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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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.


Unknown said...

Love it. Post-racial art! There's hope for the world.

Unknown said...

Love it. Post-racial art. There's hope for the world!