What are the fac­tors that in­flu­ence high­light and shadow colours for skin tones? Shepherd Grim­ley, Switzer­land

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Mark replies

The key for paint­ing real­is­tic skin tones is to be aware of the light­ing con­di­tions around your char­ac­ter. The orig­i­nal skin colour only ap­pears in the ar­eas un­af­fected by di­rect or re­flected light. Yet even these ar­eas are af­fected by light. This red­dish or or­ange-coloured fine glow is called sub-sur­face scat­ter­ing, be­cause the light is scat­tered around in the tis­sues and il­lu­mi­nates the skin from the in­side.

In this ex­am­ple, I’m paint­ing a char­ac­ter for my Dune-in­spired se­ries and I want to cre­ate a por­trait with­out show­ing the iconic desert in the back­ground. I imag­ine the char­ac­ter stand­ing on the sand, but in front of the rocks near his vil­lage. Such an en­vi­ron­ment re­sults in an al­most clas­si­cal light­ing set-up with three main light sources: key, fill and rim light.

My first key light source is the sun with its slightly yel­low­ish colour. The sec­ond is rim light – the warm, re­flected light from the sand. The fill is the de­sat­u­rated blue­grey colour of the sky. My ap­proach is to break up a char­ac­ter into sur­faces fac­ing the dif­fer­ent light sources. In this case all the sur­faces fac­ing the up­per right are lit by the sun, and the sur­faces fac­ing down­wards or in the op­po­site di­rec­tion are af­fected by the light bounc­ing up from the sand.

All the planes fac­ing up­ward are lit by the sky (re­flect­ing back its colour). But we can only see this colour in the shad­ows, be­cause the light of the sun is much stronger on the lit sur­faces. The same thing goes with the colour of the sand­stone rocks – this colour also ap­pears only in the shaded sur­faces.

Bear in mind that even your shad­ows are af­fected by light. Fur­ther­more, the ac­tual colour of the dif­fer­ent sur­faces are in­flu­enced by their sur­round­ings.

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