Skin, Colors of

Back in the Brown Recliner (Nude Seated in Recliner)

By now you should be aware, I have been caught up in an activity that could be headlined: Live! Nudes!  Good thing I am a little old lady with white hair, or regular people might suspect something irregular is going on.  This luxury of painting live nudes (as opposed to drawing) has come my way fairly  recently, thanks to the generosity of a fellow artist, Adrienne Silversmith, who lends her studio (nominal fee) for my Tuesday Group, and runs her own group on Sundays.  It was at Adrienne’s Sunday sessions last Spring that I first embarked on painting, rather than drawing, the models.  Why?  Because Adrienne had the model holding the same pose, not just for the 3-hour session, but for multiple successive sessions.  (I didn’t take advantage of the multiple sessions to continue a painting over more than one session–instead I made a series of  four paintings of “The Pose”.)

It was this simple formatting decision that opened the door for my fantastic voyage into live nude painting.  Most life drawing sessions are broken up into segments of quick poses, slightly less quick poses, and longer (1 hour) poses.  The quick poses get you warmed up, and challenge you with positions that a model could not physically hold for longer than 1 or 5 minutes.  Trying to paint short poses can be frustrating, although I did do it once when I had only painting supplies with me.

In the course of these few months of live nude painting, plus the portraits class that I took with Cameron Bennett, I have learned a few things about painting skin tones.  (Caucasian skin tones, that is.  I feel I am still in the experimental stage with darker skins.)

Before I had live nudes to paint, I painted them from drawings that I had made during our Saturday life group.  My very first one, a few years ago, came out all harsh in reds and blues, and I was disappointed in it. It went away to that special place reserved for things to do over, or paint over.  Then, after a long hiatus, I brought it out again, and painted over it with different colors.

From a Charcoal Drawing, a Painting of a Nude Woman

I may have tried a set of pre-mixed colors put together by Howard Sanden.  Sanden is one of the top portraitists of our time, and he had honed his skin-tone expertise to the point where he premixed his skin-tone colors.   Then he decided to sell those premixed colors, and I won a set on eBay.  I found them harder to use than mixing my own colors.  They interrupted my rhythm.  Figuring out how to use them added a layer of complication.  They limited my colors as well.   I wasn’t aware of that shortcoming at the time, but as you can see, I invented skin tones even here that were not to be found in Sanden’s palette.

When I was working from a black and white drawing, I had to invent my colors.  A lot of lavender shows up in my shadows there–probably because, as a plein air landscape painter, lavender shadows were what I was used to.  In a live model, lavender is not much there.  Maybe it depends on the model–most of my best paintings feature Rebecca, and her shadows can be red,  green, gray, red, and ochre, pink; and purple when I wanted it really dark.  For example:

(“In the Artist’s Studio”, my still favorite nude painting, which I keep finding excuses to show.)

So I have stopped worrying about skin tones per se. Instead, I try to evaluate my paintings on the basis of  value, and just enjoy the color.  Here and there I will throw in a few patches of traditional skin color, merely as a reference point for the viewer.  “Here’s what this skin looks like in the light.”

“Back in the Brown Recliner”, shown at the top of the blog, is my latest, from last Tuesday.  We started a about 20 minutes late, so I had to finish up the painting at home, which is kind of interesting in itself.  I seem to be on a clock of three hours, start to finish.  I don’t consciously pace myself to finish within three hours–it just happens.  Except last Tuesday, but that was because we spent a lot of extra time figuring out where and how we wanted our model to pose.

What we ended up with was a pose practically identical the “The Pose”–that Sunday pose held by the same model in the brown recliner for four weeks in succession.  But this time I had a different angle on it.   Here is the No. 4 painting in that original series.

The Pose, No4 (Nude Woman in Brown Recliner

I have 2 photos of this painting, taken a week apart.  Here is the other one.

The Pose, No. 4, v. 2 (Nude Woman in a Brown Recliner)

The colors are so different, it’s disturbing.   I believe the first one is more accurate.  Perhaps it goes to show how it’s not the color of skin, it’s the values and the heat that make or break a nude painting.  Well, any painting, really; it’s just more obvious with nudes.  It also goes to show that you can’t trust a photograph to convey the true beauty of a painting.

By the way, I’m posting larger versions of some of my paintings because I lately realized that you cannot click on an image to enlarge it.  That must have been something I remember from the iWeb days.  I hope you enjoy seeing the brush strokes up close.  I see you lose the title though.  I guess nothing’s perfect.

