Sunday, May 25, 2008

Color Zones of the Face

The complexion of a light-skinned face is divided into three zones. The forehead is a whitish or golden color. From the forehead to the bottom of the nose is reddish. The zone from the nose to the chin tends toward a bluish, greenish, or grayish color.

In real life, these zones can be extremely subtle, almost imperceptible. They are more pronounced in men.

This is an unretouched reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington.

Although this chin is covered by a white beard, this portrait of the surgeon Nicolay Pirogov by Ilya Repin shows the first two bands clearly enough.

Women and children don’t have the five-o-clock shadow, but they can be a bit greenish around the lips, and many artists play this up to bring out the complementary lip color. Below, a detail of a portrait by Sargent.

There’s reason behind this. The central zone of the face has more capillaries carrying oxygenated blood near the surface. The forehead, by contrast, is much more free of muscles and red blood cells. And the chin, especially on a man with a black beard, is bluish from the microscopic hairs. Around the lips are relatively more veins carrying blue deoxygenated blood.

Like all general rules, there are plenty of exceptions. But it’s good thing to keep in mind next time you’re painting a head.


oso-oso/cristina choo said...

Thank you very much for this bit of knowledge! I've always wondered about this thing. I enjoy reading your helpful posts. please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Now that's the sort of tip you get nowhere else. Mr. Gurney you do a great service with these kind of posts. Another thank you.

Paolo Rivera said...

Great tip. I glaze almost every face I paint in this way, though to differing degrees. One reason I like using a transparent medium is that this can be done quickly and easily.

You've managed to cover them here, but how about a post devoted to ears?

Enzie Shahmiri said...

Great observation!

Erik Bongers said...

Utterly completely new information for me too. Thanks!
Since I'm slightly colorblind, (diminished vision of red and green), as a rule I know that my greens and reds are too strong if I can easily recognize the colors.

However, I can EASILY see those red/pink cheekes of Mr. President and the surgeon.
May I then assume that those colors are too strong to be realistic?
The fact that you [James Gurney] state you did not enhance anything seems an indication to that.

The Sargent girl does not have this : I can't recognize a green area around the mouth, but I do see it's a differnt color (grayer and a tad darker in my perception).

Comment on the above perceptions appreciated as it's tricky for colorblind canvas smearers to start adding variations in color to a painted face without ending up with an awkward clown's face!

craigstephens said...

Another concise bit of painting lore. Thanks so much! I hit your blog every day and I always appreciate what you offer.

Moai said...

I already knew of the blue/greenish jaw area, but the reddish nose and cheeks and the yellowish forehead were new concepts for me. Thank you very much.

uglymuffin said...

Are there similar color zones for other ethnicities? Or does it vary with skin color? After reading this post I started thinking of my darker skinned friends and in my mind, there's not as much of a difference as what's been shown in the Caucasian skin color. Thanks for you tips and insights.

Anonymous said...

What a succinct and enlightening demo. As always you provide a school years' worth of knowledge in a few sentences and those priceless visual training tools.

I check your site, probably daily as there's something new to learn every time.
Please add my thanks to your loyal list of readers.

Per H said...

What a great blog this is!! Thank you so much for sharing.

Raluca C said...

this is 100%new info to me:as someone said before,this is a tip you get nowere else!Thanks for posting it!I became an addicted visitor to your site:like the 2 guys visit you posted above!They will end-up in a big-oil portray for sure!Very nice turned around the situation!!I love it!Have a good week!

Mark Heng said...

Thanks for another great insight! Just when I think you've covered it all, you come up with another one that opens up whole new topics...How about a series on portraiture?

Joe Kresoja said...

It's nice to see something that I have noticed myself. =)

David Apatoff said...

James, I often visit your blog; I always enjoy it and learn from it. You are so prolific, I can rarely find time to comment because you keep us so busy reading and absorbing what you write. As a general matter, that seems like the most useful allocation of my time, but every once in a while I have to weigh in and tell you how much I appreciate what you do.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to all and to you, David.

