Monday Morning Art School: pigment and race

We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. It’s not even skin deep. It doesn’t exist at all.

The Servant, Carol L. Douglas, is on display at the Rye Arts Center for the month of March.

There is nothing that worries me more about the future of our democracy than Daylight Savings Time. It serves no practical purpose and disrupts our sleep schedules twice a year. Yet we can’t seem to get our corporate act in gear and rid of it.

I don’t just say that because I forgot to reset the clock on the coffee-maker last night.

This week I’ll be teaching my classes to mix and use a variety of skin tones. The actual mixing is fairly simple; there’s a complete chart just below that will get you to every color you might need. It’s the application that’s so fascinating and difficult.

There are darker and lighter people, of course; to catch their color, just adjust the amount of white (or water) you use. There are also warmer and cooler skin tones. That’s why my chart has different rows. If your model is more olive, stick with a row that gives you more green tones. If pinker, choose a row that tends in that direction. You don’t need to mix all these colors for each model; it’s just a guide to set you in the right direction.

My original painted chart is ratty and worn but I also included it so you can see what the colors look like in paint rather than Adobe Illustrator.

Natural light hitting the human skin is far more variable than we see indoors. We live (and paint) under artificial light. That narrows the color range dramatically, which is why painting the model under spotlights is poor practice. Photography also narrows the chromatic range of human skin. However, painting from life in natural light is not always possible.

There are greens, purples, and yellows in every person’s skin. The ears, face, fingers and toes all tend to pink; there’s blood closer to the surface. Some of us have visible traceries of blue veins. There are lovely greens and mauves in shadows. In fact, the only difference between my landscape palette and my studio palette is that red always makes an appearance inside.

Self-portrait at the age of 63 (detail) Rembrandt van Rijn, 1669, National Portrait Gallery

Rembrandt was a master at capturing these subtle, varying colors in the human skin, as shown in the detail from his last self-portrait, above. He did this with the narrowest of palettes—essentially earth pigments with white. And yet he fools us into seeing a whole range of colors including blues and greens.

Rembrandt also painted Two African Men, below. Unfortunately, its surface is in such bad repair that it’s impossible to see what colors he saw in their skin. However, he would have used the same paints as he used in his own self-portrait. They’re all he had available.

Two African Men, 1661, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Mauritshuis

Our actual skin color is based on just one pigment, melanin. Lighter people just have more blue-white connective tissue and hemoglobin showing through.

We talk of Asians as having ‘yellow’ skin. That’s a modern lie. In the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo, the people of China are described as white. Eighteenth century missionaries also called Japanese and other East Asians white.

The ‘yellow’ label can be laid squarely at the feet of science. The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, first used the label fuscus (dark) to describe the skin color of Asians. Later, he began calling them luridus instead. That translates to ‘pale yellow’, ‘wan’, ‘sallow’, ‘lurid’—with a dash of ‘horrifying’ attached.

The father of comparative anatomy, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, used the word gilvus, which translates to ‘yellow’. (He’s also the guy who started calling Asians ‘Mongolians’.) By the nineteenth century, westerners were completely sold on the idea that Asians were yellow. Thanks, Science.

The farther down the Italian boot you go, the more you find genetic mixtures with Greeks, North Africans and Middle Easterners. That’s no surprise; the Mediterranean was the original melting pot. Southern Italians and Greeks are often very dark in color. 

It’s no surprise that neither were considered quite white in 19th century America (although they had that designation for naturalization purposes). In fact the largest mass lynching in American history was of Italian-Americans. What’s more peculiar is that some people didn’t consider Irish-Americans white, either.

We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. Paint-mixing shows us that the similarity in our coloration is far greater than the differences. Race isn’t skin-deep; it doesn’t exist at all.

Pigment and race

We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. It’s not even skin deep. It doesn’t exist at all.
Figure Commission, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection.
Yesterday I pulled out a chart that demonstrates how to mix a full range of skin tones. (There are darker and lighter people, of course; to catch their color, just adjust the amount of white you use.) This chart is ratty and worn, so I remade it for my students and now I’m sharing it with you.
There are cool tints in the left column and warm colors across the top. Mix them together in rows, and you get a wonderful array of skin tones. The solid warms are always the base; whether you use grey or violet or blue to modulate the colors depends on the underlying tones in your model.
Painting this chart is a great exercise in mixing colors.

Natural light hitting the human skin is far more variable than we see indoors. We live (and paint) under artificial light. That narrows the color range, which is why I hate painting figure under spotlights.

