Skin Tones in Acrylic: A Process

I have been experimenting with painting icons using acrylic paints, after years of using egg tempera exclusively.  I kind of like acrylics, with their ease of use and quick drying.  Over time, I have studied with several different teachers, each with their own methods, and it has been interesting trying to find my own preferences and methods in my iconography.

acrylic sankir drawing2 inked acrylic sankir Jesus1

acrylic sankir Jesus2

I recently found myself fairly well pleased with a way to paint skin tones (sankir) with my very limited acrylic palette.

01 acrylic sankir GearI use the paint directly from the tube, thinning it with equal parts water and Golden Fluid Matte Medium.  Using only water gives you lovely transparency, but often there is a problem with lifting:  the acrylic medium binds the paint to the surface, making it permanent.  I mix the medium, water, and paint, using an old jar lid as a container, until it has the general consistency of heavy cream.  Letting it sit for a couple of hours allows any bubbles to disperse.  My palette is very limited: the colors in the photo are 95% of what I used to paint these faces.  One can also use the same powdered pigments as in egg tempera:  just use the acrylic medium instead of egg yolk for the binding agent to make the liquid paint.

I’ll go through my modest, cautious method (and there are many ways to make this work, this is just what I have stumbled upon) step by step, with this painting of St.Monica:

acrylic sankir St.Monica0 w thereseFirst, of course, I transfer the drawing to the board, line it with a mixture of red, ultramarine blue, and green to make a dark, dense color.  I don’t often use black for anything.  I then cover the entire board with a layer of yellow ochre to open the icon and provide a unifying harmonious color below the other layers of paint.


acrylic sankir St.Monica1The first layer of the skin tone/sankir is Chromium Oxide Green with a bit of Yellow Ochre.  It is pretty green and alarming–but don’t worry, it will work.  Paint it on all skin and hair areas.  If necessary, redraw most of the lines:  upper eyelid, pupil, eyebrows, nose, mouth, chin.

Next I paint on, in the areas that will be highlighted with Cadmium Red Light.  I am careful to blend in the edges at this early step as best as I can, using water to thin out and avoid sharp boundary lines.

acrylic sankir St.Monica2Mix some Yellow Ochre, about half and half, with the red.  Thin with water and acrylic medium to make it transparent.  (Anytime you thin acrylics with water, remember to add in some medium.  Otherwise the pigments might not bind properly and will lift off when you paint the next layer.)  Apply this color as a base coat for the bright highlights.  After this somewhat orangey layer, I use pure Yellow Ochre in transparent layers, until the features become distinct, moving gradually back away from the edges.

The brighter highlights are made by adding Titanium White to the Yellow Ochre.  Float on transparent layers for a small icon, brush them on a larger one, using water and medium to dilute, soften and fade the edges so that there are no sharp boundaries.

acrylic sankir St.Monica3As you paint, it can happen that the whitish paint layers come up too brightly, or the tones are too chalky.  Fix this by putting a thin layer of transparent Red or Yellow Ochre –or both–over the entire skin and hair area, including the green shadow areas.  These faint layers of red, then ochre, will soften the harsh green and red areas that are showing.  They become more brown or olive in shade, depending on whether you push back the chalky areas with reds or ochres.


acrylic sankir St.Monica4The transparent layers of reds or ochres will blend the entire skin tones beautifully, eliminating “islands” overly bright color.  Use as many layers as you feel is necessary, going back and forth between painting on highlights and pushing them back.  With each layer, the face emerges a bit more.

One nice thing about using this method is that it is never hopeless.  You can always fix and correct anything.  Paint it on, push it back.  Just keep on tinkering with it, using the paint more like transparent water colors.  Reline if necessary. Use a transparent layer of burnt sienna and green if you need to darken shadows.

acrylic sankir St.Monica5         acrylic sankir St.Monica8 w Therese

Finally, once the skin tones are softly blended and look correct to your eye, use a 60-40 mixture of Titanium White to Yellow Ochre to do the brightest highlights.  Pure white is too harsh.  Paint in the dark lines (eyebrows, eyes, etc).  And again, if they are too stark, push them back with a layer of Yellow Ochre over all again.  Repaint if necessary.  Put in pure red (transparent) lines along the nose, mouth, chin, around forehead, red spots in the corner of the eye and by the ear, and anywhere else that a warm emphatic line is useful.


