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Skin Tones, Faces, and Eyes

Let’s dive right into it! I mainly use P3 paints because they work the best with how I paint, so the colors that I mention are all in their range, but I will include some basic color descriptions for each so you can substitute for whatever paints you use. The model featured here is Istariel, elf fire mage, for Judgement by Gunmeister Games.

Step by Step Skin and Face

Step 1: I prefer to use a zenithal priming on most of my models these days, as it doesn’t mute the bright colors in the highlights, and the shadows stay dark. I prime with my airbrush because it’s hard to nail down decent weather for spray can primer in the Midwest that doesn’t change drastically from day to day. So that covers primer, on to the paint!

Step 2: For Caucasian female skin I start with a basecoat of a 50/50 mix of Midlund Flesh (a medium flesh tone) and Ryn Flesh (a light flesh tone) with a teeny tiny dab of Thamar Black (basic regular black) added in to desaturate the somewhat orange tone of the P3 flesh colors. This helps it look more like real skin.

Step 3: Eyes. Immediately after doing the basecoat of the face I tackle the eyes. Here’s a secret… I used to HATE painting eyes, they were always crooked, and no matter what I tried I messed up my finished face. Then I took a class with Meg Maples, a former Privateer Press studio painter, and boy did she open my eyes (wink wink) on how to tackle this tricky subject! This is her method for Six-Step Eyes.

First, paint the whole eye area black (or a dark brown if you want a more natural look and less of a makeup/eyeliner look, for example, on male faces). Next, fill in with an off white leaving an outline. Third, paint a black dot where you want the iris to be. Best trick to avoid eyes looking crossed, lazy, or otherwise wonky is to put both of these dots looking off to one side. Follow the gaze of the model’s pose, for example, if they have their head turned a little to the left, make the iris all the way to the left in the eye. Next, fill in the black dot of the iris with a bright color leaving a slight outline of the black. For Istariel I chose orange since it will echo her control of the fire, but any bright color will do. Make a black dot within the iris for the pupil, it should touch the top eyelid if possible. The last and most important step is to make a small white dot to show the reflection in the eye. It is placed on the border of the pupil and the iris. It really helps to make your eyes look alive.

If the eyes are really small, after step 3 you can skip straight to the reflective dot and call them done. If the eyes are larger, such as on a bust or a 75mm scale model, you can add more detail by putting a highlight in the bottom of the iris and a shadow in the top.

Clean up around the eye with your base skin tone. I find it is much easier for me to avoid the eyes as I continue with the face than it is for me to do them so neatly at the end. This way it doesn’t matter if I get paint all over the nose, I can always clean up with the base. It was the best secret I ever learned.

At the very, very end, if the eyes are large enough you can put a dab of a gloss coat over the eye to make them appear wet. This more closely mimics real life, and adds extra dimension to larger eyes.

Step 4: Now I start with the shadows on the face and body. Regardless of skin tone I always do one warm shadow color and one cool shadow color. By “warm” and “cool” I’m referring to some basic color theory that warm colors are generally red, orange, yellow and cool colors are blue, green, violet. Warm colors pop forward to the eye and cool colors visually recede. For more on color theory and color mixing, I super recommend the book “Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green” by Michael Wilcox.

The warm tone helps bring some life to the model. As humans we’re used to seeing blood flowing under the skin which creates a warm, reddish hue. So the warm tone, used in the cheeks and around the ears, gives the illusion that the model also has some blood flowing under the skin. I make a mix of the base skin color and add a small amount of Sanguine Base (dark maroon), just enough to tint the base a little red. Placement is outlined in each step next to the original photo so that you may see more clearly.

Step 5: To give the face some depth and definition I go to the cool shadows next. My go-to color to achieve this is an equal mix of Coal Black (dark teal) and Thornwood Green (dark olive), creating a desaturated blue-green. I add just a touch of this mix to the base skin color, enough to achieve a slightly cool tint. This is not mixed at all with the previous shadow color, otherwise it gets too muddy purple and we lose the pure cool effect of the blue-green. It was about here that I realized Istariel is actually wearing gloves from the armband down, so I left them alone for the rest of the tutorial.

Step 6: For the first highlight I use Ryn Flesh and focus on placing it where the light would naturally hit. Areas to focus on are the tops of the cheekbones, the forehead, the bridge of the nose, the skin over the upper lip, and the top of the chin. Try not to completely lose your midtone (the basecoat) leaving some to transition into the shadows. I frequently have to go back with the midtone color and make sure to redefine it as usually either one shadow or the highlights get a little over-zealous.

Step 7: For a final highlight I mix the Ryn Flesh with a good amount of Menoth White Highlight (about two-thirds and one-third, respectively). Menoth White Highlight is a nice warm white, almost a cream/linen color and will help the final highlights pop not only with light, but with warmth. This should be placed inside the first highlight where the light would hit the very most. It’s generally a pretty small highlight, but very important for the full definition of the face and musculature.

Step 8: As a final step for the face, I gave Istariel some lip color using Sanguine Base and Sanguine Highlight (lighter maroon/magenta). The darker color goes on the upper lip because it’s in shadow, and lighter on the bottom. I add a very small highlight on the lower lip by mixing the Sanguine Highlight with some Ryn Flesh to give the lip a fuller feeling. In order to make sure everything looks good before I move on to the rest of the model, I block in the colors around the face. To achieve this I do a quick base coat of the hair, throw on some eyebrows with the hair color, base the chain on her face with a dark brown, and some black base around the lines of the neck and waist. This serves as a good check on whether or not I’ve achieved a decent level of contrast on the skin tones, and helps me see what the face is going to look like in the context of the rest of the model.

Istariel was later finished, adding some object source lighting and fire crackling effect, but it all starts with the skin!

“Zones” of the Face

While Istariel’s model is bigger than usual at 54mm scale, work-in-progress photos even with my good camera are less than perfectly detailed. I’ve drawn a simple diagram of how I place my shadows and highlights on a face given a sort of ambient, overhead lighting, like what you would find if they were outside on a sunny afternoon. Placement of shadows and highlights can change drastically under different or more dramatic lighting situations (like with OSL), but it’s best to start with the basics and get a solid understanding before trying out more complex techniques. The colors are a little exaggerated for effect and clarity in understanding the “zones” of the face.

Additional Notes on Colors in Skin Tones

There are a few things you can change up to get some variations on skin tone, the base starting color being the most obvious. The other good place is in the cool shadow, for example, if you are going for a more Mediterranean look, consider using just the dark olive (Thornwood Green) for the cool shadow mix. When painting people of color I try to use more saturated colors for shadows and highlights, like dark reds and blues mixed in for shadows, and an orange or yellow mixed in for the first highlight. Only in the final highlight do I use a little bit of light caucasian flesh tone, as any more than this and the skin can appear ‘ashy’. Remember that there is a huge range in skin tones throughout humanity, and the differences are often much more subtle than they appear. When in doubt you can find a reference photo, take a color picker in any basic photo or drawing software, and literally pick out the colors from the zones on the face. Then you can match as close as possible with your paint. I have made 4 examples below doing just that with 4 women of color.

Be Brave and Happy Painting!