Colored Pencils for Skin Tones
Last Updated by Brandon F. on June 22, 2020
One of the most popular types of art that people use colored pencils for can also be one of the most challenging: human portraits.
Capturing the correct face proportions, hair features, and body contortions all come with their own demands. But arguably above all of these skills are the ability to emulate proper skin tones.
In this article, we will discuss some of the best colored pencils for skin tones, briefly discuss the methods that you should use for laying down skin tones, and also provide some helpful resources that we have come across for helping you to practice and perfect your skins tones using colored pencils.
If you are in a hurry and simply want to know what set of pencils to buy, check out the table right below. It will list out our favorite colored pencils for coloring skin tones. But if you wish to read the rest of the article, simply scroll on below!
Best Colored Pencils for Skin Tones
Skin tones can be quite tricky. While your average set of colored pencils will likely have some “skin-colored” pencils, the odds of that particular color perfectly matching the skin tone of the person you are wanting to draw is slim to none.
Because of that, having the ability to blend colors and build up your own custom skin tone is essential.
There are some specialized sets of colored pencils that have been sold that are designed to focus on skin tones and other natural colors. A good example of this is Derwent Coloursoft Skintones Colored Pencils. This small set of 6 pencils all come in skin-colored gradients. They can create a great starting point but you will likely have to go in and make tweaks as necessary to get that perfect color.
To put it simply, the best colored pencil sets for coloring in skin tones should have the following attributes:
- A nice selection of natural colors to use as a “starting point”
- The ability to produce very light initial color
- Great blending
- Easy to stack many layers of color without becoming messy or product wax bloom
- Very responsive to small amounts of white or black being added
If you can find a colored pencil set that checks most if not all of these boxes, then you will have a great set of pencils to work with for your human portraits. Of course, the next step lies in you, the artist, being able to harness the ability of these pencils to produce realistic results (more on that in the next section).
Below are a few of our favorite sets to use for coloring in skin tones.
Derwent Coloursoft Colored Pencils
We mentioned the smaller set of skin-colored Derwent Coloursoft Pencils above. But these pencils are part of the larger and more practical full 72-count set of Derwent Coloursoft Pencils. While many of the colors in the larger set will not be practical for use when doing skin tones, the added versatility of the larger set makes it a better buy, in our opinion.
The Coloursoft Pencils offer up superb blending. Not only that, but they stack on top of each other quite well. This will allow you to build up the color much easier. This is also a softer pencil which means that you will be able to emit color without having to push down real hard.
The only issue you may run into with the Derwent Coloursoft Pencils is that they aren’t great for highly detailed areas. This could include those spots of skin near the hairline or around eyes and eyelashes. For these spots, we recommend using a fine-point blender to blend the color in and then go through with a more precise pencil with a smaller core diameter for better control.
Derwent Procolour Colored Pencils
Another Derwent offering made the top of our list. We have been more recently introduced to the Procolour line and can’t say enough positive things about it.
This set of pencils will be more vivid than the Coloursoft Pencils. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Under the right control, this can allow you to build up your desired skin color with minimal effort or application pressure. However, under a heavy hand, it can result in skin tones that are too vivid to the point that they do not look realistic (or perhaps make it look like a bad sunburn!).
The blending is quite good with the Procolour Pencils. In particular, darker colors respond well to the addition of white or other extremely light colors. This is good for those times that you need to lighten up the skin tone (either because the overall skin color is too dark or because certain areas of the skin are reflecting light off of it).
A positive of the Procolour Pencil compared to the Coloursoft pencil is that the lead is a bit firmer. This means that this pencil can also be used more easily in highly detailed areas.
But you will need to go with the 36-count set at a minimum (and preferably the 72-count set) to have enough of a “starting point” color selection. In particular, we have found that Flesh Pink, Salmon, Copper Beech, Felt Grey, and Pink Madder Lake colors are good for starting with (and most are only available in the 36 and 72-count sets).
Faber-Castell Polychromos Colored Pencils
Many of you are likely familiar with the Polychromos series. It has a storied history as being one of the best all-around sets of colored pencils that money can buy. On top of that, it is oil-based which allows you to produce unique textures that your typical wax-based colored pencil would be hard-pressed if not impossible to emulate.
The reason that the Faber-Castell Polychromos Colored Pencils made the list for the best colored pencils for skin tones has to do with the powerful 1-2 punch of good color intensity and industry-leading blending. In other words, you should be able to arrive at your desired skin tone by lightly applying your starting color and manipulating it with whites and darks. And since these are oil cores, you can try experimenting with solvents to produce some very interesting effects (“wet” skin, for instance).
You should have enough of a starting point with the 36 pack set but we would highly encourage you to spring for the 72 count or even 120 count set if your budget allows. These larger sets bring some great starting flesh colors to the table including Ivory, Cinnamon, Dark Flesh, Light Yellow Ochre, and Brown Ochre. From here, you can start blending and layering your lighter and darker colors to find that perfect look.
Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils
Another crowd favorite, the Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils are arguably the most famous professional-caliber pencil set there is. They offer nice intensity and easy blending while still being relatively affordable.
But what makes the Premier Colored Pencils truly shine when it comes to coloring in skin tones is their immense color selection. If you go with the largest 150-count set, you will find over a dozen colors that make for a great starting point when building up your skin tone.
This includes colors such as Sand, Ginger Root, Peach, Salvan Pink, Chestnut, Burnt Ochre, Light Umbre, and much more.
