Painting Skin Tones

(This is a repost of an article I created for Wamp.  Check out their tutorial section for the original as well as other great articles.)

Painting skin on your models can be tricky and, at times, quite frustrating. But once you get a handle on it, it's actually a lot of fun and gives you plenty of room to experiment. My goal in this tutorial is to share my general approach to painting skin and give you a number of mixes and corresponding figure examples. When it comes to paints there are a lot of good choices (GW, Vallejo, P3, etc). However for this tutorial I'm mostly using Reaper Master Series. I like these because (a) they are squeeze bottle and thus easier for using on my wet palette (b) come slightly thinner than Vallejo and thus I have an easier time blending with them and (c) they have a ton of skin tone paints which form the core of my mixes. These aren't the only options but I think they are a great place to start.

Before I get into painting skin I just want to say a little bit about highlighting and shading for those new to the hobby. Because the models we paint are at such a small scale light doesn't look the same as it does on a human sized one. Instead we have to use shading as we paint to trick the eye and make the figure "look right." We typically use a technique called 'zenithal lighting.' This basically means we imagine there is a light source directly above the figure and paint shadows and highlights accordingly. This will enhance the shadows created by the actual light and really help the look of the finished figure. In historical figure painting circles this technique is sometimes referred to as the stop sign rule. Think of the shape of a stop sign (an octagon) with a light above it. The top surface is hit by direct light so it is the brightest while the bottom surface gets no light and is the darkest. The side surfaces are hit by indirect light so they will be your mid tone. The upper two slanting surfaces are hit light that is not quite as direct so they are less bright than the top, but still light (so halfway between the brightest color and your mid tone). The lower two slanting surfaces get a little indirect light, but not much so they are halfway between your mid tone and your darkest color.
The trick of course is applying the same idea to the mini which is a much more complicated shape. Keep the approach in mind, imagine the light source above your figure, and with practice knowing where to place highlights and shadows will become second nature.

Okay, on to painting skin....

Reaper has a number of skin triads. Each of these has a type of skin mid tone (ex: Fair Skin, Tanned Skin, Rosy Skin, Dark Skin, etc) along with the corresponding highlight and shadow. While these are a good place to start, I find getting really nice looking results takes a little more work. This first mix is a combination of rosy and fair skin tones. It's good for female figures, elves, or any character where you want a light skin tone. The colors I use are Chestnut Brown (09071) and Rosy Shadow (09067) for the darkest shadows. From there I worked up to Rosy Skin (09068) then to Fair Skin (09047) to Fair Highlights (09048) and finally a touch of Pure White (09039).
I find the rosy skin gives the shadows a more lifelike look. To get some deeper shadows a little bit of a reddish brown is mixed in. Similarly, a touch of white to the fair highlight can help those topmost highlights pop out. As I move from one color to the next I work in a number of intermediate shadows. For example I might start with pure rosy shadow, then 3 parts rosy shadow to one part rosy skin, 1 part rosy shadow to 1 part rosy skin, 1 part rosy shadow to 3 parts rosy skin, and finally pure rosy skin. This is just an example. For smooth transitions you may want to use 5-10 intermediate stages. For other colors perhaps less. Fair skin and fair highlight are quite close, so I don't need many intermediate steps between those two. The number of layers or intermediate steps depends on the results you're going for, how much time you want to put into the figure, and how far apart the two colors are.

To see how this mix works in practice, here are a few figures where I used it:

White Speaker:

Bruiser Gus:
(There are some slight variations in color due to my camera and light setup. Bruiser Gus was photographed using the 'good' setup so this is the closest to what the mix looks like in person)

Clone of Dirz:

As you place your shadows and highlights, it's important to vary the range you're using. By this I mean not every shadow should be equally dark or highlight equally light. The darkest shadows should be used to pick out major anatomical details. More muted shadows are used to define other details. So use less severe shadow tones for the muscles in the arms and legs to bring out their tone/definition. Save the darkest shadows for the arm pits and other areas that are getting very little light. This helps the major features stand out. Take a look at the arms on Bruiser Gus and the legs of the White Speaker. Compare the shadows and highlights to other parts of these figures.

When dealing with large mostly flat areas the stop sign rule says they should be painted the same shade... however this typically looks dull and boring. Instead a slight gradient will look much better. For an example, look to the back of the white speakers leg, focus on the upper leg. The skin tone is lightest right under the buttock and gets slightly darker down towards the knee. The same thing is done on her abs. Although mostly flat a slight gradient is used to add more visual appeal.

When painting the body it doesn't hurt to turn to anatomical references. In most cases you can let the sculpture lead you as your apply shadows and highlights, but sometimes fine details aren't included and instead need to be added solely through the painting. As an example, look once again at the back of the white speakers leg. The rear of the knee detail is not molded on so instead we add it with paint, imply the shape with highlights and shadows. Creases in the forehead can be done the same way. Often these fine features won't be sculpted on so instead you can add them with your paint brush.

For a more masculine skin tone I might use the following paints, taking advantage of Reaper's bronzed skin mixes:
Mahogany Brown (09070), Chestnut Brown (09071), Bronzed Shadow (09259), Bronzed Skin (09260), and Bronzed Highlights (09261).
I wanted to create some deeper shadows so I added the Mahogany Brown (09070) to the lower end of the paint spectrum. As before I could have added white mixed with the bronzed highlight... but I wanted this to have a darker look so I left it out. As you work on your highlights, if you feel they need a little more visual pop you can add in a little white. It just depends on the look you're going for.

Here is how this skin mix looks on a figure:

Another mix for male skin is:
Chestnut Brown (09071), Tanned Shadow (09043), Tanned Skin (09044), Tanned Highlights (09045), and Fair Skin (09047)
This one uses Reaper's tanned skin mix. While you can stick to Reaper's three color set of mid tone, shadow, and highlight, I feel adding a little extra to the shadows to warm them up a bit and going a little farther with the highlights improves the end result quite a bit. For many of the skin mixes the fair skin and fair highlight colors make good highlights. For shadows a dark red or reddish brown seems to work well for me.

Here is this mix on a figure:

So the key things are to take away from this tutorial are:

- Use zenithal lighting / follow the stop sign rule

- Vary the intensity of your shadows and highlights to emphasize major details over minor ones

- Experiment with different skin mixes, the three given here are only to help you get started

Here we've focused on traditional skin. Adding a warm color to the shadows and upping the highlight has been the basic approach in each case. If you're painting an undead or sickly looking character you might want to change that approach. For a vampire I might try mixing in a blue or a purple to the shadows, use a fair skin mix, and maybe add a grey to the highlights instead of white. Try out different combinations and see what works for you!


  1. Great reference! Can't tell you how many times I have reread this! Thanks Man!

  2. Replies
    1. Welcome back! Although I'm not sure how helpful this will be with your skeletal giant project.

  3. Great article, thnk you for sharing.

  4. Really incredible work here. The shading is so smooth. Nice work!