There are greens, purples, and yellows in every person’s skin. The ears, face, fingers and toes all tend to pink; there’s blood closer to the surface. Some of us have visible traceries of blue veins. There are lovely greens and mauves in shadows. In fact, the only difference between my landscape palette and my studio palette is that red always makes an appearance inside.
My studio copy is pretty worn.
The colors on my chart are likenesses, of course. Our actual skin color is based on just one pigment, melanin. Lighter people just have more blue-white connective tissue and hemoglobin showing through.
We moderns talk of Asians as having ‘yellow’ skin. That’s a modern lie. In the 13th century Travels of Marco Polo, the people of China are described as white. Eighteenth century missionaries also called Japanese and other East Asians white.
The ‘yellow’ label can be laid squarely at the feet of science. The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, first used the label fuscus (dark) to describe the skin color of Asians. Later, he began calling them luridus instead. That translates to ‘pale yellow’, ‘wan’, ‘sallow’, ‘lurid’—with a dash of ‘horrifying’ attached.
The father of comparative anatomy, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, used the word gilvus, which translates to ‘yellow’. (He’s also the guy who started calling Asians ‘Mongolians’.) By the nineteenth century, westerners were completely sold on the idea that Asians were yellow. Thanks, Science.
The Servant, by Carol L. Douglas
Yesterday’s class included half-Japanese and Chinese students. Both of them are as pink as I am. The student with the yellowest skin was a blue-eyed Northern European with an addiction to carrots. He has stained himself a terrific saffron color.
The farther down the Italian boot you go, the more you find genetic mixtures with Greeks, North Africans and Middle Easterners. That’s no surprise; the Mediterranean was the original melting pot. Southern Italians and Greeks are often very dark in color. 
It’s no surprise that neither were considered quite white in 19th century America (although they had that designation for naturalization purposes). In fact the largest mass lynching in American history was of Italian-Americans. What’s more peculiar is that some people didn’t consider Irish-Americans white, either.
We all know race is an artificial construct, yet we persist in using it anyway. Paint-mixing shows us that the similarity in our coloration is far greater than the differences. Race isn’t skin-deep; it doesn’t exist at all.

Human skin tones

We come in an amazing array of colors, but they can all be mixed with the same narrow array of pigments. Why is that?

When Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass was six, her teacher told her to use the skin-tone crayon for a drawing. “I looked at that pink and thought, how can I tell her this is not my skin color?” That night, she prayed to wake up white, she toldNina Strochlic of National Geographic.

If you have close friendships with non-white Americans, you have heard variations on this riff. That’s particularly true if you’re of an age when blacks were invisible in commercial culture. When I was a kid, there were no African-American dolls in the stores, and few children’s books with black protagonists.
Iron oxide yellow, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
There is no underlying biological construct of race. The idea of separate races was the brainchild of a 19th century physician and scientist, Samuel Morton. He rejected the Creation Story in Genesis and argued, instead, that each of the five different races in the world was created as a separate species. (Remember that the next time someone tells you that believing in the Bible is somehow anti-science.)
Morton claimed that he could define the intellectual ability of a race by its skull capacity. Caucasians were, naturally, at the top of his chart. Negroes were at the bottom. His theories carried a certain amount of weight in American culture until they were shredded by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man.
Burnt sienna pigment, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
But back to Angélica Dass. She married a Spaniard, and she began to wonder about the question of human skin color. In 2012, she started photographing members of her and her spouse’s families. She then matched a strip of pixels from their noses to a Pantone color card. Humanae arose from this. It now includes 4,000 portraits from 18 different countries.
“So-o-o-o-o many colors of skin, not just black, white, red, or yellow,” the reader who sent this to me commented. That’s true, but it’s also true that all human skin colors can be made with just a few pigments.
There’s really no such thing as white skin color, black skin color, or Asian skin color. They are mixed with the same array of paints; we just control how much white paint we add to the mix. My guide to mixing skin tones can be found here, but it’s also possible to mix all human skin tones with just iron oxide pigments. These range in tone from yellow through orange and red to black.
Iron oxide pigment, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Iron is the most common element on earth, comprising almost a third of our planet’s total bulk. The second most-common element is oxygen. Iron oxides are chemical compounds of those two elements. They are extremely widespread in nature, appearing as rust and hemoglobin, among many other things. Humans use them in the form of iron ore, from which much of modern civilization was built. Iron oxide also gave us mankind’s first pigments, in the form of ochre, in use for 100,000 years. The iron oxide pigments are not only plentiful, they’re very safe.
Iron oxide powder, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Our coloration is intimately related to our planet. We are creatures of the earth, tied to the earth, and created here. Our pigmentation points not only to that, but to the universality of mankind, despite the artificial and abusive construct of skin color.
It’s about time for you to consider your summer workshop plans. Join me on the American Eagle, at Acadia National Park, at Rye Art Center, or at Genesee Valley this summer.

Monday Morning Art School: How to mix skin tones

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas

Recently I gave you an assignment on mixing warm and cool tones. The example I used was my figure-painting palette. A reader asked for more specific information on mixing skin tones.

