How Do You Paint Skin Tones in Pastel?

By Alina Bradford

Example of painting a warm skin tone with pastels.
Example of painting a warm skin tone with pastels.

Painting skin tones with soft pastels is more than just laying down pigment. The artist should plan the appropriate colors and how they will work together before beginning the painting process. No matter what the color of the skin, there is a simple process that can be used to build realistic skin tone.

Choosing Pastel Colors for Creating Skin Tone

Skin tone can be labeled into two categories: cool and warm skin tone.

Cool skin tone colors include:

  • Purple 
  • Blue 
  • Greens with a high concentration of blue 
  • Ivory 
  • Pink



Warm skin tone colors include:

  • Green with a high concentration of yellow 
  • Ocher 
  • Gold 
  • Yellow 
  • Sienna 
  • Brown 
  • Cream

Choosing a Pastel Palette for Skin Tone Painting

The darker colors are generally used for shading the skin. The lighter colors are used for mid-tones and highlights. The combinations of darker and lighter shades determine the overall color of the skin.

To determine which color pallet is best for the portrait, the artist should take a long look at the model’s skin. If it has a pinkish or blue undertone, then the skin is cool in tone. If the skin has a yellow or golden undertone, then the skin is warm in tone.

Layering Pastel to Create Skin Tones


Cool skin tone example 2.
Cool skin tones layered.

Before beginning, the artist should do several thumbnail sketches of the model using different combinations of either warm or cool colors. This will help clarify the colors that will be used in the pastel painting.


Warm skin tone example 2.
Warm skin tones layered.

Next, the artist should lay down the shadow color. Many artist are used to painting light to dark, but in this case, dark to light provides better results. In the first example, at the bottom of this article, the shadow color is laid down thickly and then feathered out so that it gradually becomes lighter.


Once the shadow areas have been placed, the artist should layer a mid-tone over the shadow color and on the area of the skin that are mid-tone colors. The layers should be gently blended together, as shown in the second example illustration, at the bottom of this article.

Last, the lightest colors should be used. The light color should be layered over the shadow and mid-tone colors and blended.

White or off-white highlights can be added to the skin once these steps have been completed. The highlights should not be blended and they should be used sparingly.



If the right colors have been chosen and the layering process followed, even the newest pastel artists can achieve realistic skin tones in their portrait paintings.

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