Did you know that you can create beautiful skin tones with a regular pan of watercolor paints?
It’s remarkably simple. In fact, it’s easy enough for first graders! (As you will see below.) Once you know how to mix watercolors, there is no limit to the color-mixing fun!
I created a brief video to demonstrate the technique for you. Check it out and then keep reading to learn more about the lesson. (You might find this video on “watercolor basics” helpful.)
1. Gather your materials. Each student will need:
- watercolor paints (a basic pan set of Prang or Crayola)
- water cup (2 students can share one cup between them)
- decent watercolor paintbrush (size 6, 8, or 10 work well for this)
- white art paper (and by that I mean white paper that can handle being wet. My favorite for classroom use is 80 lb. white sulphite)
- black marker (I prefer a permanent marker so it doesn’t smear and bleed if the writing gets wet. Sharpie Fine tip is what we used.)
- plastic paint palette (to do your mixing) *If you don’t have these, any kind of plastic plate or tray should work. It’s just nice to have the little wells to contain the different colors.
2. Gather the kids together and read The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. It’s a great introduction to the concept of skin tones. If you aren’t familiar with this book, here’s a quick summary: A little girl is getting ready to paint a portrait of herself with plain brown paint. Her mother stops her and points out that she isn’t plain “brown”- she’s “cinnamon.” They go on a walk through the neighborhood and notice the different shades of their friends and neighbors: peach, honey, coffee toffee, creamy peanut butter, etc. When they get home the little girl mixes up her paints to make skin colors that capture the colors she saw during her walk. Nice!
3. After reading the story, explain that though the little girl appears to be mixing thick paint like tempera or acrylic, today’s lesson is about using watercolors to make skin tones. Why? Because that’s the kind of paint we use most frequently in the classroom!
4. Demonstrate! I like to sit on the floor and gather the children around me- one level seated, the other level sitting in chairs behind them or standing. If you have a better way to demonstrate so that all children can see, that’s fine. I modeled several key concepts (in this order:)
- Watercolors need water to work. Begin any painting session by dripping some water into your paints (using a clean brush) so they get nice and juicy!
- The amount of water you mix with the paint pigment determines the darkness or lightness of the color. Show them how to make a range of one color- from dark purple to lavendar, just by adding water.
- Move on to mixing skin tones. First, show them what it looks like to simply paint black, brown, orange, yellow, and red. Ask them which of those colors actually look like real skin. (Some of them think the brown works but that’s pretty much it- straight black paint is really dark!)
- Demonstrate how to lighten the black and brown with water to get closer to real skin tones. That’s an easy 1st step.
- What about peaches and tans and rich browns? This is where it gets fun. Try mixing brown + yellow. Or red + brown. Water them down and see how light you can make them.
- I made sure to mention that human skin tones usually don’t have shades of green, blue, or purple. (Unless an artist is painting a sick character with greenish skin or a chilly character with bluish skin.) One little boy did get a beautiful shade of grey/black by adding a little purple to his black, so it’s not a “rule”- just a guideline.
- Finally, I demonstrated how to keep a color mixing record. My main reason for including this step was to get them to slow down a bit and take note of how they were getting their colors. I explained that “professional” artists often play with color mixing and write similar formulas so they know how to recreate a favorite color. I showed them that we could list the color formulas like “number sentences” (i.e. Brown + Red + Yellow = ) They thought that was the coolest thing! We shortened the color names to the 1st letter(s) for quick recording. FYI, “W” stands for water. Some of them felt that water was a critical ingredient to their color, so they noted it with a “W.”
Then it was time for them to play with the process! There was no drawing during this lesson. The goal was simply to create skin colors. They absolutely loved it.
Success! For the rest of their lives, they will know how to use a basic art material to get extraordinary results.
PS- I’ve got to thank Patty for the color formula inspiration. I realized after I wrote this post that this lesson she published on her wonderful blog gave me the idea. Also thanks to Sally who taught me how to upload a video to my blog in her “Blogging Boot Camp” e-course. Thanks ladies! You are inspiring!