How to Color Realistic Skin Tones in 8 Steps
Love to color realistic images of people? Here are our best tips on how to blend and layer colored pencil to create a broad range of realistic skin tones.
By Thea Voutiritsas
With various shadows, wrinkles, and colors, the human face can be complicated and intimidating to color. The number of different hues and shades that make up each person’s complexion is mind-boggling! But with a little studying and a lot of blending, you’ll find the key to creating realistic skin tones with colored pencil mostly lies in having plenty of patience and paying attention to the details. While skin tones can vary greatly from person to person, there are a few fundamental adult coloring tips you can use to help you create a realistic skin tone on any face.
Pro tip: You will need to do a lot of blending to create realistic skin tones, so using the right paper with some texture or “tooth” to it will make a huge difference.
How to Color Realistic Skin Tones for Adult Coloring Pages
Note: In this tutorial, we will be focusing on coloring faces, but you can take these tips and apply them to coloring any body part!
1. Use a reference photo.
First thing’s first: The reference photo you choose doesn’t need to be exactly the same as the image you plan to color. In fact, it’ll help to study several reference photos of faces at different angles, with different skin tones, and in different types of light. Pay attention to subtle color changes across the face. Notice how it’s not all one color. For example, the skin underneath the eyes often has a blue undertone, while the cheeks and tip of the nose can have more of a red undertone.
In addition to the colors you see, pay attention to where the light is coming from in your reference photo and how that light source affects the shadows. How do the different features on the face cast shadows? And how do the shadows affect the colors on the face? For instance, a person’s cheek may have many shades of pink if part of it is cast in shadow. Imagine where the light source will come from for your design and try to picture what shadows that will create.
2. Divide your colors into shadows, midtones, highlights, and undertones.
First, get out your colored pencils and select the widest range of skin colors you can find. Pick out any pencil you think will help achieve the colors you’re going for. You may need to pull from separate sets of colored pencils, or you can purchase a colored pencil set made specifically for portrait art, like this one by Prismacolor.
For lighter skin tones with a warm undertone (like the example we’re using), you’ll want to go with peachy, apricot shades along with some tans and sandy brown hues. If you’re going for a lighter skin tone with a cool undertone, you may want to skip the apricot and go for tans and yellows that lean towards the more neutral side. Either way, you should plan to rely a bit on pure red and blue colored pencils to help you create shadows and subtle undertones as you color.
For darker skin tones with a warm undertone, you’ll want to lean more on dark peach and bronze shades or terracotta and burgundy-tinted browns. For darker skin tones with a cool undertone, you’ll rely more on neutral or purple-tinted browns. If you’re having trouble finding colored pencils that match the look, remember that you can always manipulate colors by layering them with pure red or blue colored pencils to achieve a more nuanced undertone.
Once you have your colored pencils picked out, separate your colors into highlights, midtones, shadows, and undertones (your red and blue pencils). The easiest way to do this is by arranging your pencils from light to dark. The lightest shades are your highlights, while the darkest shades are your shadows and the centermost shades are your midtones. Having a wide variety of shades to choose from will help you through the blending process.
3. Figure out where your highlights and shadows belong.
Once you’ve decided where the light will be coming from in your coloring page, you can start to identify which areas of the page will be in shadow and which will be in highlight. The face is made of many shapes and contours that create highlights and shadows. Light typically comes from above or from either side of the face. So in general, the highest/most protruding points of the face (think bridge and tip of the nose, brow bone, cheekbones, chin, etc.) will be a highlight shade. The most sunken-in/deepest parts of the face (eye sockets, nostrils, creases around the nose, under the chin) will be in shadow. The spaces in between—like temples, sides of the nose, and cheeks—are usually made up of midtones, but this will also depend on where the light is coming from. (For instance, if the light source is to the left or right side of the face, the nose may cast a strong shadow over the opposite cheek.)
