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Photo Retouching Flesh Tones

There are three basic types of flesh tone retouching( 1) creating flesh tones on black and white prints for _ individuals-for instance, giving Grandma's old picture an updated look, (2) retouching color portraits for individuals- again, this is retouching of photographs for the mantel, and (3) there is flesh tone retouching for commercial purposes for photographs that will be reproduced in either editorial or advertising formats.

This article will focus on commercial retouching that involves flesh tones, and where the retouching is done on the reflective art (on a print) as opposed to retouching that is done on a negative or transparency.

To document how flesh tones are best handled, we asked C.B. Harding, an internationally respected fashion and conceptual photographer, to provide us with a photo that, although technically well done, showed some blemishes on a fashion model's face. The unretouched photograph he provided is the one to the left.

We then sent the photo to Anthony White, an excellent reflective art retoucher from Portland, Oregon, to correct the indicated blemishes, spots and highlights. (Note: White was provided with a clean print with a tissue overlay indicating the desired corrections.)

White's procedure is to first review the client's instructions and then to talk to the client-often on the phone concerning any problems the job might present. He will also ask the client if the print he is to work on is meant to be reduced in its reproduced form - for if this is not the case, and the photo is to be enlarged, the retouching might show and hinder the photo. If the work is to be reproduced larger than the print he has received, he will strongly recommend that the client have a larger-than-reproduction size print made for retouching purposes.

There is one hard and fast exception to requesting an "upsized" print. Obviously you can't ask for such a photo if it is meant to be reproduced on a billboard.

The next step is to figure out what to do first, second, third and so forth. White cautions that there is no one formula, but he decided on this piece that he would work in this order: (1) tone down the highlights, (2) remove the blemishes, spots and freckles, (3) take out the red in the whites of the eyes, (4) smooth out the texture of the skin under the eyes, (5) remove the catch lights from the eyes, and lastly (6) tone down the post in the window.

The reason he decided to work on the highlights first is because by toning down these he can see the direction in which the rest of the retouching will go.

The term direction is not used loosely in this context, either. One of the first considerations-the one most retouchers take for granted-is: from what direction is the main source of light coming? In this picture the light source is coming from the top left corner and therefore casts shadows towards the bottom right.

Another reason for doing the highlights first is that by doing them first you may make your job easier. After toning down the highlights you may find that some other things don't look as bad because the contrast is lessened.

Technique of Toning Down Highlights

To begin White first selects the colors he may need to use. In this case he feels that the flesh tones as they appear in the photograph demand a lot of orange and yellow tones. Here is where a good eye for color is required.

White used designer gouache throughout. He used Winsor and Newton gouaches, although there are gouaches of equivalent or similar quality The following are the colors he specifically used:

Raw Sienna Cadmium Red
Yellow Ochre Violet
Burnt Umber Green
Chinese Orange White

Colors that he could have used-but didn't on this particular job were Dr. Martin's Transparent Dyes. Again, there are equivalents to Dr. Martin's. The following are the Dr. Martin's colors he might have used:

Chrome Yellow (#3) Light Brown (#6)
Yellow Ochre (#4) Van Dyke Brown (#9)

The gouaches were mixed in a small mixing tray and thoroughly diluted with water-creating colors that were transparent colors when sprayed.

Do the Nose Last (If at all)

In this photograph there are four areas where the highlights on the flesh must be toned down: on the forehead, above the lip, below the lip (actually on the chin), and on the hand. It was also indicated on the instructions that the highlight on the nose should be toned down, but White decided to put that off until last. He almost always retouches the nose last-but in this case he suggested it should not be done at all. In the final analysis, we agreed he was right. The nose didn't need toning down.

White decided to begin with the forehead and mixed a skin tone of oranges and yellows that matched the skin tone . in this area. Then he tested the color on a white sheet of paper and laid the sheet next to the forehead. When the color was finally mixed to his satisfaction he sprayed lightly, freehand, over the forehead. At this point the flesh tone mixture he had devised for this area was different on the photo than it was on the white test sheet-as is invariably the case. White readjusted the color so that it more closely matched the tones on the forehead.

The reason the tones sprayed on photos are different than those on white sheets is because these mixtures are very diluted and therefore very transparent. The transparent colors, that are sprayed on a photo, will blend with the tones of the photographic colors beneath-and so change to some degree the color being applied.

How transparent are the gouache mixtures White creates? They are so transparent that they do not obliterate one hair on the model's forehead-White did not mask or frisket the hair. He sprayed right over it, and because the mixture he was using was so transparent none of the detail of the hair was lost. Here the transparency of these kinds of paint mixtures work their magic. They allow strong colors, such as the one in the hair, to come through, while they combine with the weaker tones to alter color.

Next, White toned down the highlights on the upper lip and chin-using a similar mixture-but, like a painter, slightly altering the shade to make each area blend well with those areas surrounding it.

The only areas where White might have needed to use a frisket were the lips. But because they were of such a brilliant rich, red he freehanded these areas with his airbrush, too.

If the lipstick had been a fainter or more muted color a frisket or handheld stencil would have definitely been required.

Lastly the hand needed toning down. White chose to tone down the finger more than the thumb, since the thumb is more directly in the main light-as mentioned above, the main light falls from the top left. Both the finger and thumb are, however, toned down.

