WATERCOLOUR CHEAT CODES
I made really quick tutorials full of swatches to send my mom who wants to take up watercolour painting for a hobby. I’ll share them here as I find time to type what I wrote her.
The first two pictures illustrate discoveries in mixing skin-tones. I try to find paints that make it faster/easier to mix skin colours - even if you’re adept at making these tones out of other colours, the right combo of purple and yellow can cut out a lot of time and money. The one I have most success with is “violet gray”, then “permanent magenta” for darker and wider ranges, and “purple lake” when I was cheap and it was on sale.
Mix these (sparingly) with raw sienna. The darker the purple the less you’ll need to add to your yellow (yellow ochre works as well). Ultimately, watercolour is tricky to mix so if you’re not confident right away make sure to paint swatches before putting a loaded brush to paper, otherwise be ready to mix with water on the paper.
For a lighter, paler, redder skin tone, raw sienna + brown madder is what I prefer, although as you can see in the first image (about half-way down the page on the left), “cadmium yellow pale hue” and “cadmium red deep hue” work just as well, and might be cheaper on you. With that combo, however, it’s easier to get stuck mixing a ton of orange.
Back to permanent magenta, it’s great with browns to get darker tones, not just for darker skin but for shading. I keep three browns on my “skin” palette (last pic), “burnt umber”, “burnt sienna”, and “vandyke brown”. Mix it with some skin-tone, even just a little, to keep it from looking straight-out-of-the-tube.
So mix your skin tones, make a few test swatches to figure out how much water you need (every brush behaves differently), and lay down some washes.
In the middle of the first piece of paper is a gradation in a skin tone (violet gray + raw sienna) from really warm (“brown madder”) to really cool (“turquoise”). This was done wet in wet, to show what kinds of tones you get from adding warm and cool colours.
To the left on the bottom are a couple light washes of colours painted over a skin tone (same ol’ raw sienna + violet gray) to show how different colours look on this mix when applied dry on dry. Blue (I used turquoise again) is great for some shadows, implied stubble, and veins close to the skin, reds and most browns for warmer shading, yellow for jaundice or boogers… you get it.
On the bottom right is an example of really warm vs. really cool shading on the same skin tone mix (just guess). The initial skin tone wash is a bit warm for the cool side, but the contrast makes the shadows really evident. Different colours in shading will have different effects that way. The only surprise here is the use of dark blue “indigo” which is great for coming close to black when mixed with other colours.
On the second page are two more noses, different skin tones, and just three extra passes with skin tone washes - although difficult to tell because I was lazy and didn’t wait long enough for them to dry after the 2nd pass. The extra passes aren’t particularly warm or cold leaning, but simply draw off of the initial tone I placed.
IMPORTANT: These little quick studies serve to be as economical as possible, using few colours but still not looking just like an awkward mix of red and yellow or brown and yellow. For a more detailed or accurate representation of skin tones, a ton more colours might be added - for instance the darker skin tone on the right would have more pinks, and of course different parts of the body appear to be tinted differently. Also never forget no matter what colour or how dark skin is, skin is shiny. Be mindful of even diffused light. At the same time - perfect representation of skin is hardly necessary. More expressive colour treatment rules.
But ultimately - colour in skin - who cares! Just play around with colours you like, build a base that’s easy for you to mix quickly for wet on wet or however you prefer to work. Play with colours on different planes or surfaces of the body, with light, and take everything I say as a tips - not rules - ‘cause watercolour is really unpredictable and that is often the best part.
Another note: I use pencil tins for palettes, it keeps things portable, easy to mix, minimal paint waste, and I can rearrange paints easily to make mixing easier. I usually have three but you could get away with one or two. If you try it out, keep the paints and empty space clean with jut a bit of water and the wipe of a cloth/kleenex.
The third picture shows a really quick, easy, natural black mix I make. It’s simply “Hooker’s Green, Dark” and “Dioxazine Violet” at almost equal quantities. You can mix it with a blue or red or yellow for a warmer or cooler black, depending on which you need. I included some gradation and overlapping swatches. Just keep in mind black can be very powerful in watercolour, or any opaque application of the paint, so use it sparingly and with a plan in mind.
Despite my shitty watercolour sketches up here, I spent a huge amount of being a child working at a cooperative gallery with some contemporary and purist watercolour painters alike so I picked up a lot. If anyone wants me to be more specific about something, or maybe produce a more specific guide or sketch for a problem you have, let me know and I can try to help out.
These were things my mum asked for and that I produced with her knowledge of the medium in mind, so if it really did interest you but you’re stuck on something, or found something I said vague and confusing, let me know.
EDIT: A tutorial I made to talk about paper. It’s important stuff. [link]