Okay guys. Rubbing hands together and pulling some of my own art to serve as a visual of sorts here. Whitewashing, as most of you know, is taking a character of color and depicting them as white or with light skin. It’s a controversial issue—and for very good reason. PoC are concerned about their reputation in media, and whitewashing PoC characters in fandom is naturally a subject that rubs people the wrong way—as it should. (To put it in a less nicety nice way, whitewashing needs to fucking stop.) Intentional or unintentional, painting PoC as light-skinned is damaging at the very least, and yet another expression in our society that PoC are somehow undesirable.
One of the protests that I often see in dubious cases of whitewashing is that “but skin tones change under different lighting”—and they do. But the thing is, the hues and values change, not their overall skin tone. First off—some basic color vocab. The hue is the variety of a color. Is it reddish? Is it bluish? Hues are created by mixing base colors. The value of a color is how light or dark it is—taking a hue and then adding white or black to make it darker or lighter. We’re going to investigate painting different skin tones—and how light changes dark skin tones.
Let’s take a look. I’ve pulled colors in each of these screenshots from the highlights on their faces, the mid tone, the shadows under their cheekbones, and the shadow in the darkest parts of their faces. Here’s Isabela.
Notice how her highlights stay a mid range brown—it goes rosy or sandy, but the values are similar. Now let’s look at Merrill, whose lighter skin changes even more drastically:
Merrill gets the benefit here of being in very bright outdoor light, of course (I don’t have a screenshot of Bela in a similar light, but: her highlights will not ever be as light as Merrill’s are.
Giruvegan and Isabela volunteered to demonstrate two skin tones in similar lighting situation—directional light and the same tone/intensity (a golden-ish light that’s soft, and not very intense). Gir has very pale skin, Isabela has tan skin. Notice how though their midtones and shadow tones can look similar when pulled from the painting with an eyedropper, her highlights never come to be quite as light as his—and her midtones are darker, even in similar lighting.
Now let’s look at two characters with a similar skin tone, under slightly different lighting. I didn’t have any current examples of dramatically different lighting, so these are a bit close. Esin’s skin is a medium brown with olive tones.
In harsher lighting, notice that the shadows change more than the highlights do. Also notice that his skin is cool-toned, while hers is warm-toned. The cool or warm tone of a character’s (or person’s) skin is important to keep in mind.
Now here are two more characters with different skin tones in similar, slightly darker lighting—darker lighting on fair skin will make it look dark, right? Taliesin has light skin, Esin has dusky olive skin.
Taliesin’s tones are still obviously different than Esin’s, but they’re in the same value range. It’s the hues here that are showing their skin tones.
Now let’s put the tones to the test in grayscale, where it can be harder to depict the difference in skin tones, right?
Wrong. Even in monochrome painting, Gir’s skin is still visibly lighter than Isabela’s. His midtones are much lighter than hers, and her highlights aren’t as bright as his. Esin and Isabela have similar skin tones, and therefore have similar midtones in greyscale—toned or tinted lighting is in the hue of a color, not so much the value.
Your midtones are what we’re looking at here. It’s true that in bright sunlight, highlights will be lighter. But they’ll still be in the same color family as their original tones—for Isabela, a golden brown. Here’s what happens when we whitewash (albeit quickly and crudely) Iz—
(I get it, she looks like a creepy ghost, but that’s my hasty photoshop job, hopefully in a real painting she’d be shaded a bit more in-depth). What’s happened here is that we’ve given Bela the same midtones as Gir, who is, well. White. Hence, white washing.
The bottom line is yes—the appearance of skin does change under light, but dark skin takes light differently than pale skin. Characters with dark skin under no light on earth or elsewhere come to have the same midtones as characters with light skin.
The easiest way to paint skin accurately is to start with the midtone and then add your darks and lights over it instead of starting with your lights and then darkening areas. Starting with midtones gives a good general “feel” of the tone of your skin and is often darker than you might think to go when painting from your head. Look at references—and look at them very closely. Pull color samples. When painting in greyscale, a good trick is to paint your midtones in color and then turn it to black and white. Remember—in black and white, Gir and Bela still had very different skin tones. Sorry I didn’t have examples of intense bright or outdoor light, but it’s still going to work in the same way.
All the lighting in the world won’t make somebody white—the hues you choose to paint with (or in monochrome, the values).
Thank you for making this. All of this was basically, actually what I was trying to say before, but obviously came out wrong. Also, this is helpful in general. Especially for someone like me who is still struggling with palettes and color theory.