Old Master Color Banding in Portraiture

Color Bands are primary colors:


They were used by the Old Masters to help make a painted face look "real." Heaven help the poor artist who gets a color band in the wrong place!

Remember that the primary color bands are "worked into" the existing skin tones - and into both light and shadow.

Alas, this is so difficult to see in a reproduction that I chose a detail of Sargent's "Lady Agnew" to exaggerate this technique so you can see it.

This really is easy to see if you go to a museum and look at portraits by the Old Masters. Sometimes when you know what to look for - you'll see it.

The best secrets of the Old Masters are hidden in plain sight.

This is an untouched detail of Lady Agnew - a portrait by John Singer Sargent. Alas, the color bands are in here - but they are much too subtle to see on this blog.

However, I "doctored" this below:


Face bands are in red (as in the example on the left). Even though it is exaggerated (Photoshop of course) it still looks "right."

From the eyebrows to the bottom of the chin, the color red is added to the face. I use either Indian Red and/or Alizarin Crimson Permanent...whatever "looks right."

Wrongly, yellow and blue were added to the other two faces above.


In the neck and chest, blue is added as in the example on the far left. Where yellow and red are in the neck and chest, it looks clearly wrong.

I like to use French Ultramarine blue in the neck and chest.


The forehead (from the top of the eyebrows to the hairline) has yellow ochre in it. You can see this correctly added on the far left.

Blue in the forehead will make the subject look ill and red will look "lobsterish."

Above is the doctored version of Lady Agnew with the correct, but exaggerated color bands.

Today I was working on a portrait and got to the very first color banding stage and thought you might like to see it.

This is how I do it:

This is sort of a funny stage so I need to tell you what you're looking at. I have already gotten a likeness, been through the "white stage' and glazed the skin tone with raw umber, raw sienna and burnt umber.

Then I scumbled (a thin milky skin tone) over the skin so what was underneath would still show.

Note that I have not put color in the eyes yet.

While my paint is still wet, I add Indian Red into the face. I make it more intense on the shadow side of the face.

Then I "work" that color in.

Next, I add yellow ochre pale onto the forehead and work that into the wet paint.

Finally I work French Ultramarine blue into the neck and chest.

All blended, it looks like this.

I will continue to work in layers, adding scumbles, building light and working more color banding into the face and neck until I am finished.

When I'm all done (don't hold your breath, it is a long process and I have a lot to paint) I'll post the finished portrait.

I painted the following four portraits exactly this way - hopefully you can see the color banding:

Whitney (detail).

Elizabeth (detail).

Zabie (detail).

Gwyneth (detail).

Rembrandt (as seen in this detail of one of his self portraits) obviously knew and used color banding.

John Singleton Copley (painting detail above) used color banding in this dark skin tone. Skin color doesn't matter - color bands are commonly used in virtually all of the Old Master's successfully painted skin tones.

Next time you're in a museum, check out the Old Master's skill in painting realistic faces using this method. You might have to stand there and stare for a while, but eventually you'll see those color bands.

I repeat, the best "secrets" always hide in plain sight...sometimes you just gotta look really hard.

And by the way, it isn't just the Old Masters that knew about Color banding - Modern Master Lucien Freud also uses this technique sometimes as seen in his portrait of Queen Elizabeth above.


innisart said...

Thank you for this very well illustrated explanation of this "method of the masters"

Anonymous said...

Karin where did yo first learn about this technique? Through observation, a teacher or a book?

I'm curious because I've never heard of it before and can't another source to learn more.

My Painting Studio said...

Sorry, can't remember. So I call it "color banding" because you can see it in bands on painted faces.

It was well known by the Old Masters - they all seemed to do it.

Go to any museum and observe....

My dad was a scientist and he always said that most people see but they seldom observe. I think he was right.

It is easier to "see" if someone tells you what to observe.


Anonymous said...

