UART Tip #45: “Creating Soft, Luminous Skin Tones on UART 800” with John Middick

In this article, I’ll discuss ways for developing realistic skin tones, correcting mistakes, and how to get rid of the “lines” in your surface. I’ll walk you through these steps while looking at a recent portrait drawing.

I often get some version of this question:

“How can you create soft skin tones using a rough texture like sanded paper?” It’s a fair question.

At first, it may seem like a recipe for disaster to choose sanded paper when you’re wanting to depict something as soft as a model’s cheek or forehead. But with a few simple steps you’ll be well on your way to mastering this extremely versatile surface!

I’ll also tell you why I think it’s the perfect paper choice for depicting softness and subtlety.

I drew “Lexie” recently on UART 800 grit paper. I recommend using the 800 grade as opposed to other more textured grades. The 800 grade is velvety smooth and still rough enough to accept multiple application layers and reworking.

I also suggest using the surface rather than a rigid board or buying it already mounted. The difference between the mounted and unmounted paper is significant. Having that extra support under your surface adds even more flexibility and sturdiness to your drawing, so I always recommend working on a mounted surface.

I use a Prismacolor Col-Erase Erasable Colored Pencil for my line drawing.

If I make any mistakes in my line drawing, then I can easily erase by tapping the surface with a kneaded eraser to lift my lines.

The exactness of the line drawing matters if I want to achieve the likeness of my subject. So working as long as necessary on this first step is time well spent. Once I have the most important lines down I can move on to my shading steps.

The Grisaille Method

The dark shadows around the ear and the soft lighting on the model’s profile edge help create the illusion of glowing skin tones.

The best way to achieve this soft transition is to begin with building the darks first.

The real magic in colored pencil is the ability to layer semi transparent layers of pigment on top of each other. The layering is how I build up the shading to achieve the richest dark values. The majority of time is spent in this shading part of the process.

I start by using just one pencil to render the shadows first.

I refer to this process as the Grisaille Method. I focus on my values in this first layer using either Dark Indigo, Caput Mortuum, or some other neutral color.

I use lightfast colored pencils for all my portraits and typically begin with Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils due to how fluid they behave on this non-absorbent surface. The pencil layer can be moved around quite easily on UART 800 grit paper.

Once my initial pencil layer is applied, I then apply a brush to my surface to take advantage of how fluid and flexible the Polychromos pencil is.

The brush allows me to push the pencil layer around and start the process of filling in the tooth of the paper. This first layer also creates a less rough underpainting surface to work on top of.

Creating multiple layers will eventually lead to a smooth surface. The more layers I add the smoother my surface and subsequent application become. Eventually I can create the subtle transition that I need.

If I find that I’m having difficulty creating the gradient I want then I add more layers of pencil to the surface. The lighter the application of the layers, the more even the application. Which also has the benefit of achieving the smoothness and obliterating the pronounced vertical tooth of the paper.

One of the biggest reasons to choose a flexible paper like UART is the ability to “start over” in an area. For example, I wasn’t pleased with the exact layering in the cheek and so I applied solvent in order to spread out the pigment layer and after it was dry, I began building up the layers again.

First build up of color in cheek


Applied solvent to spread out and flatten the pigment layer


Corrected cheek after second layering process

The final stages of the drawing process are my favorite parts. This is the time where you can “punch up” the colors and use more saturated hues to create an even more lifelike depiction of the person you’re drawing.

If you force yourself to see the brighter hues, then go ahead and very lightly apply them as some of your final layers. For example, look for bright reds, oranges, pinks and purples.

I hope I’ve convinced you to at least give the 800 grade UART sanded paper a try. I think you may just fall in love with it!

Visit John Middick’s website at and listen to his weekly podcast here.