Aline Lotter is currently exhibiting:

at the Hatfield Gallery in Manchester; at the Bartlett Inn in Bartlett; at the Red Jacket Inn in North Conway; at the Epsom Public Library in Epsom; at the Bedford Public Library, in Bedford; and at her studio by appointment.

11 responses to “Skin, Colors of

  1. Hi Aline
    I am hoping that you ARE inviting critique with your wonderful blogs…so I am hoping you do not mind if I take the liberty…Please do email or call if any discussions.

    One) a model will and does display any mixture of colors depending on the distance
    from the heat sourse or light. So in my opinions, you are not wrong but I do wonder about the pre-mixed paint of the Master Painter. I think, no wonder you had a hard time with his concoctions!

    Two) Painting a form of life from a photograph and having it look life-like is a near impossiblity…a painting should ALWAYS be done from a live model or life itself, in other words. I applaud your efforts!
    Too much “teaching” is done to students…serious students…with the introduction of photogragraphs into their efforts….I think more harm is done to the student than not.

    Three) I am assuming that if you have accepted my words so far, you will consider the rest….This is not a crtitism but a critique from my many years…:)

    Paint on a large canvas
    Remember: it is so much easier to draw small than it is to draw large

    If you want a Masterpiece then challenge your self at every step of the way.

    Step away from your painting…use your God given arm with free motion, paint with expression and what you FEEL, not what you think you see…or what you think should be there ( re: pre-mixed colors…what a way to make a buck! )

    Vary your palette…explore the use of the beautiful colors.

    Less detail in quick studies. Do many in paint. do not finish a painting when you get home.

    Hope this all helps…I am so enjoying what you are doing because you actually get out there and try with such a pure and natural desire. Janice 🙂


    • Janice, I am stunned and honored by your attention. You have concentrated a whole course of painting into one tiny comment. Well, maybe not so tiny. I will try to take all of your advice, but not ready for any large canvases yet.


  2. Hi Aline, I like your ‘favourite’ one, as you do. But when I looked back at it after reading your post, I thought the first one has such WARMTH in the skin tones. There are things left out (like feet which is a familiar thing!) but the picture sings more loudly to me because of those reds. Great! I still like your favourite one, but she seems so unexciting now even though it looks very accurate.


    • That is excellent news. I too see the flaws in many of them, but also feel they convey more emotion, and that counts for something, right? Re the lost foot, it would have been nice to get the foot in, but for some reason that I cannot articulate, I wanted the knees where I placed them, and built out from there. Give me more time and experience, and I will be able to rationalize it like an expert!


      • Just remember you are tackling the most difficult thing of all art endeavours. And then forget that bit of information!
        I should say it’s ages since I have done what you are doing. I think you are going well.


  3. Hi, Your work is wonderful! The skin tones are luscious! For your further interest check out some of Peter Paul Rubens paintings and his use of colors for skin tones. Two of his paintings (view them in “detail” if you can) “David slaying Goliath” and “The holy women at the sepulchre” both show his use of a faint green color in the shadow skin areas, often balanced with a subtle hot pink flesh color near by. There are other Rubens’ painting, and if you can see them in person it will be better, you will note how he uses this method of painting skin colors, which really brings out the muscle shapes and makes the skin tones very life like.


    • Thanks, Doug. I will look at Rubens flesh with a fresh eye, for sure. I never much cared for his way of painting, perhaps because I am put off by the lasciviousness I perceived in them, but now I can’t wait to check them out.


  4. You said: “I try to evaluate my paintings on the basis of value, and just enjoy the color” … remember that while you are painting. It’s all about values first. Remember that old adage about color being just a trick to fool the eye … it’s the values that are the necessary component – with color you could use any colors you desire – make your model blue and purple skinned!
    As to Sanden’s pre-mixed colors … one thing to keep in mind is that he developed those colors for his use in HIS studio with HIS lighting! When he does portraits, if the subject does not come to him, he goes to them but brings all the equipment and paraphernalia that work for him – lights included, I’m sure. I do believe the issue is very similar to when a New England painter heads out west (or to Provence or Tuscany or wherever) and suddenly can’t paint the landscape (as well) because his/her PALETTE isn’t right. Sanders’ palette works for him in his controlled conditions (and he is not in the northeast!) … it can’t completely work for you because your wall colors, natural light, and artificial light are all different from his.