Pay attention to the difference between types of shadows as well. There are two main types of shadows: Form shadows and cast shadows. Form shadows are created from the shape of the object itself, like the roundness of the cheek. Form shadows have a gentle gradient from dark to light. Meanwhile, cast shadows are shadows created from one object blocking light from a surface, like a nose casting a shadow on the face. Cast shadows usually have a harsh line where the shadow ends, and closely follow the shape of the object casting the shadow.
4. Start by adding a light layer of color.
Beginning with your highlight shades, create a base by coloring most of the face. Be sure to leave the brightest area of the highlight (where the light hits the skin directly) completely blank. (If it ends up being too bright, you can always color it in later.) You may want to switch highlight shades as you color to match the correct undertone, like sticking with warmer, pinkish highlights near the cheeks and nose and more neutral ones on the forehead and chin.
5. Begin adding shadows and midtones.
Next, color in the shadows. If you’re not sure yet how dark they should be, start with a lighter pencil—you can always darken them later. Begin coloring with a medium-light pressure where the shadows appear the darkest. As you move away from the darkest shadows, apply less pressure to gently fade the color into the midtone areas. For example, to color the side of the face, start at the outside of the jaw and then apply less pressure as you move closer to the cheek to create a smooth transition between the shadows and midtones.
Now you can use your midtones to fill in the areas between your shadows and highlights. You can also use your midtone pencils on top of the darker areas to create a smoother blend. Again, be mindful of each pencil’s undertone as you go. And keep your pencil strokes soft and light so that you can add more color on top later!
6. Add additional layers of color, blending as you go.
Once you have a base layer down, begin deepening the colors by adding more light layers of pencil. Check back to your reference photo. Where can some of the undertones be punched up a bit? For instance, you can use the pure red to add a bit of a tint around the nose or cheeks for a rosier flush in the face, or you can add a little blue underneath the eyes or in the shadowy areas. Make sure to use a light hand with these bright colors and blend them out by using either a highlight or midtone pencil on top. You don’t want to go overboard with the undertones—use just enough to create subtle differences in tone.
And one word to the wise: Avoid using your pure red/blue undertone shades directly on the paper. The trick to blending your layers successfully is alternating between two pencils. The first pencil should be whatever color you want to add (like a deep brown for a shadow a pure blue for an undertone). Use this pencil to add some shading to the design. Then, use a pencil two or three shades lighter as a blending tool. Color directly on top of undertones and shadows to help you blend. Then add more color and blend again. Keep switching back and forth between blending and coloring until all of the transitions look smooth.
7. Keep blending and refining.
Once the undertones are down and the whole surface of the face is colored, you’ll want to focus on smoothing everything out. Using a midtone pencil, go over both the shadows and the midtone areas to ensure there’s a seamless transition between the two. Then do the same with a highlight color, blending over the midtone areas and the highlight areas.
8. Add the final touches
Once you’re happy with the colors you’ve developed, take a step back and see what areas need a tad more tweaking. The highlights that have been left blank will likely need to be blended and smoothed out with a white, light peach, or light brown pencil and some of the shadows may need a bit of darkening for added contrast.
This is also a great time to add in any freckles or moles, just be sure to lightly color with a midtone or highlight pencil on top of them so they don’t look too harsh against the rest of the face. It’s also a good time to fill in the lips, and add fun pops of color like fingernail polish or jewelry. Check that everything is well blended and use a slightly lighter shade to blend out any harsh lines.
Exactly what colored pencils you should use will depend on the type of skin tone you’d like to color. There’s only one thing certain about coloring any skin tone: you’re going to need quite a few pencils. Rather than searching for one right tone, think of a complexion as a family of tones. Before you begin, you can practice by shading in a ball with the colors you plan to use. This way, you can get a feel for every value that might appear on the face—highlights, midtones, and shadows. Here are some examples:
Creating realistic skin tones can be time-consuming, but the attention to detail and careful layering can really bring your adult coloring page to life.