Painting regular skin can be tough, but it is something that is covered in numerous other tutorials. So instead I’d like to go into a topic I find even tougher… painting unnatural skin. To start off I should clarify what I mean by unnatural skin. I’m not talking about orc or demonic skin. I’m referring to skin that should look human, but which is not quite right. Maybe it’s a vampire, perhaps an evil sorcerer or chaos warrior tainted by the powers of darkness. Or a look similar to the Borg from Star Trek or one of the dark elves from Thor: The Dark World. What I’m going to talk about here is taking the normal colours and approach to painting skin and then tweaking and twisting them to create a certain kind of effect. I’ll cover the basic way I paint normal skin and then what alterations I make and why.
To begin I should say there are countless ways to do skin and there is no one ‘right’ mix. I will share the mixes I use, but my goal is to help you understand the colour choices so that you can come up with your own mixes. You can, of course, get t
he exact paints I use, but most likely you already own colours that are similar enough and will work as stand ins for the paints I’m using. And I encourage you to experiment. In a place where I might use blue, what if you used green? It may produce a more interesting result better suited for your project. So, while I will share the mixes to help you get an idea of where to start, please do not limit yourself to just those colours. I continually tweak and play with my mixes to see what happens and what can be improved. You should too!
MY NORMAL APPROACH
My general approach to painting skin involves picking a set of colours for the basic skin tone and then laying down the shadows and highlights. Following that, I will apply a series of glazes to the skin in order to get the colour variations you see in real life. We will take the same approach here, but tweak the colours a bit. For a normal skin I like to use Reaper’s Chestnut Brown, Rosy Shadow, Fair Skin, Fair Highlight, and maybe a bit of Linen White for the top most highlights. This produces a nice light coloured skin (sort of northern European looking).
A FEW TWEAKS
To create my unnatural skin I make several adjustments to this mix. For the shadows (made with Chestnut Brown and Rosy Shadow), I add some of Reaper’s Burgundy Wine (a dark purple) to the mix. For the darker shadows I use more of the Burgundy Wine (maybe 40-50%) and for the lighter shadows (more Rosy Shadow than Chestnut Brown), I add only 10-20% Burgundy Wine. This takes what was previously a warm shadow tone for the skin and cools it down. We still have some of those rosy shades in there, but just shifted a bit. You can use more or less, add a blue or green instead of purple etc. to produce slightly different effects. It all depends on the look you are after.
With the midtone and highlight, I use Reaper’s Vampiric Shadow, Vampiric Skin, and Vampiric Highlight to create a paler more desaturated skin. This character spends a lot of time in their lair plotting the end of the world, not out at the beach getting a tan. I start with a mix of 50/50 Fair Skin and Vampiric Shadow. Then I go into Vampiric Skin and Vampiric Highlight for the highlights. If you don’t have these Reaper paints, you can create a similar effect by taking a light skin shade and adding an off white like ivory or bone colors.
Now, having done the basic highlighting and shading, I will revisit the face/skin and apply a series of glazes to create the colour variation we see in real life (and also to develop some of the shadows further where needed). On a regular face I use glazes of red, purple, and blue. Red is applied to the cheeks and tip of the nose, blue to the lower 3rd of the face to create the impression of stubble, and purple is used to deepen the shadows under the eyes and in the darkest part of the cheeks. In each case these are just subtle colour shifts. The places where these colours are applied should not actually look blue or red or purple, just like skin with a hint of those colours. Using glazes, where the paint is highly watered down, is an ideal way to achieve this effect.
COOLER COLOURS OF THE SPECTRUM
So, I’ve explained what I do for regular skin, but how do I change this for unnatural skin? Simple, I shift all of these colours towards the cool end of the spectrum. So, in place of my red glaze, I used a glaze that is 2 parts red and 1 part purple (or 1 part red and 1 part purple). Instead of the purple glaze, I used a glaze that is 1 part purple and 1 part blue. And the blue glaze… well, that can stay blue. For all of these glazes you can create them using regular paint, a glaze medium, and water, or you can use GW’s glazes (which I further water down), or ink. Lately I’ve been using the ink set from Scale75. The inks are very intense, so they need to be highly watered down to create a good glaze. But, they mix easily with water (don’t separate) and are well suited for this task.
Aside from the colour shifting, I apply the glazes in the same way I would to normal flesh. This ties the end result to reality. We expect to see those colour variations when we look at a face, so it seems realistic to us. But, since the colours are shifted, it creates the desired effect of looking both realistic and unnatural. You can exaggerate the effect by applying repeated layers of the glazes. You can also use the purples and blues to bring out veins under the skin. Sometimes these may be sculpted on or you can just paint fine lines where it makes sense that the veins would show.
On the dwarf pirate example you can see how the bluish purple has done under the eyes and in the deepest parts of the cheeks to tint the underlying skin colours. This was done over the course of 4 or 5 layers of glaze. The reddish purple also went on the lower half of the tip of the nose and in the cheeks, however it was not built up as much as the other colours. Since his face has a beard, no blue was applied (no need for stubble). There was a bit of reddish purple applied to the temples, but the forehead is largely free of glazes. So you can see how the basic skin tone (well mid-tone and highlights) look there and compare it to the regions where the glazes were applied.
The only other skin on the figure is his hands. These are another prime place to add colour variation. The reddish purple was added to the knuckles while the blue and bluish purple were applied to the back of the hand to bring out the veins sculpted there. When combined with the very pale skin, I think this produces exactly the effect I was attempting to achieve.
I hope this has given you some insight into how I approach unnatural skin. The important point is that I begin with a normal skin mix and then build off of it, shifting or tweaking colours to produce the effect I want. There are countless ways to do this and I encourage you to explore. For example, if I were doing more of a Nurgle inspired figure, perhaps I would add more yellows and greens to my mixes and glazes. There’s no single right approach. But, as long as you ground your mix/colours in reality, you can create a believable effect even for a fantasy figure.
Thanks for reading and thanks to my friend Jason for inviting me to contribute on this blog!
David Powell is an award-winning painter. He's taught painting workshops and written numerous tutorials for publication in magazines and online. While he's best known for his work on historical miniatures, he's got a soft spot for fantasy and sci-fi subjects as well.