Painting skin textures

In this tutorial you will learn some tips and tricks for painting realistic skin textures. These methods can be applied to textures for 3D modeling and also to your illustrations. Rather than going through every step, I will be giving a brief overview of the three skin types I’m going to talk about and then highlight some of the methods I used which I felt were key areas for each stage.

I am using the latest version of Photoshop, but you should be able to apply these methods and techniques in any other digital painting software. It is also essential that you have a drawing tablet of some sort; I am using a Wacom tablet. If you are using Photoshop it’s worth mentioning that I am not using any custom brushes in this tutorial. In fact I am mostly using the legacy brush set that includes basic chalk brushes and noise brushes.  Note that each of the skin types in this tutorial is being created on top of the last and not from scratch, so Middle Aged Skin is using Young Skin as a foundation, and Old Skin is using Middle Aged Skin as a foundation.

different skin ages

Let’s paint skin at various ages!

Colors and skin tones

There are hundreds and thousands of skin tone variations out there because each of us is different. Defining exactly what palettes make up skin is very hard and I would never claim to know or understand all of them, having said that however, these are a couple of color palettes I tend to gravitate towards in my artworks that seem to work well for skin.

If you’re looking for some references for skin tones, Pantone did an interesting project a while back in which they attempted to record every possible skin tone imaginable. It’s quite interesting and definitely helps when trying to find a color palette that matches the skin you’re looking for. You can find out more information about it on their website.

Young skin – overview

When looking at young skin you’ll notice a couple of things – it’s generally pretty smooth and has an even coloring. There generally aren’t any visible pores or wrinkles and the skin is only very lightly textured. Young skin also tends to not be oily as our skin only really starts to generate a lot of oil once we hit puberty. This means that there generally won’t be any sharp highlights on the skin and the light is generally quite diffused as it’s not being reflected away from the skin.

young skin

Young skin – probably what you would expect to see in children up until they become teens.

Young skin – adding a little bit of variation

As skin, even children’s skin, is never 100% smooth I want to add some very subtle variations to the skin without making it appear blotchy or aged. These variations help give the skin a much more natural feel as painting something that’s too smooth might just end up looking like plastic. I did this by using a simple Chalk Brush, painting some noise and setting this layer to Darker Color in my Layer Blend Modes with the Opacity turned to 12%.

young skin variation

Always add a little bit of variation or your skin might look like plastic

Young skin – creating some texture

All skin is textured slightly, even young skin! Here I’m creating a texture to add on top of the skin I’ve painted by creating a layer with the fill color set to grey. I then apply a filter which can be accessed by going to Filters > Filter Gallery (Alt+Ctrl+F if you’re on a PC). I’m selecting Texturizerwith the texture Sandstoneselected. The result is a nice soft noise texture which you can now use.

texture young skin

All skin has a slight texture

Young skin – applying texture

In this step I'm applying the skin texture I just created by simply setting the Layer Blend Modeto Soft Lightand the Opacity to 13%. 13% doesn’t sound like much, but you’ll notice the immense difference it makes if you toggle the layer on and off!

texture young skin

Middle aged skin – overview

By the time we reach our twenties our skin has changed a great deal. At this point many of us have some blotches on our skin, scarring from acne, maybe a couple of sun spots or freckles. As we reach our thirties you can throw in a couple of subtle wrinkles in there too. Skin at this point is probably at its oiliest. The oil means that light shining onto the skin will often create harsh highlights, especially in areas such as the nose or forehead. The way in which the light bounces off oil also highlights the texture of the skin and will generally result in skin seeming like it has deeper pores. If you know anything about makeup you’ll know that it’s common practice to use foundation powder on the face to help reduce the appearance of oiliness and such highlights, which inevitably results in skin looking much younger and smoother.

middle aged skin

Middle aged skin – spots

Most skin at this point is not spot free, whether that's slight bumps under the skin, pores, or just general imperfections. I’m adding in slight bumps by painting in a couple of tiny dots, adding a slight Bevel & Embossto them in my Layer Stylesand then setting the Layer Blend Modeto Linear Dodge (add)with an Opacity of 60%.

middle aged skin spots

Everyone has spots, even you!

Middle aged skin – texture!

As before, all skin has texture, and as we get older the amount of texture and imperfections increase. Once I’ve added in some spots, freckles, and a couple of subtle wrinkles, I duplicate all my layers and merge them into a single layer. I can now take this new merged layer and apply a Plastic Wrap filter to it. I do this by selecting Filters > Filter Gallery > Plastic Wrap. The texture you generate will look pretty gross, but it’s going to work wonders to your skin texture.

middle aged skin texture

More texture using Filters!

Middle ages skin – oils

I now take the Plastic Wraplayer I created in the last step and set the Layer Blend Mode to Soft Light. You’ll notice that I'm keeping this layer’s Opacity at 100%. This is because I want the skin to feel oilier in the areas where light is shining onto it directly. To remove texture from the rest of the skin I simply add a Layer Mask onto this layer and paint out the areas where I want to reduce the texture using any soft brush.

middle aged skin oils

Old skin – overview

Old skin becomes much more exciting to paint! When we get older our skin becomes thinner, sometimes even a bit like tissue paper! This means that the skin is much more translucent, making it easier to see blood vessels, bruising, blotches, and any other imperfections. Older people also tend to have less oily skin, so we see less sharp highlights and more diffused light.

Because of the combination of skin being more translucent and less shiny, we start to see the addition of blues, purples, and yellows into the skin tones, often these become apparent from tones that are actually visible below the skin surface. Most old skin will also have some faded spots, new sun spots and blotches, visible pores, and uneven coloring and many, many wrinkles.

old skin

Old skin – colors

To give you an idea of the amount of additional colors I'm adding to this step I’ve set all my color layers to full Opacity. Notice how much blue and yellow I’m adding to the skin and also how many darker areas I’m adding. Most of these color layers are set to various opacities with the Layer Blend Modesetto either Soft Light or Overlay. You’ll have to play around with colors and opacities and use what works best for the skin you’re creating.

old skin colors

Old skin – wrinkles

The important thing when trying to create realistic wrinkles is to get the direction right. Wrinkles are never just random, they follow the contours of our skin, they appear more densely in areas that crease most often and vary in depth. Most importantly though I have found, is that wrinkles appear in cross hatched diamond shapes. Usually there will be a deeper wrinkle, with a smaller one branching off of it to create a diamond shape.

Here I am using purple to show the wrinkles that will be the deepest/biggest, orange for the secondary wrinkles, and blue for all the teensy tiny wrinkles in between.

old skin wrinkles

Old skin – variation

I keep each of these wrinkle “types” on their own separate layers. It’s important to note that I am setting the layers Fill opacity to 0. What this does is essentially make all the contents of my layer transparent, but unlike changing the layer opacity, it doesn’t affect any Layer Styles or Effects I add to the layer. This is really key in creating the effect I’m after.

To each layer i will apply a Layer Style set to Bevel & Emboss. You’ll see from my settings that I set the Blend Mode in the actual Layer Style settings rather than in the layer modes. This is because setting the Blend Mode in Layer Settings will only apply it to layer contents that are visible, and ours are invisible.  You may find that you will want to adjust the Depthfor the various wrinkle types to find the best combination, but all in all this should give you a good result.

old skin variation

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