle colour. Then as before shade using the dark and light colours.You can see some basic colouring below just using the three colours.

Now we darken it by using the darkest tone and making it darker; make sure you do not go to black. And the same for the lighter tone.

Here we have changed the contrast and also used the Image->Ajdustments->Colour Balance alterations to make the shadows blueish/purple.

To finish off again we add some other colours from the environment...the blues from the rocks and orange from the floor.

Usually I use the grey technique now because it is easier to get the painting going and seeing what you have without worrying about colour. If you do too much colour on the person without touching the background you may have to redo a lot of the skin to match.

Either way it takes a lot of practice to learn where and how much of certain tones to use. Remember even though you want 'colour' into the skin such as blues and greens these colours are subtle and usually have a lot of grey in them too.

I do not think it is possible to read enough tutorials and help on skin so hopefully this page gives you at least one thing that helps. Good luck and let me know if you can improve any of the steps mentioned.


  1. I know this is one of the hardest aspects to paint so if you have questions please ask to make this tutorial more useful for anyone.

    This is my first attempt at sharing my techniques so I could use the feedback.

  2. thank you so much mark. you have been a great help. keep it up love to see more from you.
    thank you for sharing your knowledge in simple format.

  3. No problem..glad to help.

    I will be doing some more soon when I get some free time.

  4. I am a senior citizen and am just getting into digital art so have been browsing through tutorials to get some idea. I like the first step about starting with black and white At this stage it seem the least complicated approach to try. The challenge, of course, is actually trying it out. LOL

  5. If you are totally new to digital painting I would suggest to start off on something else rather than skin. It is the hardest thing to make look right if you do not know how to use photoshop and its millions of options.

    In the end though keep it simple and use the brushes it comes with or you will waste forever just playing and not actually painting.