How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan April is today’s reader and she wants to know how to get realistic shadows in skin tones. Here is her question.

Hi Carrie,

I love colouring with coloured pencil, but run into so many problems doing skin tones! If I manage to get the overall colours blended well, that last shading of dark colour is a problem! Can you help?

The shading on the cheeks is so not right, but I don’t know how to fix it! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,

Susan April

Thank you for your question, Susan!

I don’t do human portraits as a rule, but the methods I use to draw realistic shadows on animals and landscapes also work for portraits.

I asked Susan for a sample of her work, which she very kindly provided. She also gave me permission to use it for this post. Here’s her portrait.

Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan has done a good job with this portrait. Since I’m not sure of her skill level, which looks pretty high, I’ll share a few general tips, then offer some advice for this particular piece.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

In general, drawing realistic shadows is all about values. Get the values right, and getting the color right is much simpler. That’s one reason I like starting drawings with an umber under drawing. It’s a lot easier to develop values without also having to make color decisions. Once the values look right, I glaze color over the under drawing, then add details.

This illustration shows the under drawing fully developed. The landscape already looks real because there’s a full range of values.

Here’s the finished piece with all the colors glazed over the under drawing.

I adjusted the values while adding color, making them darker as I worked. But the shadows also were developed from the start, so they look much more natural.

Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

What I Recommend for Susan

If Susan wants her dark values to blend into the middle values and general skin tones, then the best thing to do is to begin developing those values at the beginning of the drawing.

She doesn’t have to start with an umber under drawing as I did, though that method works quite well with portraits. But I do suggest she begin by shading the shadows first, as I did with this drawing.

Establishing the darkest shadows first with light pressure, then gradually darkening while adding middle values. If she doesn’t start with a light earth tone (I used Prismacolor Light Umber,) she should start with a dark skin tone. That will require thinking far enough ahead to decide what colors are in the shadows, or using a color picker to select colors.

Since Susan’s portrait is already so far progressed, she’ll have to add shadow colors over the work that’s already been done. The best way to do that is by using light pressure with well-sharpened pencils to glaze color over the shadows. Use very small strokes to smooth out the color.

In general, she’ll probably get the best results by alternating light and dark values. Just make sure to use lighter colors already in the skin tones, so the shadows don’t look glued on.

Since the color on the cheeks looks a bit rough, she might also try softening it by dry blending with a piece of paper towel or bath tissue. That’s easy to do and there isn’t much risk of damaging the drawing.

Just fold a piece of paper towel or bath tissue into a small square as shown below.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Rub the folder paper over the area that needs smoothing. The paper moves pigment around enough to even out the color.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan can alternate layering color and blending this way until the tooth of the paper is filled and no longer accepts color. This is.a blending method that works on almost every paper. It does not work on sanded art papers.

Thank you again for your question, Susan! I hope that helps!


  1. Patricia Wilson

    I love these tips. Even though I use allot of alcohol markers you still have to get your shading and layers correct for it to look right in the end. I know that with colored pencils, on dark cardstock, that putting down white first helped allot with my blending. Before I know it, with all these tips, I’ll be an expert. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Susan.

      I just received Alyona Nickelsen’s excellent book, Colored Pencil Painting Portraits, and what do you think I found in that book? A skin tone chart that is not brand specific. The chart is printed in full color and you can use it with any brand of pencils!

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