I’m old enough that my color crayon box had one called Fleshtone. I remember remarking that it didn’t really match me that well. I ended up using peach. Because not even white people are white or even the same color. In kindergarten, when I wanted to draw my friend Katrina, I had to use brown. I didn’t have the bigger box to choose from. Writers can struggle with the same problem, a limited palette of words to choose from. So I’ve hunted down tools to help expand the selection.
Pick a Face
Some writers like to use a movie or TV character’s face to inspire their character’s looks. But you can also go off the beaten path. Here’s some sites that’ll help with that “casting” that you could then pick out their skin tone, as well.
If you used a famous person’s photo, consider anonymizing it so it’s a new AI generated person with the traits of the person you chose.
Example: here’s a pic I made of Alex Rune using an AI tool I lost the link to. What words can I use to describe him besides white?
Our next step is to get a Pantone code for the overall skin tone. I’ll tell you in advance that just samping a pixel will fail because of how colors vary across pixels. Go to this site: https://angelicadass.com/photography/humanae/
Artist Angelica Dass assembled a massive collection of human faces and determined their Pantone code. Find a face that the skin tone closely matches your chosen image. Folks might skip straight to this step.
Name That Color
One of the cool things I learned from my artist wife is that in art, you mix these four paint colors to make any skin tone: white, alizarin crimson, burnt umber and yellow ochre. I think it’s amazing that we’re all mixed up variations of the same sources. That’s cool, but I can’t introduce Jane in the next scene as being Pantone 50-6 C or 3 dabs of burnt umbre mixed with…
Once you’ve got a Pantone Code, we need to translate it to RGB so we can look up the name.
I found that some of the Pantone codes were off (like the 62-7 C I planned to use for Alex doesn’t match when I looked it up. But you can sample the background color which is more consistent than a pixel on somebody’s forehead.
The key part of this section is figuring out what color words to use, and a part I struggle with is matching faces in my mind with actual words. So let’s start with that:
Is this a little clunky? Yes. But if I’m going to spend time doing worksheets to define my character, why not work out their skin tone for a few more minutes. I might find the “name” it gives me is still lame (ex. Navajo White). But we’re looking for inspiration and color vocabulary, and these help.
EXAMPLE: I sampled the Pantone 62-7 C candidate and got RGB E7B7A3. Which translated to Shilo. Samping Alex’s cheek got me Pale Taupe. Do I like either of those? I need to sleep on it. I’ve not heard that used to describe somebody before. Maybe it’s avant garde.
The Metal Option
One idea I quite like is using metals to describe skin tone. But I don’t know what half of these metallic colors look like. Google made that search harder, which is why you’re reading this article.
The Writing With Color blog has a short section on this. Which might given inspiration:
This next link includes a lot of metal tones that might not match skin tones, but some do:
Wood, Another Fine Option
The nice thing about wood is the many colors it comes in and it’s hard to find offense with it. Trees are awesome.
The fine folks at the Hardwood Distributors organization have a wonderful catalog at this link:
I imagine some creative liberty to match a skin tone, but being described as birch or mahogany seems like solid choices.
Example: skimming the list, I think a red oak would be close for Alex Rune. Not bad.
Gems and Minerals
Another great idea from the WWC blog is some gems and minerals make good skin tones.
Here’s another source to mine for ideas:
That oft mentioned blog article includes a small sample of fleshtone specific minerals to consider.
NOTE: I will say this, this area seems ripe for improvement. For a guy who seldom uses pictures, I’d like a lengthy table of pictures and rock names. If there’s interest, I have a friend who specializes in gems and minerals who might be able to help.
Keep it Simple
Flesh tones can be categorized in these five tones: Black, Brown, Beige, White, Pink. You could leave it at that. Perhaps add a modifier like light or dark. It doesn’t have to be artsy fartsy.
As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid offending folks I don’t mean to have a quarrel with. So I put my ear out for things people get wrong about skin tone. Not trying to preach to folks, just including these common mistakes so you can avoid a needless mess.
Reference skin tone for all characters
It’s called “Defaulting” when a writer only says the skin tone of the people of color. Basically implying the default person is white. Yes, it could be the other way around, but the issue is so common that white is assumed default that it causes the next problem. Only using those funky new words for skin tones on the people of color is literally exoticizing them.
Do not skip declaring skin tone/race
Some authors think that the reader can decide on their own, and deliberately don’t declare who’s white, black, etc. The problem is Defaulting is culturally ingrained and without other cues, often stereotypical, the reader assumes white. This means people of color don’t see themselves in the work. Case in point, dang near everybody thinks Hermione is white (she’s allegedly not).
Avoid using food as a skin tone reference
Food carries a sexualization and fetish context, and more often is used on people of color, rather than white people. Nobody’s gonna mention milk or mayonnaise without it getting dirty. At the extreme end, history has terrible examples like “nutmegging” that illustrate how bad it can be. You will absolutely find people of color who haven’t heard of this or have no problem with it amongst themselves. That doesn’t invalidate the advice.
Write Me a Picture
I’ve got more than a few characters I need to work on their skin tones. There’s technique for describing characters to consider as well. The sites assembled here will help flesh that detail out. Check out the References section as well, because I included more links, including articles on how to use your new colorful words.
The bible on the subject of writing people of color in fiction.
Helpful explanation on skin undertones
Useful collection of skin tone terms
Another collection of words
Writing character description
More Skin Tone examples*:
*includes some food colors, which doesn’t help as much. As I’m researching, many of the example pics are women only. Which reinforces the food name and sexualizing issue.