How to choose a basic Portrait painting palette for Oils

by Will Kemp

in oil painting,portraits

Will Kemp Artist head study

Head Study – After Collins, Oil on Linen, Will Kemp

“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend”
John Singer Sargent

How not to paint a portrait, a personal tale

Let me take you back several years to the beginning of my experiments with portraiture.

It was a bright sunny morning after a long arduous night painting and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, I had finally cracked my self portrait…. enter my wife Vanessa

Vanessa: “Why do you look like Tom Jones?”
Me: “I don’t look like Tom Jones”
Vanessa: “You do, what have you done? The portrait was looking great last night!”
Me: “I don’t look like Tom Jones”
Vanessa: “You do! Look how orange it is, you look like the freakin’ Tango man”
Me: “Shit….. I look like Tom Jones”

Skin tone, it isn’t easy….

This was a self portrait for a competition, the deadline was that afternoon and I had been working late into the night convinced that the painting looked too dull, too muted. What would give it the glow I was after? Sleep deprivation, a looming deadline and caffeine guided my decision…  a warm orange glaze, now affectionately known the ‘Tom Jones look’.

There is nothing more tricky than portraits.

A basic limited portrait palette

Titanium white, Yellow Ochre, Light red, English red, Raw umber, Ivory black

(I usually use Winsor & Newton Artists’ oil, the Light red and English red are made by Old Holland)

With this palette you can mix a base tone with the yellow ochre, white and light red. The black and the raw umber are used to cool down the ‘pink’ in your mixtures. Raw umber has a cool, greenish tint so is very handy for subtle toning.

Raw umber – often used mixed with white as a toned ground for portraits. It has a lovely coolness to it which will prevent you going overboard with the pink. As you lay colours onto the coloured ground they will look pinker than if you placed them directly onto a white canvas due to the effects of simultaneous contrast with colour. The raw umber acts as a muted green complement to the red.

An Extended portrait palette

  • Titanium white
  • Yellow ochre pale
  • Yellow ochre
  • Persian red
  • Cadmium red
  • Red umber
  • Green Umber
  • Burnt Umber
  • Raw Umber
  • Ivory black

The above palette is from the Angel Art Academy in Florence, each school often have their own palette. (All the paints are Winsor & Newton Artists’ oil, the Persian red and red umber are made by Old Holland)

Thomas Couture said,

“You will see that the art of drawing surpasses everything else and that the qualities of color and light are only secondary to it.”

He also said, all you need for figure painting is Naples yellow, vermillion, flake white and black.

So don’t get overwhelmed by a whole range, if you have a white, muted yellow, muted red, and a cool colour to tone then down green or black (black mixed with white gives a cool blue hue) you will be fine.

Paint tube names

Not all colours are created equal, and not all colour ranges will stock the exact colours above. Often Student quality paints have less of a range than the artist quality equivalent.

However, a few alternatives are:

  • Venetian red
  • Terre Verte
  • Indian Red

Below are some colour charts from some of the major paint manufacturers.

You can intermix brands, but each one will have slightly different properties. Micheal Harding paints have brilliant saturation, Winsor & Newton are widely available, it really does come down to personal preference. I always prefer artist quality because of the saturation of pigment.

These are not full range of colours, I have just isolated the colours most relevant for portrait painting.

old-holland-chart-oil

Old Holland -Artist Oil colours
winsor-newton-Colour-Chart-for-Artists'-Oil-ColourWinsor & Newton – Artist oil colours
student-Colour-chart-for-Griffin-Oil-ColourWinsor & Newton – Student quality Griffin quick drying oils

daler-rowney-georgia-artists-oilsDaler Rowney – Student Quality Georgia oils

Michael-Harding-colour-chartMicheal Harding – Artists’ Quality oil paints

Matching a skin tone

Trying to match a skin tone can play havoc with our minds. We have a deep rooted childhood knowledge that skin tone is ‘pink’ and when first trying to mix colours that match skin can be hard to try and disassociate yourself from your prior logical perceptions of what colour should be, rather than how it actually is.

When mixing a colour, say for a cheek, we have a running commentary to ourselves that goes something like this “that doesn’t look like a cheek colour, its too dull, cheeks are rosy, I need a bit more red, that’s better”

In fact what you end up with is a painting that looks artificial.

The remedy?

Use muted colours.

Don’t reach for the brighter colours no matter how strong the urge will be until your background, models clothes etc.. are all in place. Then you can begin to really see to if it needs to go brighter.

You’d be amazed at just how dull skin tone can be in portraits when they are isolated.

