What makes skin tones and textures hard to draw is that there are no standard characteristics. Each subject has different textures, colors and nuances. Though every subject is different, I have five tips that will help make your skin tones and textures look more natural, realistic, and effective.
Grayscale reference photo
If you have the means to convert your color photo reference into a grayscale, or black and white print, this can be a great advantage. The grayscaled photo can enhance your ability to see the ranges of value you will need to use. These ranges could be the very darkest areas compared to the very lightest, giving you the opportunity to identify the deepest shadows, or in contrast, the apex of a brighter contour or curve. Another advantage of the black and white or grayscale print is, that if you can adjust the value, it helps if you can create an extremely light and/or an extremely dark print. Sometimes with a much lighter print, you can pick up more detail in the very darkest areas. And often, if you can make a much darker print, you can pick up many of the slightest variations in value better in the subtle contours of the face for instance.
Start with dark
Something very integral to the 5-Pencil Method, is the order in which you apply the values. You will always want to work from dark to light if you want the best results. Beyond the initial sketch and your refined guidelines, the darkest parts of the face, such as in parts of the eyes and in the face’s outer perimeter will be what receives the first values. You will lay down a light value, using your 4H, to represent those darkest values in your reference photo or subject. This will work very well, because that initial value will only be contrasting with the lighter value of the paper. As you start building the darker values, through layering and using your darker grades of pencils, it will enable you to expand out into the lighter and lighter values of the face with the 4H pencil leading the way, as it continues to create a foundation. As you continue to gradually increase the darkest values by layering and using the darker valued pencils, it will help you maintain your contrast and balance until you are ready for your skin tones. The procedure and the order of your values will continue building in the same way. It will help you as you develop the necessary contrast for the subtle values and gradations, the textures in the skin and face, as well as the contour and dimension.
This stroke has a taper at both ends just as the name indicates. This means that the line should be thinner and lighter at the beginning and end of your stroke. This stroke will gradually increase in value at the center, as your pencil makes its maximum contact with the drawing surface. This will allow you to seamlessly extend lines, creating a consistent value, as tapered end overlaps tapered end. The tapered stroke will allow you to create incredible detail, and bring a realistic quality to your rendering through textures, natural shading, shadows, and illusion.
Dark skin values
For darker skin tones, you might use more value, but do not use more than you need. You may still need an even darker range of value to demonstrate contour, dimension, and depth, in another area. You wouldn’t want a person’s dark skin to be in the same value range that you would need for a black garment, but what would you do if you had nothing darker to use? They could end up the same. And, if you use a set range of value to illustrate too many areas in your portrait, those areas would start appearing flat in relationship to each other. So, keep your range of values relevant to what needs to be illustrated in your portrait. Apply your values in order of darkest to lightest. Develop the darkest value first in all the relative areas, so that you will be able to maintain their proper relationship with each other and you will always have a sense of where you should stop. This will help you maintain an appropriate contrast with the other values ranges in your rendering. Instead of relying on the shade of a particular skin tone, first rely on the features that will help you designate a particular ethnic look or character trait. Even though the skin may be darker, don’t over do it. Remember, be careful to use only as much value, as you need. Then you will always have a darker value reserved to use. Learn to discern even the slightest shift in value and range. The wider range of values that you are able to create, the more you will be able to capture and express.
Depth and contour are two of the most important things that you want to accomplish within any area or set of values you are working with. To imply depth-whether it be a contour, or a separate dimension, contrast is always a critical factor. If you can see an uninterrupted range of value go in and out of a recession, it is a contour. Darker values should be used in the deeper shadowed areas to imply depth, and this is where smooth transitions will be a great advantage. Build your gradations by placing the tapered strokes side by side to create a range of value that becomes lighter as it approaches a light source or the apex of a contour or curve. If there is contour that goes around and out of your sight, or disappears behind something, you will need to create a clean edge to your value. This will separate those dimensions and create depth in your drawings. Though we tend to rely on darker values to imply depth, practice developing a contour even within a very limited range of value.
Have fun drawing!