For those who aren't already aware of it, David runs one of the most fascinating art blogs, called "" that takes a close look at all kinds of illustration. His blog has been a big inspiration for mine.

Paolo, thanks for mentioning glazing, which is a great way to achieve the color zones.

Erik, I don't think you're as color blind as you think. The Sargent girl isn't really very green around her me anyway it's really more of a gray in the repro. I couldn't find a better example, but I've seen Sargents that are much more noticeable.

UglyMuffin: Regarding other skin pigmentations, I don't know of any old painter's rules, but I imagine that the beard and capillary effect would be visible unless pigmentation overruled it.

uglymuffin said...

Thank you for responding, I'll keep my eyes open and if I notice anything, I'll let you know.

Walter Lynn Mosley said...

Enjoyed reading this very much. Apparently on the Sargent of the girl there are some diversions from this dictum. The forehead appears cool violetish rather than yellow and there is a progression from red to yellow from the check going towards the ear. But it is still in keeping with the idea that the blood is in the middle section of the face, especially the nose, with the cheek being the most intense. But as you say, these are general rules, and very subtle. Sargent gave dominance to what he saw and of course is famous for his ability to depict nuances of color.

Marty Murphy said...

Rembrandt color zone example posted on muddy colors.

Myke said...

Deoxygenated blood isn't blue. We threw that one out with trepanning and leeches, you guys.

'Veins appear blue because the subcutaneous fat absorbs low-frequency light, permitting only the highly energetic blue wavelengths to penetrate through to the dark vein and reflect off.' - Wikipedia

Still a good resource, mind, and I hope to implement this colouring technique in the near future. A+, like this, etc

James Gurney said...

Myke, thanks for explaining that. I stand corrected.

Robnonstop said...

Here’s an entertaining conversation about how blood never turns blue.
I once saw a documentary on the powerful and mysterious Humboldt Squid.

It can turn its entire body from almost white to a very deep red when feeling endangered. The purpose is not to scare off enemies but to become invisible. Deep underwater red light doesn’t travel far, while blue light remains visible.

Both the squid and our blood would be deep red in bright light but appear dark blue when placed under layers of redness-capturing materials.

Robnonstop said...

Photo comparing arterial blood with venous blood:
[Flickr photo by yui.kubo, 2011]

Groupdmt said...

Really i appreciate the effort you made to share the knowledge.The topic here i found was really effective to the topic which i was researching for a long time
coloration photo

Blue said...

Only now do I realize I'm responding to a 5 year old question, but uglymuffin got me thinking about other skin tones.
Another great tip I learned about painting skin is that the darker the skin's pigment, the more reflective it is. Dark skin is extremely shiny and you can get a lot of great tones from reflected light sources, while the tutorial here demonstrates how much of the variation in paler skin comes from underneath - blood vessels, etc. I dunno, that came in really handy for me.

Joseph Miller said...

Mr. Gurney:
I recently learned that another bust portrait of George Washington has been found near Berlin, MD, stored in an old chicken house. Apparently it has been authenticated and the federal government wishes to purchase it. Imagine that! All those years stowed away in a chicken house.

Marcelo said...

Some post about color zones of the nude body?

Or some article about that?

Thanks in advance!

Marcelo said...

Some article about nude body color zones? Or where to find?

Unruffled said...

Sorry, late coming here, but I do have a question. What if a face is tilted, on its side?

Montreal Artlive said...

Very late as well, but worth asking: what's the 5 o'clock Shadow as in ''Women and children don’t have the five-o-clock shadow'' ? Thank you so very much for the precious resource this awsome, fantastic blog has become.

James Gurney said...

Montreal, on a woman it's not like a dark 5 o-clock shadow, but just the subtlest greenish tones in the lower face and neck relative to the lips and the cheeks.

Unruffled, the same local colors would map onto a tilted head.

Marcelo, good question, but I have no idea where you would find that.

Joseph, thanks, I didn't know about that.

Blue, thanks for that tip. I hadn't heard that before.