Hans_the_Younger_Holbein_-A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling

Hans Holbein the younger, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling – Anne Lovell? 1526-28

Hans_the_Younger_Holbein_-_A_Lady_with_a_Squirrel_and_a_Starling_Head study

How to mix skin tone

These colour swatches are taken directly from the painting above, the one on the left is from the reddest part of her right cheek and the one on the right is from the lips.

You can notice how the swatch on the right has the same colour undertone as the swatch on the left but it has a stronger red glaze over the top, probably Alizarin Crimson.

You won’t get your skin tones right first time or second or third, this is normal, but every time you do a portrait another piece makes sense and you’ll learn from your mistakes.

So don’t be discouraged.

Mixing skin tones with bright colours

But what if you don’t have muted, earth colours?

What if you have bright yellows and reds, can you still match a muted skin tone in your painting?

Of course, the below video shows a technique on how to practice matching skin and flesh tones in your painting using Acrylic paint.

Acrylics can be very handy when practicing skin tone swatches, in the video I paint the mixtures onto my own skin to judge the tone.

You can easily do this yourself and you may be surprised by the results. Look out for the end of the video when I mute the skin tones down with a black, it’s amazing how effective this can be as a classic beginner mistake it to mix a colour that is too bright and too pink.

Just to give you an idea how difficult portraits are in classical painting schools you are only allowed to use black and white for 2 years before adding colours one at a time, it considered such a skill to master.

See: How to paint a portrait in Oil – Part 1 for how to build up a portrait painting in oils using classical painting techniques.

You might also like:

1. The trouble with Oil
2. The 3 tricks of complementary colour you can learn from Van Gogh
3. A simple way to understand brushes

Resources:

Winsor & newton basic oil palette guide
Hans Holbein at the National Gallery

 

{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Gunner Dave March 12, 2012

Hi Will, I hope its okay to comment on an old post. Your story about the tango man made me think about the difficulties of painting in changing light conditions – how a colour appears depends on the light source, and artificial light can give a painting a completely different hue compared to how it appears in daylight. As I’m a bit of a night owl this issue is quite important to me – what is the solution? Should I only be painting in daylight, or is there a way of painting at night without Tom Jones gate crashing the party?

Cheers :O)

Dave.

Reply

Will Kemp March 12, 2012

Hi Dave,

The natural light / artificial light can be an issue. I paint with daylight balanced fluorescent tube and often paint at night. You are ideally trying to find a neutral color temperature, aim for around a colour temperature of 5000k (3000k being very yellow/orange, 6000k being very blue) around 5000k is a nice balanced white light. You can find them online at photography stores a couple of 50W or ideally a couple of 85W would fill a medium size room quite nicely (with about 8 – 10 ft ceiling.) I currently use 2 x 58Watt MASTER TL-D 90 Graphica 58W/950 1SL tubes. They are balanced to a colour temperature of 5300k so are pretty close and give a nice even light.

Hope this helps,
Will

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Colleen June 9, 2012

Oh Will, loved the video demo! Just began painting after years of life drawing classes….the portrait was a dead on likeness…but the colors were garish! So fake looking – tango girl look! Ha ha. I used a palette of 12 colors, now I will try your limited palette. Thanks! So glad I found your website.
Colleen

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Will Kemp June 10, 2012

Hi Colleen,

Thanks, the tango effect can be hard to resist! you really can achieve a lovely effect with a limited palette, looking forward to seeing your results.
Will

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Debra June 29, 2012

Thanks for the information. I have just been toying with painting and really want to learn paint portraits. It is funny because I have been painting with a very limited palette all along and felt that was a bad thing. So glad to read it is not! I have done some of my better paintings with two to three colors only. But then again, my paintings are not professional quality…but a good start!

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Will Kemp June 30, 2012

Hey Debra,

Thanks for the comment, yes a limited palette can be hugely beneficial in your painting progress, especially when painting portraits. Sounds like you have been on the right track!

Thanks,

Will

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Donn September 3, 2012

Nice flesh tone mixing tip Will!
Now,I don’t have to worry on how to achieve the skin/flesh tone colors.
Tnx for the video, I learned a lot.

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Will Kemp September 3, 2012

Oh Hey Donn,

You’re welcome, pleased the video has helped you.

Thanks,
Will

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Natassha February 22, 2013

Hi this advice is wonderful and very helpful. I was wondering if you would do something similar but for acrylic paints….

Thank You,
Natassha

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Will Kemp February 22, 2013

Hi Natassha,

Many of these colours mentioned above are also available in acrylics, so you can just use the same colours but with acrylics instead of oils.