I am sure that there are as many ways to do this as their are iconographers, but this method has worked for me.  I hope this has been helpful to you. And as you might guess, some of the color differences in the illustrations are due to different lighting when I took the photo.  All of them are different stages of one painted face, from start to finish.



About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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5 Responses to Skin Tones in Acrylic: A Process

  1. SR says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Hubby coming in so have to fix lunch. Will be back as I have many questions. Love and God Bless, SR

  2. SR says:

    One question though many more are coming. The red/orange tone on the left of the Blessed Mother and the more flesh and white tone on the right. Is one with the egg and one acrylic or are they both with the acrylic. When I am painting I learned very quickly to shadow most of what I could with the white. I was especially pleased with myself when I learned how to make waves, which was by accident. 🙂 I also when I draw with charcoal kind of do the same by taking a paper towel a “shadow the parts which need it. Such as a cheekbone, etc…. I charcoal first then wipe with paper towel. I have also kind of found this is helpful at times in painting. (Of course my painting is not near as advanced as yours.) Another thing I found wonderful in watercolors, was adding salt to it before it dries. After it dries shake it off. Wonderful turn out. I wonder if one could do that with acrylic? Thanks for answers and God Bless, SR Okay it was more than one question. 🙂

    • reinkat says:

      Hi SR, thanks for the comments and questions. I’ll try to answer . . .the two side by side portraits (of St. Monica) are exactly the same picture, entirely in acrylics. The change in tone is caused by different lighting for the photography. I probably took the first one in sunlight, and after doing the final highlighting on the one on the right, it was already dark so it is lit by artificial light. It makes a HUGE difference, doesn’t it?
      All of the photos of St.Monica are the exact same image as it progressed through different stages.
      I know what you mean by making shadows with charcoal. Iconography is a bit different, as you start with the darks and model the form with light. Light coming from the darkness, giving life to the form!
      Watercolors: using salt is very interesting–have you tried putting the wet painting in the freezer? You can get some interesting “frost” lines that way. I have no idea if salt–or freezing–will work with acrylics. I’ve never tried it. But one of my teachers used salt effectively with egg tempera. It looked very beautiful.

  3. SR says:

    Yes……..St. Monica! Forgive me I was so interested in the use of the paints and the mixing, I guess that did not stick with me. So sorry! You may fix if you so choose! 🙂

    Thanks for all of your answers, now for another question. Do not think me dumb here, but I am very new to painting. What is a “medium?” You said to add it when mixing acrylic with water. Now if we do not add it, will the acrylic paint be somewhat like water colors? I know as I am painting with water colors, I have to be very careful as to not let them run so much in the next scene. The reason I started with water colors is because they are so much cheaper. I did not want to invest a whole lot of money until I found out if I was going to enjoy painting or not? Thanks for help and God Bless, SR

  4. reinkat says:

    Hi, SR, thanks for the questions . . . and congratulations on tackling watercolors. Because they seem simple, people think they are easy. After all–watercolor sets are made for children . . . they MUST be easy!
    Not so. It is one of the more difficult painting media (type) to master. And the technique is different from all other kinds of paint. What is easy about them is clean up.
    I really found oil paints to be the easiest. But to get back to your question:

    The stuff that is the binder for acrylic paints is called Acrylic Medium, and you buy it at the art store by that name. It can be liquid or gel.

    Paint is basically ground up, powdered minerals, mixed with something. What you mix it with determines what kind of paint it is: oil paint is pigment with linseed/stand oils, watercolors are with gum arabic, egg tempera is with (you guessed it) egg yolk, casein is with milk, — acrylics are pigments with commercially made acrylic medium, a synthetic plastic product that binds the pigment grains together to make the paint.

    I have a lot of powdered pigments, and can custom-make any of these kinds of paints from the same powder. Paint in the tube is already mixed up. I hope that helps.

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