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What colors do you need for oil painting portraits?

Oil painting is one of the most popular mediums for creating stunning portraits. The rich, buttery texture and vast color possibilities make oil paints perfect for capturing the nuances of human skin, hair, and clothing. But with so many options, it can be overwhelming to know where to start when choosing colors for a portrait painting.

Here is a guide to the essential oil paint colors you need in your palette to mix realistic flesh tones, dynamic shadows, and vivid highlights. Understanding these fundamental hues will give you the foundation to paint gorgeous portraits that come to life on the canvas.

Titanium White

No oil paint portrait palette is complete without a large tube of titanium white. This opaque, thick white is incredibly versatile and an essential mixing color. Titanium white has a bright, neutral tone that tints colors without dulling or graying them out. It’s perfect for lightening other paints to create highlights on the skin, add luminosity, and mix lively pastel hues.

Use titanium white straight from the tube to capture the sheen on light-catching areas like the forehead, nose, and cheeks. Mix it with reds, yellows, and browns to achieve an endless variety of realistic skin tones. Titanium white is also great for adding impasto texture when highlighting hair, clothes, and backgrounds.

Cadmium Yellows

Cadmium yellows are vibrant, saturated yellows that provide the basic sunshine tones needed for mixing skin colors. The two essential cadmium yellows are cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow deep.

Cadmium yellow light has a bright lemon-yellow hue with greenish undertones. It’s excellent for highlighting skin and harmonizing with reds to create peachy flesh mixtures. Cadmium yellow deep is more golden in tone. Use it in shadow colors to add richness and for glazing over other paints to intensify them.

Cadmium Reds

Cadmium reds offer the foundational warmth required for painting convincing skin tones. Like the cadmium yellows, they come in light and deep shades.

Cadmium red light has an orangey-red tone fantastic for mixing with yellows to produce a wide range of tans and peaches. It’s also useful for contributing luminosity and a rosy glow to highlight areas. Cadmium red deep has a richer, slightly bluish red undertone. This shade is perfect for shadows and adding subtle redness to lips, ears, and cheeks.

Alizarin Crimson

Alizarin crimson is a cool, bluish red that desaturates the warmth of cadmium reds. It’s extremely useful for moderating cadmium reds in shadow mixes and creating purplish tones in darker skin. When mixed with yellows and whites, alizarin crimson contributes to realistic mid-tones and orangey highlights like you see around the nose, chin, and forehead.

Burnt Sienna

Burnt sienna is a warm, earthy brown that’s invaluable for painting shadows and deeper skin tones. It has reddish-orange undertones that give it luminosity for showing forms in shadow without getting too dark. Burnt sienna is also great for glazing over other colors to subtly mute their brightness.

Mix burnt sienna with cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds to create rich secondary mixtures. Add it to white to make creams and tan colors. Burnt sienna is particularly useful for painting hair and enhancing subtle warm tones in darker complexions.

Burnt Umber

Burnt umber is another essential earth tone, but it has deeper brown-black undertones compared to burnt sienna. Use burnt umber when you need very dark browns and blacks. It’s perfect for shading intricately textured areas like hair and beard stubble. And it naturally harmonizes with burnt sienna, so the two pair beautifully in shadow mixes.

Also utilize burnt umber for rich blacks. Mixing it with ultramarine blue makes a gorgeous neutral black for background shading and details. For a lighter black, add some white.

Ultramarine Blue

A dark, neutral blue like ultramarine is vital for mixing neutrals and cooling down the warmth of skin tones. Ultramarine has a slightly red bias that keeps it from looking icy. Use ultramarine blue in small amounts to knock down the orangeyness of cadmium mixtures and create subtle purplish shadows.

Mix ultramarine with burnt umber to make black. Add white for a blue-gray neutral. Ultramarine also darkens and intensifies other colors when glazed over top.

Secondary Mixing Colors

With a selection of cadmium yellows, cadmium reds, titanium white, and earth tones, you can mix an infinite array of skin tones. Here are some examples of secondary mixtures you’ll use frequently when painting portraits:

  • Yellow Ochre – Mix burnt sienna and cadmium yellow light or deep. Creates golden tan colors.
  • Burnt Orange – Mix cadmium red and burnt sienna. Useful for darker complexions and rosy cheeks.
  • Flesh Tone – Mix burnt sienna, cadmium red light, and titanium white. Make shadows by adding more burnt sienna.
  • Olive Green – Mix cadmium yellow, burnt umber, and a touch of ultramarine blue. Useful for muted greenish tones in shadows.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with mixing your own colors. Mastering color mixing is one of the key skills for painting realistic portraits in oils. Keep your secondary mixtures very fluid and loose. You can always modify them with more red, yellow, white, or earth tones to get the exact hue you need.

Convenience Colors

Here are some pre-mixed convenience colors that are handy to have for portrait painting but not completely essential if you learn to mix your own colors:

  • Burnt Scarlet – Pre-mixed burnt sienna and cadmium red. Useful for ruddy skin tones.
  • Alizarin Permanent – Cool, transparent red that resembles alizarin crimson.
  • Raw Umber – Darker, more neutral brown compared to raw sienna.
  • Viridian Green – Bluish, desaturated green perfect for muted shadows.
  • Rose Madder – Transparent, soft red that creates rosy tones.

