How I use acrylic paints: Painting a fantasy character with blue skin tones

Acrylics weren’t always my first choice when it came to painting. I would choose either watercolors or oils initially when I first started to paint. For me, the biggest hang up was that I couldn’t blend the acrylic paint like I could the other mediums. Prior to using acrylic paints, I once heard that acrylic paints were like trying to paint using plastic. Going into it with that in mind really frustrated me in my initial attempts with this medium. However, after studying a little more about the paint and working with it patiently, I soon discovered my own method of using acrylic paints best assets (mainly fast drying times and lack of toxic mediums) to my advantage. Below is a step by step breakdown of how I paint a face.

1) Here is what is called the underpainting. This is painted using the color Burnt Umber, which is a dark brown. During this initial part of the painting, I use the acrylic paint like a watercolor. The paint is thinned down and flows quite effortlessly. My goal here is to give the piece some sense of form by adding tone to the pencil drawing underneath (not shown.) The face at this stage is monochromatic; all one color but with a range of values. This will be the basic guide for the colors to be added later.

Blue face paint underpainting by Rene Arreola


2) Once the underpainting is complete, I start painting what is called a half tone. This is the basic color that I determine is her overall ‘flesh tone’ without shadows or highlights. In many ways, this part is just like the underpainting. I basically paint over the Burnt Umber underpainting using this halftone blue color. I’ve also started to roughly block in some color for her hair.

Blue face painting 2 by Rene Arreola


3) Here you can now see the underpainting is completely covered by the blue half tone. This is important, because I will use this blue half tone as a base color for which to paint on top of it the darkest shadow colored flesh tones. Also, the hair is getting more layers of its own base color applied.

Blue face paint close up 3 by Rene Arreola


4) This part of the painting now has the darkest blue tone applied. You may still see little bits of the blue half tone color here and there, but it’s mostly the darkest shade of blue to be painted on this subject. At this point, I may do a little bit of blending of the color. Since this is all done in acrylic paints, there is no true blending in the way that oil paints work. Acrylic paint dries fast, so in reality, I’m painting in many, many layers. With regards to her hair, I think it’s important to develop it right along with the face because both colors (the blues in her face and the reddish brown in her hair) play off of each other. Painting one without the other in place could cause a sudden, unexpected shift in colors visually as the final colors get painted. While it’s true acrylics can be painted over and over again, I try my best to get the colors I want as close to what I envision right off the bat.

Blue face paint close up 4 by Rene Arreola


5) With the shadow tones now being built up to full strength, I reintroduce the half tone colors from step 2. I work back and forth between both the half tone and shadow colors. I start developing the edges where the two colors touch. Some edges will have a softer, subtle transition while others will be more defined with harder edges. I also start building up light washes of the highlight color, that is the lightest areas of color on her face. Once the highlights are added, the face then starts to take shape and things really start to pop!

Blue face paint close up 5 by Rene Arreola


6) In this final stage, I start to build up the highlights even more. I’m also working with the halftones and shadow colors to further refine the features of her face. Following the same technique used for the skin, I render her hair. I’ve even painted in the lips, again using the same technique described. With the exception of her head dress, the face is complete.

Blue face paint close up 6 by Rene Arreola


The finished painting is shown below.

Four Arms fantasy art illustration by Rene Arreola