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How to Use Skin Maps in Portraits

Updated: Jun 25

The Missing Map

When I first started painting portraits, I found that my skin tones were very flat. No matter how well I rendered a face, my subject’s complexion looked like plastic. Eventually I came across the yellow/red/blue skin map (below) and it was a game changer.

An art example of a light skin tone map

Now my portraits had complexity, depth and color variation. But I kept running into a problem: the map didn’t seem to work on dark skin tones. I tried to apply it repeatedly but it just wouldn’t look right. Eventually, I gave up on that approach and relied on referencing dark skin tones from photos because I couldn’t find a working skin map to use…Until about 2 years ago. I was painting a portrait of a dark skinned model and complained to Clint that no one had ever made a good skin map for dark skin tones. Being the helpful guy he is, he set out to create one, and here was the result:

An art example of a dark skin tone map

My mind was blown. This was the answer I’d been looking for. I could see it so clearly now, when for years I couldn’t identify it. This was probably because I was so used to seeing the light skin tone map and so influenced by it, that it prevented me from objectively analyzing and mapping the color zones in other skin tones.  

Applying the Maps to Portrait Painting

We both began applying the new map in our digital paintings and it was right on target. If you’re unsure of how to use these, let me give you a process summary:

On dark skin (based on a reference photo by Howard Lyon):

Illustration progression of a portrait

On light skin (based on a reference photo by Howard Lyon):

Illustration sketches of a woman's portrait
Illustration exampling portrait skintones

Don’t be nervous, we’re just putting in some color on a normal layer. Now, let’s reduce the layer opacity to around 30%.

Illustration exampling portrait skintones

Factors to Remember

Keep in mind that these maps can be more or less visible depending on elements like uneven melanin distribution, varying thickness in the skin, fat deposits, presence of capillaries, subsurface scattering, sunburn and other variables, but I contend that they do tend to hold true unless overridden by one or more of these factors.

Nailing the colors on a portrait isn’t just about the color zones on the skin maps though, you also have to take into account the model’s overall skin tone, the color and intensity of the light, and the environment which may or may not create colored bounce light. In regards to the shadows on the face: shadows have no temperature one way or the other. They gain color temperature from the surrounding bounce light. This means that in an outdoor portrait, for example, upward facing shadow planes will be cool (blue skylight) and downward facing planes will likely be warmer (bounce light from body, warm ground, etc.). An indoor portrait is likely to have warm shadows because warm light bouncing off white or cream walls or wooden objects will do this, so keep this in mind when choosing the colors on the shadow side of the face. 


Remember that none of these rules are set in stone, color is relative after all. Many kinds of different and complex lighting scenarios can occur and change colors, values and temperatures accordingly, but it is good to remember the rules so that we can decide on how we want to integrate them, exaggerate them or bend them depending on how we want a portrait to look.

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