These premixed colors can help save time and simplify your initial mixes. But with a basic primary color palette of white, cadmium yellows, cadmium reds, earth tones, and ultramarine blue, you can mix any colors needed for vibrant oil painting portraits.

Color Palette Recommendations

Here are some recommended portrait palettes with commonly used oil paints:

Basic Portrait Palette

  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine Blue

Expanded Portrait Palette

  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Cadmium Red Deep
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Ultramarine Blue

Deluxe Portrait Palette

  • Titanium White
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Cadmium Orange
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Cadmium Red Deep
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Sienna
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Umber
  • Viridian Green
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Rose Madder

Try starting with a basic palette of 6-8 colors and expand from there as needed for different skin tones and effects. The most essential colors are titanium white, cadmium yellows, cadmium reds, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue.

Flesh Tone Color Mixing Guide

Here is a quick guide to mixing common flesh tones for painting skin:

Skin Tone Color Mix
Fair Skin Highlight Titanium White + Cadmium Yellow Light
Fair Skin Mid-tone Titanium White + Cadmium Red Light + Cadmium Yellow Light
Fair Skin Shadow Burnt Sienna + Alizarin Crimson + Titanium White
Medium Skin Highlight Titanium White + Cadmium Yellow Deep
Medium Skin Mid-tone Titanium White + Cadmium Red Light + Cadmium Yellow Deep
Medium Skin Shadow Burnt Sienna + Burnt Umber + Titanium White
Dark Skin Highlight Yellow Ochre + Titanium White
Dark Skin Mid-tone Burnt Sienna + Cadmium Red Deep
Dark Skin Shadow Burnt Umber + Ultramarine Blue

These combinations demonstrate basic mixes, but you’ll need to adjust with more yellows, reds, whites, and browns to match your subject. Keep in mind that skin is rarely one flat color. Add definition and life with complements of blue, green, gray, and violet.

Paint Properties

In addition to choosing the right hues, it’s important to understand the properties of oil paints and how they affect color mixing:

  • Opaque vs. Transparent – Opaque colors like titanium white and cadmiums completely block what’s underneath. Transparent colors like alizarin crimson allow the underlayer to show through.
  • Staining vs. Non-Staining – Staining colors like alizarin crimson and burnt umber tint the paint underneath. Non-staining colors like cadmium yellow can be lifted off easily.
  • Fat over Lean – Always start with thinner paint and progress to thicker. Thick layers over thin cause cracking.
  • Drying Time – Some paints like burnt umber and raw sienna dry quicker. Others like cobalt blue dry very slowly.

Considering how each color interacts in mixtures will help you avoid mud and build luminous skin tone layers. Start with thin veils of transparent staining colors. Then move to thicker paint with opaque highlights on top.

Shadow Colors

Shadows give form, dimension, and personality to a portrait. Mixing dynamic shadows requires observation of how light transforms color. Pay attention to cast shadows, where an object blocks light, and form shadows, where the planes of an object turn away from the light source.

Shadows are rarely just black. Warm, cool, saturated, and muted colors of other objects reflect into them. Even shadows on skin contain lively hues. Mix shadow colors with complements of blue, green, purple, and gray to maintain vibrancy.

Glaze shadow areas with transparent staining colors like alizarin crimson, burnt umber, and viridian to deepen the tones gradually. Transparent layers unify colors beautifully without obscuring details.

Background Colors

Don’t overlook the background when planning your color palette. Background colors should complement the portrait without being distracting. Here are some examples of pleasing background color schemes:

  • Neutral browns, beiges, grays
  • Harmonizing blues, greens
  • Subtle patterned designs
  • Abstract expressionist blocks of color

Keep backgrounds softer in detail compared to the portrait. Too much detail will distract from the focal point. Tone down intense backgrounds by glazing over them with thin layers of burnt umber or raw umber.

You can also paint backgrounds descriptively if relevant, such as a cafe scene or nature setting. Just keep the tones muted around the focal portrait.

Creative Use of Color

When you have experience mixing basic flesh tones, you can start getting creative with color for artistic impact. Here are some examples of using color in a unique, expressive way:

  • Introduce unexpected colors into shadows like blue, green, violet
  • Push temperature contrasts between warm highlights and cool shadows
  • Paint background, hair, and clothing with vivid, saturated hues
  • Use thick impasto strokes of pure color for energy
  • Incorporate reds and yellows into dark backgrounds for glow effects
  • Scrape through layers to reveal interesting colored textures

Portraiture has a long history of pushing color harmony and discord in innovative ways. You can follow in the footsteps of masters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Lucian Freud by developing a vibrant, dynamic color sense.


Oil painting portraits is all about the art of color mixing. Use a thoughtfully composed palette of primary colors along with earth tones, blacks, and whites. Focus on mastering mixtures for convincing skin tones. Then bring vibrancy to shadows and backgrounds with color theory. Finally, don’t be afraid to get creative with expressive, unconventional color combinations.

Remember that every portrait subject and lighting situation is unique. Observe colors patiently from life. Mix freely while maintaining the integrity of your pigments. Stay playful and continue learning through practice. With perseverance and the essentials covered here, you’ll be painting stunning oil portraits that capture the soul of your subjects.