These pencils also fall under the Premier Soft Core lineup. So as the name suggests, the cores are on the softer side. This allows them to put out good levels of color with not a lot of hard contact pressure.
Prismacolor Premier Portrait Set
Prismacolor also has its own special set of colored pencils designed for portraits. This 24-count set comes with hand-picked colors out of their large 150-count set that we discussed above.
Since these are the same soft Prismacolor Premiere pencils that have made such a splash in the art world, you know that they will serve you well in your next portrait. The blending and stacking are great. All that you will need are some additional darker colors and whites to help lighten and darken the colors to meet your exact needs.
The only negative to this set is that you will find that there will be giant color gaps. If you want to do anything that isn’t human skin color, then you will have to resort to a different set of colored pencils. Think of this set as a complementary set to your standard, larger set that you typically use.
These were a few of our favorite colored pencil sets for coloring skin tones. However, this list is by no means exhaustive. If you have a nice selection of starting colors, a pencil with good blending ability, and a steady hand, then you can begin producing great skin colors!
For the next section, we will briefly explain the process of coloring in skin tones.
How to Color Skin Tones
The most capable colored pencils in the world are no good if you don’t know how to use them! Not only is having a good artistic touch important for producing good skin tones but so is having a game plan before you begin to color.
When you are preparing to start on a piece, it is important to first closely study the model that you plan on coloring. Don’t just look at their average skin color. What colors do you see when you see the spots where light is shining directly off of it? What about in shaded regions? Do they have more of a red or yellow undertone?
Every single person’s skin color is a little different. So creating a “roadmap” of sorts before you begin to put down color can help you from running into roadblocks later on.
Once you have established what sorts of color you will need, compare that to what colored pencil you have at your fingertips. Figure out where the major color gaps are. These areas will require you to get creative by blending/layering to achieve the desired effect.
As we mentioned above, the larger sets will typically have fewer of these color gaps. You will be able to find a starting point that is much closer to your desired ending point.
Another important area to focus on is skin undertones. Look for subtle color undertones. Common examples include green, blues, reds, and purples. It will take some practice, but as you become more familiar with painting skin tones, you will be able to learn to stack these more intense colors into your more traditional skin colors to produce extremely realistic effects!
OK, so you have all of the pencil colors that you think you will need. And for the colors that you don’t have pencils of, you have a game plan for how you will blend and stack colors to achieve these.
The next step is the fun part: to begin to apply color!
The Coloring Process
While this article isn’t intended on being an all-inclusive tutorial for how to correctly color in skin tones, we did want to briefly go over some key points that you should consider when using your colored pencils.
Start with your lightest colors.
Remember those specific pencils that you put to the side in anticipation of using for the skin colors? Grab your lightest one and create an extremely light outline. This will create the boundary of your skin. Keep in mind that if the portrait you are working on has bright reflections from lighting, there may be areas of the skin that end up being completely white. Take this into consideration when producing your outlines.
Add your subtle undertones
If you noticed some undertones (blues, greens, etc.), this is the time to add them. LIGHTLY apply these undertones in the necessary areas. Your portrait may resemble more of a Halloween mask than a realistic portrait right now. That is OK! You will start to blend in these colors in the later steps
Lightly apply your darker colors
In the shaded areas of your portrait, begin to lightly apply the darker colors for the selection of pencils that you put aside from earlier. This will help to enclose the piece and create a sort of boundary between the extreme light and dark colors.
Add any highlights
Now focus on internal areas of the piece that have bright spots from reflections. This will have the same effect is the outside boundaries in that it will help keep the blending that you do in the next step in check.
Blend the colors
Now that you have created your color boundaries (in both the light and dark direction), you can then begin the blending process. We recommend starting on the light side and slowly building up to the dark side. This is because it is much easier to darken a color than to lighten a color.
You may also find that you need to use water, solvent, or a blending eraser to smooth out the transition from one color to the next. Conversely, for portraits where the character has coarser/rougher skin, you may want to avoid blending the color too much.
Resources for Learning more about Coloring Skin Tones
We feel that the best way to improve your ability to color skin tones with colored pencils is by practice. And we have found some great tutorials out there that will help you along the way
One of our favorite resources is Ann Kullberg. She has made a Skin Tone Colored Pencil Project Kit that is a great way to practice adding color and blending to make the perfect, realistic skin tone. This kit can be purchased directly from here site here.
Ann also has several helpful books out. One of her best-selling books on this subject is titled “Colored Pencil Portraits”. As the name suggests, this book helps to explain the step-by-step process for creating a life-like human portrait. This book is a great addition to any artist’s library and can be purchased off of Amazon here.
Another good book with some helpful tips is “Lifelike Drawing in Colored Pencil” by Lee Hammond. This book is a bit broader as it applies to methods to be used drawing other scenes such as landscapes, flowers, buildings, etc. However, it does have some great and simple tips related to skin tones as well.
Finally, we have found many great teachers that produce awesome content on Youtube. If you go to Youtube and do a search for “coloring skin with colored pencils”, there are tons of helpful videos out there to assist you.
A really good example is by Kirsty Partridge. Notice what pencils she is using!
But the most important thing is to simply get out there and experiment!
We hope that this article about using colored pencils for skin tones was helpful. We went over some of the best colored pencils for skin tones, discussed how to color skin tones, and provided a few helpful resources for practicing.