How to mix flesh tones like John Howard Sanden

John Howard Sanden
Photo from

John Howard Sanden is an American portrait painter member of the famous Portrait Institute, an organization that originally held an annual conference for 5 days on the portrait. From the artist’s website you can see his works, honors received, customers, and other information. It’s interesting to read how the artist has been selected by the staff of the White House to paint the portrait of the 43 rd U.S. President George W. Bush.

The following is a picture where the artist poses in one of his studies. The red arrow indicates a cabinet used by the artist as a palette. Basically, the cabinet has a base, two drawers to store the colors and brushes, a white plane with over a glass that the artist uses as a palette. It’s possible to observe how on the side is placed a paper towel. The plane beneath the glass is white because the artist does not use toned backgrounds on his canvases, but he works directly on the prepared white canvas. The easel seems designed to hold large canvases.

John Howard Sanden's Studio
Photo from

Among the materials he uses there are: oil of cloves, Sphinx Retouch varnish, dammar varnish, fixative, retouching varnish in spray, container for 3 different painting knives, brushes, and then the color palette. He uses bristle brushes of different sizes (2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12), fan bristle brushes of different sizes (2, 4 and 6), flat sable brushes of different sizes (2, 4 and 6), round sable brushes of different sizes (6, 8, and 12) and cat tongue sable brushes of different sizes (4, 6, 8, 10, and 12).

Promix Color System Palette
Photo from

Among these materials the most interesting is the palette colors used for flesh tones called also Promix Color System (**). This palette comes from the lessons of his teacher Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, at the Art Students League of New York. In his method Oppenheim premixed 10 basic colors from which he mixed the color spectrum necessary to paint a portrait. Some years later John asked to the Martin / F. Weber Company of Philadelphia to produce these premixed basic colors in order to:

  • reduce the portrait execution time;
  • improve the accuracy;
  • paint a portrait starting always from same mixtures

The John’s palette includes 13 standard colors: ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, viridian, chrome oxide green, raw umber, burnt umber, burnt sienna, cadmium orange, ivory black, white, cadmium red light, yellow ocher, cadmium yellow light. The palette in addition to these colors includes also the 10 premixed color for flesh tones reported above. As for standard colors the flesh colors should not be used as they come from the tube, but should be mixed with other colors in the palette to achieve the desired colors. These colors can be used for both Caucasians and African flesh tones. The idea is to have 3 colors for light skin tone, two halftones (one cold and one warm), and two dark for the shadows. You can buy these colors in whatever art store materials or you can mix them from yourself since the artist gives us the recipe to get them. Now let’s see one by one these flesh tones colors.

Light 1
Promix Color Light 1
Photo from

Light 1 is the skin color of the highlight. The color strings shown here are divided into 3 parts: the left is the color in thick version, the center is thinner version and the right is color mixed with white. You can mix this color starting from the white, then add just a little of yellow ocher and hint of cadmium red light.

Light 2
Promix Color Light 2
Photo from

This is the basic flesh color. You can get it mixing Light 1 and a touch of cerulean blue. As you can see, this is a classic formula for basic flesh tone: yellow ocher, cadmium red light, white and blue. The flesh color should have an orange hue this is the reason why you need to mix yellow ocher and cadmium red light. Since this mixture is too dark and intense you have to lighten it with white and reduce the intensity with blue (the orange’s complementary color).

Light 3
Promix Color Light 3
Photo from

This color is a darker and reddish version of basic flesh color (Light 2) and it is used for red areas like nose, chin and cheeks. If you want to mix this color from yourself start from Light 2, then add a bit of cadmium red light and a touch of cerulean blue.

Halftone 1
Promix Color Halftone 1
Photo from

This is the cool halftone used for planes that recede. In order to mix this color start from white that should be used in larger quantity than other colors. Add to white just a hint of yellow ocher and cadmium red light (the flesh tones basic colors). Make the mixture cooler adding viridian. You should get a cool olive color.

Halftone 2
Promix Color
Photo from

This is the warm halftone used in areas where light and dark meet. In order to mix this color, start from white, then yellow ocher and a bit of cadmium red. Add to the mixture a touch of chrome oxide green and cadmium orange.

Dark 1
Promix Color Dark 1
Photo from

This is the first dark color mixed using burnt sienna and viridian. The color should be warm tone, so the mixture should contain more burnt sienna than viridian. Those color are almost opposite in the color wheel so the mixture should be a fairly neutral color. Add to the mixture a touch of orange cadmium to lighten the tone a make the mixture warmer. This is the main color for the shadow areas. For African faces this is the basic flesh tone.

