As an acrylic painter, I studied the intricacies of color theory and color usage from painter and professor John Grillo. John Grillo’s approach to color is intuitive, expressive, and bold. From him I learned to push the boundaries of color and color combinations. Under Grillo, I learned how far to go with color, and when enough was enough, and when it was too little, he encouraged me to keep going further with my color examinations.
Before you can break the rules, you need to know the rules. This goes for writing as well as painting. The portrait artist, before developing their own color palette for portraits, should know where to start.
By knowing where to start, the portrait artist can then take the colors further, to new places, and explore them in new ways.
These colors are for acrylic painting, and many oil paints have similar names. If you cannot find the oil paint equivalent, check this list for the “translated” color name from acrylic to oil.
Basic Acrylic and Oil Paint Color Palette for Painting Portraits
To paint portraits, you need to have the following paints in your painter’s box:
Cadmium Red Light
These are the two most basic palette colors you will need to paint portraits. Use these paint colors for the underpainting of the portrait.
Portrait Palette: Light or Pale Skin Tones
To paint a portrait of someone with pale skin tones or very light skin, you will want to paint the underpainting with the Cadmium Red Light
Yellow Ochre, plus add anther color.
To paint the underpainting of a portrait for someone with a light or pale skin tone, combine Titanium white with a yellow hue.
For example, add Cadmium Yellow Light, Naples Yellow or Zinc Yellow to the underpainting colors.
Next, the best way to create realistic pale skin is to add Phthalo Rose Red to your portrait painting palette.
You can further enhance the portrait painting by combining Titanium white with other paint colors.
For example, use Naples Yellow plus to lighten the portrait. A mix of Phthalo Rose Red, white and Naples Yellow produces a light peachy color ideal for painting portraits of pale skinned subjects.
Add some Creulean Blue, which complements the colors in this palette, to darken the skin color, or create shadows. Bring it even further, and darken the paint with some Burnt Sienna.
Portrait Palette: Tanned Skin to Dark Skin Tones
Start again with the basic underpainting colors of Cadmimum Red Light and Yellow Ochre.
Darken the portrait underpainting by adding some browns to the painting palette, including Burnt Sienna and Burn Umber.
Also, add some Alzarin Crimson. Some blues are also needed, including Cobalt Violet and Permanent Blue.
To create a tanned or brown skin tone, use the Alzarin Crimson, the white on top of the underpainting.
To the darkest skin tones in portrait painting, reach for the ultramarine blue or the burn umber.
Play with the right combinations. Watch the warm and cool color interact, and how they are juxtaposed. Develop your own portrait palette when you are comfortable with the colors.