Cheers,
Will

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Caroline April 7, 2013

Hi Will
I would just like to say thank you for your concise, interesting and informative site. I have been painting for four years and it feels that the more I learn the less I know. Due to home economics (as is the case with many artists heheh), and our poorly performing rand, my lessons come from studying books and wonderful generous sites such as yours, so thanks again.
I wish you many happy and fulfilling painting hours!

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Will Kemp April 8, 2013

Hi Caroline,

Nice of you to drop by.

Thanks for your kind words and I’m pleased to hear the website is helping your painting knowledge. There is alot to learn but that what makes it such a journey of discovery!

Happy painting,

Will

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Pauline June 15, 2013

Hi,

can you get lots of skin tone with this limited palette, for example black skin tones?

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Will Kemp June 16, 2013

Yep, they would work just fine.

Cheers,
Will

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Dan August 30, 2013

Hi will would you use a brown when mixing all skin tones ? , if so, is there a brown you would advise using ? . brown seems to be a more natural colour to use . I have followed your videos but still find it hard to mix a convincing tone thanks

Reply

Will Kemp August 31, 2013

Hi Dan, not on all skin tone, often the colour could be muted down with a blue or black, but the brown is very handy for warm shadows and for blocking in the tonal structure of the portrait.

Cheers,
Will

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Munish Pundir October 10, 2013

Hey Wills,

Can i make yellow ochre and burnt siena from Lemon yellow??

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Will Kemp October 10, 2013

Kinda, it will be pretty close to a yellow ochre.

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Larry October 28, 2013

I took an oil portrait painting class about 15 or 20 years ago. The portrait that I painted during the class turned out well, but it seemed to me that the palette had too many mixes of paint, rather than the limited palette that you mention. This past week, I did a self portrait, using a limited palette, similar to what you suggested. It turned out to be as good as the one I did in the portrait class. I used a green(acrylic) as a ground color then painted the portrait. Finally getting to the point, what should I do or use for the background? I don’t think I should leave the green.

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Will Kemp October 28, 2013

Hi Larry, pleased to hear you’ve picked up the brushes again and are having great success with the limited portrait palette. The colour of background varies depending on the subject matter, colour of clothes, background, mood you’re after etc. Sometimes a dull green can work very well to bring out pink tones in the face, but it really depends on the type of mood you are trying to create with the portrtait.

Have a look at this portrait

Hope it helps,

Will

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Larry October 28, 2013

Thank you for the prompt reply. I am enjoying painting again.

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Will Kemp October 28, 2013

Great to hear it Larry.

Cheers,
Will

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Larry January 31, 2014

Will: I don’t have English Red in my stack of reds. I have venetian red, Alizarin Crimson, Cad Red light, medium, deep hue, and scarlet, Grumbacher Naphthol Red,Quinacridone Red, Diox purple. Could any of these be used instead of English Red?

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Will Kemp February 3, 2014

Hi Larry, the Venetian red is a great choice and is very similar to an English Red. They do differ slightly but is the most muted reds of the colours you’ve got.

Cheers,

Will

Elena Eguiguren November 7, 2013

Dear Will, this is the best video tutorial I have ever seen.
I have recently arrived to the incredible world of oil painting but I don’t have the traditional paints. Mine are the Cobra line that you use with water, for practical reasons, but they are quite expensive in my country so I cannot buy a lot of them. You said that your demo video with bright colors is not the easiest way to get a skin tone. Could you tell me the exact name of the colors you were using in your video?
I have tried with different colors and the result is discouriging because I got a very dull and dark portrait which I would love to make lighter.
Perhaps you could give me some advise which colors should I use, por quite pale skins.
I would also like to know more about the contents and price of your entire course and ways to pay.
Looking forward for your answer,
Best wishes,
Elena

Reply

Will Kemp November 8, 2013

Hi Elena, so pleased you found the tutorial helpful, the palette colours I discuss in this article are the ones I use for most of my portraits, I don’t currently have a full course on painting skin tones, but it is on the list!

Cheers,
Will

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Tyler Jones January 13, 2014

I’m also interested in trying out the Cobra water mixable oil paints, but they don’t have an English Red and I was wondering what to use in its place.

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Will Kemp January 16, 2014

Hi Tyler,

They have an English red on this colour chart but looks like it could have a touch of Cadmium red deep mixed into it to more closely resemble the Old Holland English red.
Cheers,
Will

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judy nolan January 17, 2014

Hello Will, Great advice and tips, thank you. I’m trying to get a handle on colour temperature – can you help and maybe correct me please? I’ve put what I THINK
is the temperature but please tell me if I’m wrong. I’m a bit stumped with the Persian Red and Red Umber. I think they may be WARM but maybe they are COOL reds. I guess what I’m asking is: what is the bias of the colours more red or blue.