I have read many short articles on mixing skin tones and they all seem to start with a basic misconception. That is that the human form can be represented by just a few brownish colors.
An extended matrix for mixing skin tones, by student Matthew M. The warm tones are quinacridone violet, burnt sienna, naphthol red, raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, transparent yellow and something I can’t identify. He modulated them with tints of ultramarine blue, black, Prussian blue, dioxazine purple, and a warm mix. Overkill, perhaps, but it explains how he learned to paint so well.
We all understand that the human race has a variety of skin tones. Each person has a range of tones as well. There are pinker areas and yellower areas, and areas with distinct blue and green tones. Our skin varies by the season, the lighting, and even by the day, which is why we sometimes say, “your color is off,” or “you look peaked.”
If you mix three colors to make a human figure, you’re going to end up with something very inadequate. There are as many different tones in a single human body as there are in a landscape.
The resulting tones. With more or less white, these all appear in the human figure.
The palettes I’ve shown were done by a high-school student working in my Rochester studio. In practice, I don’t usually mix the entire array, but as a learning experience, it’s very useful. When I’m painting a person I’ve never painted before, I usually start with an extensive selection of these tones. Only after I’ve worked for a while can I see what sections of the palette I will use, and whether I need more or less white added into the mix.
You could, of course, skip that step and just hold a print of Matthew’s palette up to see if your model tends to have blue or violet or warm undertones. There are, in fact, entire books of color recipes for skin tones, which you’re supposed to use exactly that way.  I recommend against that, because as soon as you do that, you’re making assumptions instead of looking.
The workhorse dark-neutral, ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.
I always start my figure drawings on canvas with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. If the shadows are cool, I push the mix to the blue side. If they’re warm, I push it to the brown side. If I balance them perfectly, they’re as close as is necessary to a chromatic black.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1659, National Gallery of Art
Getting the shadow color right allows you to leave your darks thin and loosely worked, a technique that Rembrandt used with great effect. This is usually a technique associated with indirect painting, but it works well in all figure painting.
To make a mix for blocking in the midtones, I generally start with a mixture of cadmium orange, black and white. But these are colors I use only for drawing. When it comes to applying measurable paint, I use the matrix above.
A figure painting still at the drawing stage. As you can see, I’m not interested in the subtlety of color here, but rather in getting the shapes right.
Two things will wreck the color in figure painting. The first is working under spotlights. Wherever possible, figure should always be worked under natural light. Spotlights change and narrow the color range of human skin. The second is working from photographs. Even the best cameras narrow the chromatic range of human skin.
I used the exact same palette for this portrait as I did for the figure painting at the top, with less tinting.
Race has far less to do with differences between people than is generally believed. In 1972, geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that most of the variation (80–85%) within human populations can be found within local geographic groups. Differences we casually attribute to race are a very minor part of human genetic variability. A study by Noah Rosenberg, et al showed that differences among individuals account for 93-95% of all genetic variation. Race accounts for just 3-5% of all human difference. As Ken Malik wrote, “Imagine that some nuclear nightmare wiped out the entire human race  apart from one small population – say, the Masai tribe in East Africa.  Almost all the genetic variation that exists in the world today would still be present in that one small group.”
And I usedthe same palette for this painting, whose model is Central American.
But, surely, skin tone is one area where racial differences are pronounced, you might say. After painting figure for many years, I disagree. There’s really no such thing as “white” skin color, “black” skin color, or “Asian” skin color. They are mixed with the same array of paints; we just control how much white paint we add to the mix.

It’s all about Michelle

Michelle will be happy that she finally has a face in this painting. (From my upcoming show with Stu Chait at RIT-Dyer.)

The other day I wroteabout photographer Terry Richardson and allegations that he abused his models. I said, “Artists and their models can be friends; sometimes they’re even lovers. But every artist-model relationship also involves an implied balance-of-power calculation.”
I’ve worked with a lot of models over the years, and I think my relationships with them have been professional and courteous. Over the years, several of them have become my friends, including Kate Comegys, Gail Kellogg Hope and Michelle Long.
Michelle as a sort of Madame X character. (From my upcoming show with Stu Chait at RIT-Dyer.)
Michelle is as close to an international model as Rochester has. She collaborated on a project with Keith Howard called “Eve’s Garden: The Lost Creation.” I wish I’d thought of this idea, because it revolved around the idea of printmaker Howard sending his painting work offshore to China. The result was visually pleasing and perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist.
Usually my skin-tones are modulated with grey, but I want the illusion of florescent light, so I’m using blue. Note there is no true red on my palette right now.
I’m finishing a painting of Michelle for my upcoming duo show with Stu Chait at RIT-Dyer. True to form, Michelle won’t be there; she is leaving to work in Uganda. If you want to support her at the Ugandan Water Project, go here.

This painting has been sitting unfinished for a long time, because I was mad at it. It taught me the limits of drafting huge paintings in my 18X18 studio. I ended up having to redraft her head and shoulders to correct the severe foreshortening.

Yep, those are my skintones. Along with my modulating colors, they gave me the faces above.
Occasionally someone asks me how to mix skin tones for different races. I think that’s a funny question, because I use exactly the same paints for everyone; only the proportions change. For that matter, I’m using the same paints I use to paint foliage.

I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available 
here.