Blog / 2019 / Painting a Black Person’s Portrait Versus Painting a White Person’s

July 14, 2019

This is an internet search that often brings people to my site:

How do I mix colors for a black person’s skin tone?

It’s a question that I addressed in this 2015 video, but, since it remains a popular search, I’ve decided to tackle it again by re-revealing my secret to painting black people:

Look carefully at the subject.

process images for 2 colorful crosshatched paintings, one of a black woman and one of a white man

Regardless of ethnicity, every individual has a variety of skin tones, and they shift depending on mood and health. The only way to accurately capture someone’s color is to observe them and then try to match what you see with your paint.

That said, all humans also have a luminosity that comes from being alive. Something about our blood and our skin gives every last person a kind of glow. It’s most noticeable when it’s gone, like when someone is wearing a lot of makeup, muting the natural light of their face with a flattening layer. (I’m not saying people shouldn’t wear makeup, just that the makeup creates a different effect than bare skin.)

To paint a portrait of anyone, I generally start with lighter colors, then layer in darker ones, and then go back in to pick out highlights. I repeat these steps multiple times as I search for the best way to represent a person, both in their coloring and in their other features.

Deloris, portrait by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Deloris
2019
acrylic on panel
14 x 11 inches

I get that people who are searching online about mixing paint for skin tones are looking for a recipe. They want to know what amount of burnt umber or quinacridone gold will equal the color of black skin. Still, the premise of the question boggles my mind. There is no formula for painting a person. You have to pay attention to the subject, and that’s all there is to it.

Jeff, portrait by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Jeff
2019
acrylic on panel
14 x 11 inches

If you love what you see, you can hire me to paint your portrait! For more about the two paintings featured here, check out this book project I am contributing to.

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