How to Choose a Basic Portrait Painting Palette for Oils

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 a full range of colours, I have just isolated the colours most relevant for portrait painting.


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

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

Michael-Harding-colour-chart Micheal 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, it’s 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.

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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.

See: How to paint Naturalistic Skin Tones in Acrylic Course – Online course.

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



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


This Post Has 98 Comments

  1. Gunner Dave

    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)


    1. Will Kemp

      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,

  2. Colleen

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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.

  3. Debra

    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!

    1. Will Kemp

      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!



      1. Jo

        I am new to oil paints and feel perhaps they are not for me , I love creating portraits and have always used acrylic , I don’t know how to keep cleaning my brushes before a apply a new tone , I know I sound like a complete novice but these basics will help so much , do you keep cleaning your brush or do you use several brushes for each tone ? Thanks so much

        1. Will Kemp

          Hi Jo, it depends on the painting, but if there are strong darks and whites, I’ll often keep separate dark, and light brushes to help prevent the darks going milky/grey

  4. Donn

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      Oh Hey Donn,

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


  5. Natassha

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

    Thank You,

    1. Will Kemp

      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.


  6. Caroline

    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!

    1. Will Kemp

      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,


  7. Pauline


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

    1. Will Kemp

      Yep, they would work just fine.


  8. Dan

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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.


  9. Munish Pundir

    Hey Wills,

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

    1. Will Kemp

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

  10. Larry

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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,


      1. Larry

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

        1. Larry

          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?

          1. Will Kemp

            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.



          2. Larry

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

          3. Will Kemp

            You’re welcome Larry,

  11. Elena Eguiguren

    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,

    1. Will Kemp

      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!


      1. Tyler Jones

        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.

  12. judy nolan

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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!


      1. Judy Nolan

        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

  13. Dan

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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.



  14. Dan

    Thank you will

  15. sheryl

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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!



  16. sheryl

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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.



  17. Dan

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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.



  18. Melinda W

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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.

  19. Kryssy Read

    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

    1. Will Kemp

      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.



      1. Kryssy Read

        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

        1. Will Kemp

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



  20. andrew kateregga

    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?

    1. Will Kemp

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

  21. Janet

    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


    1. Will Kemp

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

  22. suzanne

    How did you solve the “tango man” problem?

    1. Will Kemp

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

  23. David Sedlarik

    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.

    1. Will Kemp

      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.


  24. Connie Cash

    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

    1. Will Kemp

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

      1. Connie Cash

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

        Connie Cash

  25. Connie Cash

    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

    1. Will Kemp

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

  26. heena

    To make portrait with oil color which color should mix for skin???
    And any other media should mix to make color thin. ???

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Henna, you can mix skin tones from a variety of mixes, in the video I show how to mix a muted skin tone using brighter pigments.

  27. daniel smith

    am very happy for coming across this website, am a graphics student but I have the intentions to learn how to be a painter. my problems is. that I don’t know how to get the. colours of. a human figure…

    1. Will Kemp

      Pleased you’re finding it helpful Daniel,

  28. heena

    sir, can I use oil color on acrylic painting???

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Henna, yes, you can use oil on top of acrylics, just not acrylic on top of oil.

  29. Elizabeth Preston

    Will. Im having great difficulty with a portrait of someone from Hawaii. Her hair is very deep black but the skin is not like a Latino or Asian. Any suggestions? Your willingness to share hints is wonderful.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Elizabeth, I would cut a small 1 cm square out of a piece of black card, place this over your reference image so only a small section of skin tone colour is showing, then mix a colour to match that. Then remove the card and carry on the portrait using the first colour as a base skin tone mix.

      Hope this helps,


  30. Graeme

    Nice article Will, thanks.

    I haven’t progressed to oils. I have invested in Acrylics and I am hoping to make use of and master this medium.
    My difficulty is how to approach a portrait, but using acrylic. Is it much the same process as you would find in any portrait painting guide? Or does it require a new set of rules? There are a lot of books and pages dedicated to portrait painting with oils, but I haven’t been able to find much with Acrylics. I am very new to painting. I feel I have the skills to draw or to develop pieces of work, but my technical ability and understand of how to use mediums really holds me back.

    Any pointers or where to looks would be a great help.


    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Graeme, nice to hear from you, there are a few different approaches I would use when working with acrylics due to the faster drying time (a stay wet palette can be very handy) and the glazing techniques you can achieve with acrylics. I do have a more in-depth course on mixing naturalistic skin tones with acrylics as you’ve already got a good basis of drawing you would be able to use the techniques to great effect. With acrylics you don’t need to use lots of mediums, I use an acrylic glazing liquid gloss and water for 90% of my paintings.