One other thing should be noted about the hand. To increase the tone of the pointing finger, White added more shading to the finger directly beneath the pointing finger. This was done to increase the contrast that was lost when the light on the pointing finger was toned down. This was something that wasn't in the instructions, but that an experienced retoucher adds because he has learned what elements of composition are called for when shadows and highlights are shifted in a photo. This kind of discretionary application is the mark of an experienced retoucher.

Removing Blemishes, Spots and Freckles

Removing blemishes, spots and freckles is all done by hand, and it is often just a matter of dabbing flesh colors on with a sable brush.

Blemishes. The important thing is to see how the light falls on them. Often the lighting gives blemishes undue prominence-and it is therefore the highlight in a blemish that you dab out first. Often this is all that will be needed, and the shadow around the blemish can remain unretouched. It is the highlight of a blemish that is the focus for the eye, not the shadow. Take out the highlight and the shadow may pass as part of the texture of the skin.

Spots. Spots are usually dust or dirt marks on the negative and are pure black or white. These should just be dabbed out-of course, blending colors where necessary.

Freckles. Freckles should be dabbed with a light, transparent color-and in fact should probably be allowed to show through very slightly. They add texture and life-two very important elements-to skin tones. It is usually a mistake to take them out completely-it tends to make skin look too plastic and over retouched.

Touching Up the Whites of the Eye

Here the rule is-do the minimum amount for the maximum effect. This can in fact be the motto of the modern retoucher, but it is especially tme when retouching the whites of the eyes.

White uses a handheld stencil that is round on one end and as small as the center of the eye. He turns the photo upside down, so that the model's chin is pointing away from him, and then lightly airbmshesfir:st onto the stencil, and then gradually and tentatively moving the spray onto the white of the eye-a little at a time. After each application he cuts off the airbmsh and removes the stencil to check his work.

Remember to airbmsh with caution in this area of retouching. If you overdo this part, you create a monster-a photo of a creature that will stare with what will look like glass eyes out at you.

Smoothing Out Rough Textures

To smooth out textures, White uses a combination of two methods. He first mixes two mixtures of orange/yellow/ white-a mixture with more yellow for one side of the face, and a mixture that is more orange for the other. Then he handbrushes the appropriate transparent color mixture to each area (below the eyes). Next, he smoothes out this application by applying the second method he airbrushes these same mixtures in even thinner coats to add roundness and shape. Again, because the airbrush mixture is so transparent, White used a freehand spraying techniqueslowly laying the mixture onto the areas of rough texture. It is important, White points out, to achieve a smooth texture gradually-making many passes with the airbrush.

"Rushing won't do;' White emphasizes, his British accent spilling over on this point. "If you hurry this part you'll end up with a flat tone:'

Also note that, although a freehand method was used, because of the slow application and the transparency of the mixture sprayed-not one lower eyelash hair was obliterated.

Removing "Catchlights"

A"catchlight" is any light glare from a shiny cylindrical or spherical object that is picked up by a camera. Most often, you will see a catchlight in the eyes on a photograph.

Not all catchlights need to be retouched out of a photograph. In fact, most photographs of faces would look funny without a catchlight in each eye. It is something we expect to find in a photograph.

But one catchlight per eye is enough.

White retouched the extra catchlights by hand, and uses a sable bmsh and Higgins diluted non-waterproof black ink to do the job. White says that most retouchers prefer to use waterproof inks for these kinds of problems, but he likes non-waterproof inks because they wash off more readily if you make a mistake.

The model's eyes are green and, because White uses a very dilute black mixture to dab out the catchlights, the color is hardly, if at all, affected by the application of "black ink."

Toning Down the Post of the Window

White used two handheld stencils to mask the post of the window while he airbrushed thin black ink on the outer edges of the post. Next he let the ink dry-and then moved his two straightedge handheld stencils so he could airbmsh the center of the post (or more precisely, the surface closest to the viewer). First he sprayed green, to match the green in the shadow under the model's neck. (To see the green in the shadow you have to see the original print and have a good eye for color-but it was definitely there). Finally, White airbmshed in some "warmth"-in other words, flesh tones.

This was called for because the white post of the window in such a photograph would normally reflect some of the model's face. This is a subtle addition, and one that must not be overdone-but is absolutely essential to balancing the whole photograph.

Next, White added a little tone to the top and bottom post-and very slightly to the post to the right in the photo.

Flesh Tones Should Speak of Life

All the above techniques are described to give you a sense offeel for what flesh tone retouching is all about. "Flesh tone;' White reminds us, "is what comes through and speaks to us of life."

And so retouching on photographic flesh tones shouldn't be overdone-made flat or textureless ... otherwise it will look like augahyde or a manikin's "skin:'

To achieve a living texture one needs to consider the materials with which one works. Agood double-action airbrush is essential. And one needs to work in daylight (if possible) or under a "daylight" bulb.

Also, work on a clean print. Always clean your print witl1 a photo cleaning solvent (mbber cement solvent will do) and a fresh, clean piece of cotton. Throw the cotton away after each use. If you use day-old cotton, or cotton that's been laying around your studio, it will pick up grit that, when used to wipe a print, will scratch it badly

One final consideration is the quality of the print you received from the client. This is rarely a problem. Most art directors won't send you a print that is way off on its colors. But if a print should slip by that is too orange, blue or whatever it is best to send it back to the client. Tell them the photographer should pull another, better balanced, print. 

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