Titanium White – COOL
Yellow Ochre Pale WARM
Yellow Ochre WARM
Persian Red
Cadmium Red Light WARM
Red Umber
Burnt Umber WARM
Raw Umber COOL
Green Umber COOL
Ivory Black COOL

Reply

Will Kemp January 18, 2014

Hi Judy, each brand does vary slightly, but most Persian Reds are cool and Red Umbers are warm.
And bear in mind, these warm/cool colours are a guide to send your colour mixing on course, because as you paint, if you start to place two different blues next to each other a ‘warm blue’ can suddenly be called a ‘cool blue’ in comparison. to a different blue.

Hope this hasn’t confused you even more!

Cheers,
Will

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Judy Nolan January 19, 2014

Thanks for that Will – you were very clear.
Ideally I should do a cour mixing chart and that
would make it easier to compare the reds. I keep
Putting it off! Many Thanks Judy

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Dan January 31, 2014

Hi will I can’t seem to find English red to go with my light red in student range oils or acrylics .?. Are there any alternatives or could I get by on just light red along side the portrait palette you have recommended.? Also have you thought of making a downloadable portrait in color video . ? I for one would be very interested as your teaching methods are very simple and sound for a novice like me . Thanks

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Will Kemp January 31, 2014

Hi Dan,

Here is an English red oil paint from Sennelier (£4.95)

An English Red oil from Old Holland (£6.25 40ml) This is the one that I use.

An English Red Acrylic from Old Holland (£6.10)

And a Lukas studio oil English red (£9.99 for 200ml)

Personally the Lukas student oil looks a bit too pink, but it is a student range English red, for the small difference in initial cost for the quality of the paint I would go for the artist quality version.

I am planning a colour portrait course which should be coming out this year.

Cheers,

Will

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Dan January 31, 2014

Thank you will

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sheryl February 9, 2014

Hi will I am new to painting portraits and was advised to get yellow ochre , Venetian red and ivory black . I was wondering if this was a good palette to start with , ? Also in your skin tone video you used burnt number , blue and a mixture of the two to tone the tone down ? I was wondering why you used the colours in that order? and why ivory black wasn’t just used ? In a a bit confused ? Thanks

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Will Kemp February 9, 2014

Hi Sheryl, yes that’s an excellent palette to start with.

The skin tones video was using extremes of colour to demonstrate the process of mixing and muting pigments.

When I’m painting my portraits I use a palette similar to the ones you mention, however, without understanding how pigments and colours mix together it won’t help with your portraits.

So if you understand colour mixing first, then you can go straight in with the black.

Hope this hasn’t confused you more!

Cheers,

Will

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sheryl February 9, 2014

Thank you will I think I understand . Do you think as I get more experienced you would advise add-ons a colour or two to add to Venetian red yellow ochre and ivory black ? . Thank you

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Will Kemp February 9, 2014

Hi Sheryl, yes, depending on the style of portraits and colour palette you prefer, you can tweak the palette to suit your own style. Adding a brighter red or yellow if you want a more vibrant painting or a stronger blue if you want more warm/cool contrast.

Cheers,

Wll

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Dan February 11, 2014

Hi will , just wondering if there is much of a difference between raw umber and burnt umber when toning down a portrait ?. I have taken your advice and purchased a light red instead of aliz crimson . Yellow ochre instead of cad yellow light ,ultra blue , and ivory black . just wondering if I should buy both ? And what are the differences as they both appear to tone a color down ? . Thank you

Reply

Will Kemp February 11, 2014

Hi Dan,

Burnt umber will give you a warmer undertone, and raw umber a cooler undertone, so it depends on the feel of the portrait. If you buy Burnt umber you can easily one it done to be very close to raw umber by adding in a touch of ivory black.

Cheers,

Will

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Melinda W March 8, 2014

Hi from Australia.Thanks Will for this site. I havent painted for years. And this site discusses alot of the things painters struggle with when painting alone. Yes I did do a Barbie type scary portrait as a warm up, back- to painting. But I also began a much smaller one and have found for the moment Im more successful at smaller.. I think its important if a painting just isnt working and never has, to move on to a new one. I tend to think u approach it with more confidence. It worked for me. A failing painting is a bit heartbreaking. Also I found lookin at successful paintings online like Fongwei Liu or Romel de la Torre (old school) is great for lookin at technique and inspiration.

