How to Draw Skin Tone

Pencil Portraits - How to Draw - Skin Tone

To draw skin tone is a very important aspect of portraiture. If you know how to reproduce skin tone and the different textures common to skin the complexities of portraiture and figure studies will be reduced considerable. To do that we will need to look into how to mix the different grades of graphite, and what drawing techniques should be employed.

Other than the composition of the study, there are 4 fundamental aspects to portraits to be considered:

  • The dimensions or proportions of the face, head or body.
  • Skin tones and skin textures such as freckles, wrinkles, stubble, and the like. But most importantly, it is the contrasting tones between light & dark that gives the portrait its since of depth and character. And depending on how you draw skin tone.
  • Thereafter features such as eyes, mouth, ears and the like.
  • Finally, hair

Shading Method

A major problem when shading a large area is to be able to continue from where you left off.

To do that you need to adopt a shading action that is not finite but is flexible enough to allows you to extend it without any visible difference.

In the same light it must be flexible enough to allow you the option to modify the tonal range when adding those finishing touches.

An ideal shading action to do the job is variations of the commonly used Return Stroke Hatching. RSH is a shading technique that is draw with a to & fro motion of the pencil without lifting it. To prevent graining it should be randomly spaced and sparse. Thereafter, further layers of cross-hatching can be added to refine the texture or tone of the area being drawn.

To see more on Return Stroke Hatching go to Drawing Techniques and select Hatching. Then when you are done press 'Back'.

In time you will probably modify that basic drawing action to suit your own style. For example to draw skin tone you could shorten the stroke, or modify it to a more circular motion. But whatever method you adopt, it is important to keep in mind that it must be flexible enough to allow it to modified and extended without there being any noticeable difference.



Mixing Grades of Graphite

A fundamental of any pencil drawing is that the graphite being applied can only bind to exposed paper and cannot bind to other graphite that has already been applied.

For example: Draw 2 or 3 single lines with a 2H graphite on a blank piece of good drawing paper. Thereafter add 2B cross-hatching over it and you will still see the first lines you first drew shining through..

If you wish to see further practical examples of the same have a look at Drawing Techniques Layering & Masking. Thereafter, when you are done press 'Back' to return.

With that in mind, you will get an idea of what mix of graphite should be avoided. When you draw skin tone that has a gentle escalation of tone use a grade of graphite either above or below the one you are using. On the other hand, using extreme mixes of graphite can be an advantage when creating skin textures. But more on that later!

Tonal Range

Firstly, lets look at how and what grades of graphite are used when drawing a gentle escalating skin tone.

Here you will be shown how to mix and match the different grades of graphite to draw skin tone.

The tonal range refers to the tone of a colour ranging from light to dark. The pencil artist is fundamentally works in 2 colours. One being the colour of the paper, usually white, and the other being 'black' the graphite being used with a varying mix of the 2 between.


She is as the Wind

The greater portion of a portrait's tonal range is usually within the lower range, and the upper range is used for more detailed or definitive work. However, a critical aspect of any realistic pencil study is the variation in contrast. Unlike the artist working in colour the pencil artist has only contrast to work with. That being, the contrast of the tonal range, and secondly the contract in the textures. Both are important to how you draw skin tone.


Lower Tonal Range

Consequently, other than detail, the pencil artist has to develop a sound knowledge of how to create constancy in both the way you draw skin tone and textures.

To get a gentle escalation of tone through the tonal range the artist needs to use the grades of graphite in sequence. Over time I have whittled the range down to the following:
4H - 2H - H - HB - B - 2B - 4B where the 4H & 4B are only used in extreme cases.


Graphite Range

The best place the start drawing the tonal range is a little in on the lower (lighter) end of the tonal range, for example (2H). Thereafter, work to the darker end using each grade of graphite intern. After you have completed a common area, check and modify the consistency of the range. When that is done, return to the start and add those delicate tones at beginning of the tonal range.


Okay, lets look a practical example.

1: Here we have a typical black & white image of a portion of the face.


Portion of the Face

2: Unlike the tonal range above that has a consistence escalation of tone from light to dark, the tonal range here are shaped to the contours of the facial features. This referred to a contoured tonal range. Each contour demarcates the approximate tones and related grade of graphite.


Tonal Contours

3: I say that these are the approximate contours because when you draw skin tone each contour is in fact a blend of that grade of graphite plus a varying mix of the grade above and below it. For example, the HB contour is mostly HB with a varying blend of H and B.


Graphite Contours

4: The above example is probably not something you would do, as it is computer generated purely to demonstrate the contours of a tonal range. However, there is no reason why computer aids cannot be used to help you.


2H Contour

5: So let's take a portion of the tonal range and see how to draw it. We will be starting with the 2H contour move upward to the 2B and finally return to the 4H. Firstly apply the first layer of RSH using an 2H grade of graphite.


2H Cross-hatching

6: Next we add the cross-hatching to help soften the grain. Note how the density diminishes to the sides. This is done to allow for the blending of adjoining grades that still need to be added.


HB Contour

7: Now we add the HB RSH in much the same way while blending it in with previous work.


B & 2B Contour

8: The same is done with the B & 2B contours. Personally, I would leave it at this point and return to it later after I have extended the tonal range to a larger area.


Extend Tonal Range

Once a common area has been completed add that delicate blending to refine the consistency and detail of the skin being portrayed.

Finishing Touches

Once a common area has been completed add that delicate blending to refine the consistency and detail of the skin being portrayed.

For example:

  • Using a harder grade of graphite can reduce those 'white spots' particular within the darker areas.
  • Then those unexpected 'black spots' that occur while blending can be down toned with erasing putty.
  • Erasing putty can also be used for highlighting.
  • Check for and add other detail.


Remove Unwanted Spots

The question that could be asked is: 'What is a common area?' There is obviously no hard a fast rule to that, it is a matter of choice. Except to say that you should never rest you hand on partly completed work. It will smudge existing work or even leave fatty stains that are nearly impossible to correct.

More on keeping your drawing clean see: Keeping you study Clean.

Secondly, There comes a time when the rulebook must be put aside and the artist's personal touch must take over and complete it as they see fit.

Google Search