      Hope this helps,


  31. Jose Gama

    Dear Will,
    Thanks very mutch for sharing your knowledge mainly with a begginer like me. I found very usefull your Basic Palette for portrait painting. Nevertheless I have a doubt:
    You mention two reds-Indian Red and English Red. To my (limited) knowledge they are very similar since both are iron oxides (Pigment R101). Why use them?
    I must tell you that Old Holland paints are not available in Portugal so I can’t buy them easly. The W&N Artist can be used ? Light Red from W&N is a reasonable substitute?
    Thanks for your help and for your Blog
    J Gama

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Jose, nice to hear from you, I’m in Portugal at the moment as it happens! English red is warmer and gives more orange hues, Indian red goes towards pinks and purples. They look very close in a mass-tone but give much different tones when mixed in with white. W & N are great.

  32. Bev

    How do I chose background colours for my portraits

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Bev, it varies depending on the style and technique you are going to be using for the portrait. For example, if you were painting a dark Rembrandt style painting you might opt for a darker warm burnt umber tone, but for a fresher impressionistic study go for a light soft yellow. Try to think of the end mood and colour palette of the whole portrait first and then choose a ground colour.
      Hope this helps,


  33. Katherine Teel

    Hi Will, your instructions are invaluable. I’ve studied art randomly all my life, but have been constantly frustrated because I run up against a lack of these basics that I’ve never learned. To find real training and knowledge like yours online is a joy. Thank you!
    I wanted to mention that l learned a lot about skin color by watching department store cosmetic clerks mixing powder. They have large amounts of only these basic colors you listed, only three or four, unusually muted Red, muted yellow, and muted bluish from which they mix every skin color fom Born to Live in a Cave colorless like mine to the darkest of skins. It’s fascinating..

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Katherine, great to hear from you and thanks for your kind words on the site and tutorials. Yes, those muted palettes of powder can be a great source of inspiration for creating realistic skin tones in paint, it really can be amazing how much can be achieved with a few colours.

  34. Steve Matthews

    Ditto on the splendid job with your tutorial. One simple Question should one ever use a transparent color in a portrait? I think in the video you said you use Opaque colors for the base tones. Thanks for all the tips I will put them to good use today using oils, as I have spent two days going round and round on a portrait of my wife using Acrylics, I will have it finished in one day with oils, I think the problem I was experiencing with the acrylics was the fact that they dry darker and I just couldn’t guess how far to tweak them, I ended up with hard edges consistently with my Acrylics and I know oils will solve that issue, fuel for thought!!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Steve, yes, transparent colours can be very handy if you’re building up glazes in the final layers of a portrait. Having that extra working time of oils can be especially handy with the soft smoking of portraits, hope your painting goes well.

  35. David

    Does anyone know a source that tells warm&cool colors among basic hues — which yellows are warmer than other yellows, which greens are warmer then other greens, and so on? I’d like to reference a listing or source which hues are warmer and cooler than others. For any reply, Thank you.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi David, if you have a look at this document on Winsor and Newton watercolours, scroll down to the bottom there is a section of warm and cool colours.

      I’ve copied it below:

      Colour Bias
      The relative value of colour bias within your palette affects the mixtures you can
      achieve and artists have often requested “warm” palettes. These are listed below:

      Cadmium Yellow Pale
      Turner’s Yellow New Gamboge
      Cadmium Yellow
      Winsor Yellow Deep
      Indian Yellow
      Cadmium Yellow Deep
      Cadmium Orange
      Winsor Orange
      Winsor Orange (Red Shade)
      Cadmium Scarlet
      Scarlet Lake
      Cadmium Red
      Winsor Red
      Rose Doré
      Quinacridone Red
      Opera Rose
      Quinacridone Magenta
      Permanent Magenta
      Cobalt Violet
      Permanent Mauve
      Winsor Violet (Dioxazine)
      Cobalt Blue Deep
      French Ultramarine
      Ultramarine(Green Shade)
      Winsor Blue (Red Shade)
      Cerulean Blue (Red Shade)
      Winsor Green(Yellow Shade)
      Oxide of Chromium
      Yellow Ochre Light
      Yellow Ochre
      Gold Ochre
      Quinacridone Gold
      Brown Ochre
      Magnesium Brown
      Burnt Sienna
      Light Red
      Venetian Red
      Brown Madder
      Potter’s Pink
      Perylene Maroon
      Perylene Violet
      Caput Mortuum Violet
      Burnt Umber
      Vandyke Brown
      Titanium White