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Will Kemp March 8, 2014

Hi Melinda, pleased you enjoyed the article and are finding your way back to painting. Working from Old Master paintings is a great way to learn new techniques.
Cheers,
Will

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Kryssy Read March 13, 2014

Hi Will,
I have a colour question. Most of what I want to ask is answered above but I was wondering why so many say to mix a touch of ultramarine into cadmium red medium and cadmium yellow then add white to make a skin tone. I tried this and ended up with green – a rather nice green, but green all the same. My ultramarine was French ultramarine – would that have made a difference do you think?
I will experiment with your recommended limited palette as I’m sure it will be the best.
Bye for now
Kryssy

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Will Kemp March 13, 2014

Hi Kryssy, you will be able to get a skin tone with those colours, it just needs a subtle apporach. All the colours are very strong so can be hard to balance. If you watch the video above you’ll see how I mix a orange with the cadmium yellow light and permanent alizarin crimson, and then mute it down with the burnt umber (which makes my mix too green) and then a tiny bit of ultramarine blue to knock down the saturation. So I would try again, but go gently on the blue.

Cheers,

Will

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Kryssy Read March 14, 2014

Hi Will,

Thank you for taking the time to answer and helping me out. I’ll have another go today and go easy on the blue. I am going to try a portrait of my daughter-in-law for her birthday. It is rather ambitious but her birthday is not until October so perhaps I’ll get my mix right by then… :-) You may hear my screams if it all goes pear shaped…

Kryssy x

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Will Kemp March 14, 2014

You’re welcome Kryssy, good luck with your new mixes! have a lovely weekend.

Cheers,

Will

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andrew kateregga April 18, 2014

am an arstist living in uganda a both landscape painter and portaits but what troubles me most of the time is that i know how to mix up the colors of black people using burnt umber crimson red yellow and tat white but controlling colors for whites is the problem what am i going to do with contolling the cool colors?

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Will Kemp April 19, 2014

Hi Andrew, you can use a ultramarine blue to control the cooler tones in your portraits.
Cheers,
Will

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Janet April 20, 2014

Hi Will,

The portrait demo is great and very clear to follow, I now understand what you said about my portrait having edges that need softening. I just hope I learn to stand back and have more patients. Also the limited palette makes sense.

Thanks so much.

All the best

Janet

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Will Kemp April 22, 2014

Great to hear it Janet, those subtleties of soft/hard can make all the difference.
Will

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suzanne May 22, 2014

How did you solve the “tango man” problem?

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Will Kemp May 24, 2014

You have to try and resist your own temptations to tinker!

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David Sedlarik June 19, 2014

Hello Will: I use a limited pallet of Titanium white, burnt sienna, yellow ocher, permanent rose, burnt umber. green & ivory black in my portraits. Somehow I can’t see all the colors you professionals see in a face. I know they-er there & I use other colors due to the back ground and clothing in the skin but there is so much about portraiture I just can’t comprehend. I’m to old to spend years in art school & my portraits are good but that’s a far cry from what I want them to be. I learn all the time as I paint but god, I’ll never come close to being the kind of painter I’d like to be. I’ll need a whole slew of suggestions on your part to help me improve substantially. All you information is so beneficial to me & I’m sure everyone else who reads what you have to say. Thank you.Your free information is a gift of kindness on your part.

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Will Kemp June 20, 2014

Hi David,

Portraits can be tricky, especially cracking skin tones. Pleased you’ve been finding the articles of help. I’m currently editing a new course of portrait painting with acrylics that aims to give students a foundational understanding of how to tackle mixing skin tones for portraits. More details should be coming out on the site soon.

Cheers,
Will

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Sandra Cutrer July 20, 2014

A BIG thank you!

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Will Kemp July 21, 2014

You’re welcome Sandra,
Will

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Connie Cash November 5, 2014

Hi Will. Was just wondering, when I see Light Red listed in suggested Palette colors, is it referring to Cad Red Light ? There are several reds that are light, and it is confusing..

I am so pleased to find your page and your willingness to share your knowledge with others. Thank you !

Connie Cash

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Will Kemp November 6, 2014

Hi Connie, the red is a muted red called ‘Light Red’

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Connie Cash November 6, 2014

I am so glad to have the answer . Thank you very much, Will.

Connie Cash

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Connie Cash November 5, 2014

Is Transparent Oxide Red a good substitute for English Red ? It seems to be brighter. Is it a good red to be used in portraits ? I think it is a beautiful color.

Thank you very much, Will, for any information you can give me.

Connie Cash

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Will Kemp November 6, 2014

Hi Connie, yes, Transparent Oxide Red can make a good colour for portraits.
Cheers,
Will

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Larry February 3, 2014

Thanks, Will. I appreciate the promptness of your replies when I have asked you a question.

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Will Kemp February 3, 2014

You’re welcome Larry,
Will

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