01 July 2013

Learning about Skin Tones from John Singer Sargent

I have been studying the color of flesh a lot lately.  I am not satisfied with the skin tones in my paintings and I need to correct that.  Too warm and chromatic.

I'm testing some earth colors suggested by Sharon Sprung in her video "Understanding Values in Skin Tones".  The video is for beginners, but there are some good color pointers.  As a result...new colors on my palette: raw sienna, raw umber, red umber, and payne's gray.  I like muted colors.

I'm trying these new colors in some master copies.  I chose a range of reference portraits with a nice variety of flesh tones. You can't go wrong with master copying.

Today's post shows 3 copies after John Singer Sargent.  Let me say up front...my purpose was to evaluate flesh tones, not to produce an exact copy.

Head of a Capri Girl, 1878. Rich, dark skin tones and a good example of value gradation down the face. I used yellow ochre, terra rosa and paynes gray here.  I love how Sargent used the opaque terra rosa tint to cut in those shapes around the chin and neck.  Click here to see the original.


Head of a Neopolitan Boy, 1878.  An example of warm skin tones; the basic color mixture is yellow ochre, cad red, and alizarin.  Sargent painted this study when he was 22! The background is raw umber, a nice compliment to warm skin tones.  Click here to see the original.

Alice Shepard, 1888.  Cool, fair skin tones.  I used raw sienna, alizarin and raw umber here.  This front-lit portrait shows how deft Sargent was at modeling form with subtle shifts in temperature and value.  So difficult to do well.  Click here to see the original.

If you are looking for source material, the Athenaeum, Google Art Project and Art Renewal Center are good online image banks with lots of high resolution images to master copy. 


  1. You have such skill already, Candace, I admire you for continuing to want to grow more and more as an artist. Skin tones are so baffling to me too. I think a lot of it depends on the colors in the background too. You've done a beautiful job with these portraits!

    1. Thanks, Katherine. I guess we are never done growing...and there are so many incredible artists out there these days to be motivated by. I like your comment on the background effect. So important, but so often overlooked. I love the background in the first portrait in this post (check out the original). Beautiful abstract shapes.

  2. Great post. Thanks so much.
    I too have done a Sargent copy for my personal education. I was trying to emulate his brushstrokes as well as color and edges, etc.

    Regards - John

    1. Hey, John, thanks for your comment. Sargent's strokes are such a great way to learn brushmanship. So much to learn...so little time.