      Colour Bias
      The relative value of colour bias within your palette affects the mixtures you can
      achieve and artists have often requested “cool” palettes. These are listed below:

      Lemon Yellow (Nickel Titanate)
      Bismuth Yellow
      Cadmium Lemon
      Winsor Lemon
      Lemon Yellow Deep
      Transparent Yellow
      Winsor Red Deep
      Permanent Alizarin Crimson
      Alizarin Crimson
      Permanent Carmine
      Permanent Rose
      Rose Madder Genuine
      Indanthrene Blue
      Cobalt Blue
      Antwerp Blue
      Prussian Blue
      Winsor Blue (Green Shade)
      Cerulean Blue
      Phthalo Turquoise
      Winsor Green (Blue Shade)
      Terre Verte
      Perylene Green
      Permanent Sap Green
      Olive Green
      Terre Verte (Yellow Shade)
      Green Gold
      Raw Sienna
      Indian Red
      Raw Umber
      Payne’s Gray
      Neutral Tint
      Ivory Black
      Lamp Black
      Mars Black
      Davy’s Gray
      Chinese White

      Hope this helps,


  36. Kinga

    Hi Will,

    I have just purchased for first time some artist quality oil paints in the January sales ( Winsor&Newton and Rowney Artists’), but have only student quality Titanium White (Daler Rowney Georgian). Would it be wise to buy some artist quality white for the new paints or perhaps in respect of white it does not really matter?
    Thank you.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Kinga, it depends on the lightness or darkness of the subjects you’re painting. If a very light palette an artist quality white will give you more opaque mixes. Here are some comparisons with acrylic whites you might find of interest.


  37. Daniel

    Hi Will . I would like to ask a couple of questions if I may . In your mixing Flesh Tones in oil video you used Burnt Umber as well as Ultra marine Blue .? . I wondered why .? Do you Need both colours to cool a flesh tone down .? . I’m confused . Many Thanks

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Danny, you use the blue to cool a flesh tone and the brown to warm a flesh tone.

  38. Daniel

    Many Thanks .

  39. Sarah Broos

    Sorry I’m responding to an old post but I hope you can help me. I wanted to start with the basic limeted palette that you suggested but then in acrylic. There is one problem I can not find English red. Do you know a good alternative to this color in acrylic paint? thank you in advance!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Sarah, nice to hear from you can get an English Red and Venetiaa red in acrylics from Old Holland’s New Masters range. Alternatively, the English red oil paint uses a pigment PR101 which is a Synthetic Iron Oxide so you can have a look at the pigment numbers on other manufactures tubes to find a close match. For example, Golden paints Red Oxide uses a PR101 pigment, which is very close.
      Hope this helps,


  40. Richard Thomas

    I am teaching myself to paint, to do oil portraits. Mixing colors was really difficult until I became aware there are just the three primaries. Then I discovered the Zorn palette and realized the total freedom of art. There are no rules! This really appeals to me.

    You have the option to make it as complicated, or as simply as you care to. I let my intuitive sense take over, and try not to over think it. Just let it happen. Then I get the best results.

  41. Keahna

    Hi Will,
    I know this is an old post but I had a question.
    As an acrylic painter who uses a lot of bright colors for more abstract portraits, should I try to continue my style using oils, or would going for something more realistic be better. I am worried about investing in bright colors (think limes, magentas, teals, and tangerines used by Francoise Nielly) only to not be able to really use them.
    Thank you,

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Keahna, it depends on the style and aesthetic you’re going for. You can still create some great portraits with strong colours as long as the tonal values are correct it will read as a portrait.

  42. Alun ap Rhisiart

    Yes, I had a real problem with skin tones until I got some Enchroma glasses, and was rather embarrassed at how orange-red I had made some of my tones. I’ve pretty much settled on Lead white, Rublev Ercolano Red, and Rublev Blue Ridge Yellow Ochre for most of it, with French Ultramarine + burnt umber for the darks. The idea of using Raw Umber in the underpainting is a good one, I’ll adopt that. I have also come across painters I respect mentioning Naples Yellow light (genuine) for portraits, but boy is it expensive! The fewer tubes I need to deal with the better, it makes it simpler to mix the same colour again. Raeburn’s palette was white, black, vermillion, burnt Sienna, raw Sienna, Prussian blue. The Boston palette, used by people like William MacGregor Paxton, was white, Ivory black, Indian red, light red, raw umber, yellow ochre, and sometimes Naples yellow. BTW Alizarin Crimson dates from 1868, so Hans Holbein could not have used it. He may have used rose madder (genuine).

    1. Will Kemp

      Some great colours there Alun.

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