I'll be sure to look for it now. All the things I've picked from you I didn't learn in school. I couldn't find a single reference online, but maybe it's somewhere written in a book in French or Italian.

I'd heard about the red, yellow and blue rule in painting so perhaps it's an extension of the same?

I'm a bit far away from any major museums for a few years (in a remote area with small children, but I'll be looking for many different things than the last time I had a chance to see major works in person. Thank goodness reproductions are getting better, but still it's not the same.)

Thank you for being so generous in sharing you knowledge and experience.

My Painting Studio said...

You said:
"I'd heard about the red, yellow and blue rule in painting so perhaps it's an extension of the same?"

I never heard this rule, can you tell me what it says?

If you cannot check "color banding" out in a museum, you can still see it in pictures by the Old Masters - in books or on the internet. Go to the great museum sites: Hermitage, Prado, etc.

Reproductions aren't the same of course, but you can still see it if you know what you're looking for....

inner dialogs said...

Hi Karin,
these color bands, are they also relevant for other body parts. Are there body parts which we should glaze with yellow, blue or red?
I started painting people, but not the face only. So if you could post tips about painting other body parts, that would be most helpful. I love your blog, all the tips i got from your blog, resulted in beautiful paintings thanks to you.

My Painting Studio said...

To Inner dialogs:

Rule of thumb: Use red where bone joints show under the skin.

For example: Knuckles, knees, elbows, ankle bone, ctc.

Also, the ends of the fingers and toes.

If you can - go to a Museum and look at the old masters. When you know what to look for - you'll be able to see these great lessons in color.

Costescu said...

Karin thank you so much for your wonderful blog and sharing your knowledge! I have have read your skin layering and color banding posts over the years many times and finally feel like I get it enough to tackle it :)

I just am not 100% sure about one thing but I believe you do the white stage, glazed the skin tone & then let dry overnight (that is the part I was not sure about)

Then scumble with the milky skin tone (the color of light) and then paint the color bands into the wet paint.

Also, as I know you have issues with the toxicity and have used genesis but have you tried M Graham Walnut Alkyd Medium? I have been using it and love it, no smell and supposedly non-toxic.

I also bought a tube of zinc white before reading your posts again so then bought Gamblin's Flake White replacement and quite like it. I am guessing it would be a nice alternative to the zinc white in the white layers.

I also thought I would post a link to the Google Art Project http://www.googleartproject.com/ as for those of us with wee ones that can't get out, it is the next best thing to getting to a museum to view the art. In some ways better as you can really get your nose in there ;)

Thanks again for all your tips, I really really appreciate them!

My Painting Studio said...

Because of the way I paint, I can leave and let it dry any time. Then I "juice up" the surface with a matching glaze and continue painting.

I have never tried M Graham Walnut Alkyd Medium but will look it up. Thanks.

Read the ingredients on "flake white replacement" and if it has zinc in it....better switch to titanium white.

And thanks for the tip on google alert - I'll have to check it out. :o)

Delyse said...

Thank you for sharing this very useful information with us. It is really very kind and generous of you.
I think that your portraits are so beautiful. There is a delicacy about them. The skin looks so real, almost translucent.
fond regards,
Delyse Ramos

My Painting Studio said...

Thank you for your kind words Delyse.
All Best,

Daisy said...

I just wanted to thank you.
You have taught me so much through many of your blogs and lessons.
I've been painting all my life and never tried oil until recently.
My attempt at finding any tips or techniques via the Internet was in vain until I came across your name.
You offer some priceless wisdom, I am very grateful for.
I truly appreciate all the insight you have graciously shared with all the aspiring artist that pass by your words and examples.
You don't even know how much you have helped me.
Thank you.

My Painting Studio said...

Thank you for the kind words Daisy.

I don't know if you are in my area or not, but my teachers are giving a workshop on painting portraits. They only do three a year - but they teach it all. It is the only class on this subject that I can recommend. See the top post in this blog...