How To Paint Lifelike Flesh Tones On People of Color

By Marcella Hayes Muhammad / Artist /

I will preface this article by saying that there are as many ways to paint as there are artists on this planet and this method may not work for everyone. I am sharing one that works for me.

I work primarily with oils on canvas and use brushes, shop rags, fingers, and palette knives to achieve the effects that I want. I use linseed oil with a small amount of turpenoid, (turpentine is OK but it gives me a headache after a while), to dilute my pigments and create a thin coat for my first layer.

I lean heavily toward the chromatic hues on my pallet. Beginning with burn umber, grumbacher red, yellow ocher, titanium white, thalo blue and mars black straight from the tube on my pallet sets the basis for mixing. I am able to achieve the right base shade for the subjects. For a female artist, it’s easier because it’s like placing makeup onto a face.

To begin for a darker African American skin tone, I take a larger amount of burnt umber, mix in a tiny bit of the grumbacher red, and mix them together with a few drops of linseed oil and turpenoid. If it needs to be darker, I add some thalo blue to cool it down and mix this until it is the right shade for the figure. By scraping the mixture across the palette (which is white), I am able to see the base color better before it is painted onto the canvas. To lighten the flesh tone, I use yellow ocher to the mix and no thalo blue. Yellow ocher lightens the tone and to bring it even lighter, I add some titanium white and a bit more grumbacher red to keep the tone on a more natural rosy effect. It may not show up strongly right now but later in the process, it will make a difference. I have had great success using this formula for other ethnic groups such as Native American, Hispanic, Asian, and diverse mixtures.

Now for me, I like to have a base white canvas and I don’t use a color wash before I paint. I also sketch onto the surface of the canvas a draft of the painting that has already been worked out from my sketch book.

Using a “bright” brush, I paint the color mix onto the sketched in face and any other skin areas in the painting with a thin coat. I start with a base coat of the dominant shade establishing the basic shade of the individual. This color is painted over the entire face including eyes, mouth, and hairline.

The next step is using a cloth to blend the brush strokes into a smooth surface. Then with a cleaner cloth, remove the pigment by lifting the paint off of highlighted spots that will remain high points such as the cheeks, chin, nose, lips, forehead, eyes, eyelids and any other areas that have light touching the figure. This is the advantage of having a white canvas behind the work. As the first layer, I like to let it set overnight before I try any other colors on the skin tones. If there are other areas to paint in the background, this is the time to block them in.

The next day I can apply the shading into darker areas by adding mars black to the mix for contours with details around the eyes, lips and nose. A tiny bit more of grumbacher red in the mix to add to cheeks, lips, forehead, and nose and under eyebrows will bring the image alive. Some titanium white on the most prominent of highlights will add a pop to the figure.

This technique didn’t happen overnight, but developed over years of practice. I like the challenge of catching the various colors of skin tones of people of color as we have a rainbow of hues to explore. Here are two examples of this process and I never get tired of it, “Lady In Drape” and “Queen Of Fall”.

Be sure to visit my website : to see more!


Marcella is a visual artist that made a leap of faith in 1995 and took an early retirement from a successful elementary teaching career of 27 years. She and her husband moved from California to the Atlanta area to continue as a full time artist. She has a formal education in the arts, and has been a creative visual artist for over 40 years.

Leave a Reply