Dark 2
Promix Color Dark 2
Photo from

Add to Dark 1 more burnt sienna and viridian and less cadmium orange. You will get a mixture for shadow darker than the previous one.

Neutral 3
Promix Color Neutral 3
Photo from

John uses a gray scale composed by 9 tones, where white is tone 1 and black is 9. John uses 2 tones less than Frank Reilly and the numbering is reversed because the darker colors have higher value. This 9 tone are mixed using only 3 neutral colors plus black and white. For example, to mix Neutral 2 the artist mixes white and Neutral 3. All three neutral color are mixed using white, black and very little of yellow ocher.

Neutral 5
Promix Color Neutral 5
Photo from

See Neutral 3. It is mixed using white, black and very little of yellow ocher.

7 Neutral
Promix Color Neutral 7
Photo from
See Neutral 3. It is mixed using white, black and very little of yellow ocher.

In order to avoid wasting your time and improve the accuracy of these mixtures, you can buy online these 10 colors of Promix Color System (**). If you do not want spend money you can prepare them by yourself using the colors suggested in John recipes. The color of Promix Color System (**) should not be used as they come out from the tube otherwise all your portraits will be equal to each other. Each color must be adapted to the needs. For example, an area may require a lighter or darker version of Light 2; a warmer or colder version of Dark 1, or more intense or less intense than Light 3. In these cases the colors should be mixed in order to get the color you need.

What do you need to learn to paint a portrait like John Howard Sanden?

  1. First of all, you need to know the color mixing method used by the artist. The method is not much different by Frank Reilly one and it is based on Munsell system. The innovation introduced by this artist was to apply the Munsell method to flesh colors using premixed colors.
  2. Second, you need to be able to identify the facial planes and assign a color to each of it. The artist essentially divides the head into three parts: high, medium and low. The upper part is the part of the forehead. It’s an area more yellowish and with no pink areas. The middle part is the part that contains the eyes, nose and ears. In this area cheeks and nose are more reddish. The lower part is the part of the mouth and chin. It’s an area with cooler tones. All these three areas have  a light, middle tone and shadow sides depending on the facial planes and the direction of light. Recognize them is essential to be able to paint a portrait like John Howard Sanden.

If you want to learn how to use the Promix Color System (**) there are several videos and books you can buy.


The artist produced several videos on portrait. I saw these two videos:

  • Painting the Head in One Sitting II (Tessa). In the video the artist show his method to paint a portrait using wet on wet technique.
  • Color Mixing for Portraiture. This video focuses on Promix Color System (**). It explain how to mix the flesh tones color by yourself and how to use them to get the color you want. John shows also his method to paint a portrait in oil.


  • Portrait from Life in 29 Steps (*). I bought this book and it was a good investment. Do not be fooled by the cover, that picture definitely does not appear in the book. But this is not a problem. The author in the first part explains the materials it uses. There is a chapter dedicated to portrait drawing. There is a chapter on color values. There are two chapters dedicated to the Promix Color System (**) and how to us his palette. There are several pages where he analyze some portraits to explain the 9 principles to make a good portrait (1 page for each principle). Finally, there are two projects of a Caucasian and an African portrait executed step by step. These projects are very detailed and rich of pictures.
  • Painting the Head in Oil (*). This is another book on portrait in oils. I dot not have this book so I cannot give you feedback on it.
  • Successful Portrait Painting (*). Like the previous book I can not give feedback because I have not read it.

Do you think this method will be useful to improve your portraits? Leave a comment and let me know your thought.

* Disclaimer: the links for the books are affiliate links and I do earn a commission through any purchases that you make. If you do make a purchase, I appreciate it! If you wish, send me an email so I can thank you personally.

** Disclaimer: the links for the Promix Color System Paint Oil Set is an affiliate links and I do earn a commission through any purchases that you make. If you do make a purchase, I appreciate it! If you wish, send me an email so I can thank you personally.

What's Next?


  1. I just got that book, Portrait from Life in 9 steps. I also was not impressed by the cover- I thought it was a hoaky book, as so many are. But I thumbed through it as I often do- just in case- because I am always on a lookout for a good portraiture book. I’m very happy with the content- and detail. I’m mixing colors and will try this out.

  2. Hi Leo,
    thank you for comment. You are right, cover is bad but book is eccellent. Let me know your experience with this palette.

  3. Traditionally transitional halftones are supposed to be cool if the shadows are warm. Yet, Sanden uses a warm transitional halftone. Why?

Speak Your Mind