We discussed the issue of describing People of Color by means of food in Part I of this guide, which brought rise to even more questions, mostly along the lines of “So, if food’s not an option, what can I use?” Well, I was just getting to that!
This final portion focuses on describing skin tone, with photo and passage examples provided throughout. I hope to cover everything from the use of straight-forward description to the more creatively-inclined, keeping in mind the questions we’ve received on this topic.
So let’s get to it.
S T A N D A R D D E S C R I P T I O N
B a s i c C o l o r s
Pictured above: Black, Brown, Beige, White, Pink.
"She had brown skin.”
- This is a perfectly fine description that, while not providing the most detail, works well and will never become cliché.
- Describing characters’ skin as simply brown or beige works on its own, though it’s not particularly telling just from the range in brown alone.
C o m p l e x C o l o r s
These are more rarely used words that actually “mean” their color. Some of these have multiple meanings, so you’ll want to look into those to determine what other associations a word might have.
Pictured above: Umber, Sepia, Ochre, Russet, Terra-cotta, Gold, Tawny, Taupe, Khaki, Fawn.
Complex colors work well alone, though often pair well with a basic color in regards to narrowing down shade/tone.
For example: Golden brown,russet brown, tawny beige…
- As some of these are on the “rare” side, sliding in a definition of the word within the sentence itself may help readers who are unfamiliar with the term visualize the color without seeking a dictionary.
"He was tall and slim, his skin a russet, reddish-brown.”
- Comparisons to familiar colors or visuals are also helpful:
"His skin was an ochre color, much like the mellow-brown light that bathed the forest.”
M o d i f i e r s
Modifiers, often adjectives, make partial changes to a word.The following words are descriptors in reference to skin tone.
D a r k - D e e p - R i c h - C o o l
W a r m - M e d i u m - T a n
F a i r - L i g h t - P a l e
Rich Black, Dark brown, Warm beige, Pale pink…
If you’re looking to get more specific than “brown,” modifiers narrow down shade further.
- Keep in mind that these modifiers are not exactly colors.
- As an already brown-skinned person, I get tan from a lot of sun and resultingly become a darker, deeper brown. I turn a pale, more yellow-brown in the winter.
- While best used in combination with a color, I suppose words like "tan" "fair" and "light" do work alone; just note that tan is less likely to be taken for “naturally tan” and much more likely a tanned White person.
- Also note that calling someone "dark" as description on its own is offensive to some.
U n d e r t o n e s
Undertones are the colors beneath the skin, seeing as skin isn’t just one even color but has more subdued tones within the dominating palette.
- Mentioning the undertones within a character’s skin is an even more precise way to denote skin tone.
- As shown, there’s a difference between say, brown skin with warm orange-red undertones (Kelly Rowland) and brown skin with cool, jewel undertones (Rutina Wesley).
"A dazzling smile revealed the bronze glow at her cheeks.”
"He always looked as if he’d ran a mile, a constant tinge of pink under his tawny skin.”
Standard Description Passage
"Farah’s skin, always fawn, had burned and freckled under the summer’s sun. Even at the cusp of autumn, an uneven tan clung to her skin like burrs. So unlike the smooth, red-brown ochre of her mother, which the sun had richened to a blessing.”
- Here the state of skin also gives insight on character.
- Note my use of "fawn" in regards to multiple meaning and association. While fawn is a color, it’s also a small, timid deer, which describes this very traumatized character of mine perfectly.
Though I use standard descriptions of skin tone more in my writing, at the same time I’m no stranger to creative descriptions, and do enjoy the occasional artsy detail of a character.
C R E A T I V E D E S C R I P T I O N
Whether compared to night-cast rivers or day’s first light…I actually enjoy seeing Characters of Colors dressed in artful detail.
I’ve read loads of descriptions in my day of White characters and their "smooth rose-tinged ivory skin", while the PoC, if there, are reduced to something from a candy bowl or a Starbucks drink, so to actually read of PoC described in lavish detail can be somewhat of a treat.
Still, be mindful when you get creative with your character descriptions. Too many frills can become purple-prose-like, so do what feels right for your writing when and where.
Not every character or scene warrants a creative description, either Especially they’re not even a secondary character.
Using a combination of color descriptions from standard to creative is probably a better method than straight creative. But again, do what’s good for your tale.
N A T U R AL S E T T I N G S - S K Y
Pictured above: Harvest Moon -Twilight, Fall/Autumn Leaves, Clay, Desert/Sahara, Sunlight - Sunrise - Sunset - Afterglow - Dawn- Day- Daybreak, Field - Prairie - Wheat, Mountain/Cliff, Beach/Sand/Straw/Hay.
- Now before you run off to compare your heroine’s skin to the harvest moon or a cliff side, think about the associations to your words.
- When I think cliff, I think of jagged, perilous, rough. I hear sand and picture grainy, yet smooth. Calm. mellow.
- So consider your character and what you see fit to compare them too.
- Also consider whose perspective you’re describing them from. Someone describing a person they revere or admire may have a more pleasant, loftier description than someone who can’t stand the person.
"Her face was like the fire-gold glow of dawn, lifting my gaze, drawing me in.”
"She had a sandy complexion, smooth and tawny.”
- Even creative descriptions tend to draw help from your standard words.
F L O W E R S
Pictured above: Calla lilies, Western Coneflower, Hazel Fay, Hibiscus, Freesia, Rose
- It was a bit difficult to find flowers to my liking that didn’t have a 20 character name or wasn’t called something like “chocolate silk” so these are the finalists.
- You’ll definitely want to avoid purple-prose here.
- Also be aware of flowers that most might’ve never heard of. Roses are easy, as most know the look and coloring(s) of this plant. But Western coneflowers? Calla lilies? Maybe not so much.
"He entered the cottage in a huff, cheeks a blushing brown like the flowers Nana planted right under my window. Hazel Fay she called them, was it?”
A S S O R T E D P L A N T S & N A T U R E
Pictured above: Cattails, Seashell, Driftwood, Pinecone, Acorn, Amber
- These ones are kinda odd. Perhaps because I’ve never seen these in comparison to skin tone, With the exception of amber.
- At least they’re common enough that most may have an idea what you’re talking about at the mention of “pinecone.”
- I suggest reading out your sentences aloud to get a better feel of how it’ll sounds.
"Auburn hair swept past pointed ears, set around a face like an acorn both in shape and shade.”
- I pictured some tree-dwelling being or person from a fantasy world in this example, which makes the comparison more appropriate.
- I don’t suggest using a comparison just “cuz you can” but actually being thoughtful about what you’re comparing your character to and how it applies to your character and/or setting.
W O O D
Pictured above: Mahogany, Walnut, Chestnut, Golden Oak, Ash
- Wood is definitely an iffy description for skin tone. Not only due to several of them having “foody” terminology within their names, but again, associations.
- Some people would prefer not to compare/be compared to wood at all, so get opinions, try it aloud, and make sure it’s appropriate to the character if you do use it.
"The old warlock’s skin was a deep shade of mahogany, their stare serious and firm as it held mine.”
M E T A L S
Pictured above: Platinum, Copper, Brass, Gold, Bronze
- Copper skin, brass-colored skin, golden skin…
- I’ve even heard variations of these used before by comparison to an object of the same properties/coloring, such as penny for copper.
- These also work well with modifiers.
"The dress of fine white silks popped against the deep bronze of her skin.”
G E M S T O N E S - M I N E R A LS
Pictured above: Onyx, Obsidian, Sard, Topaz, Carnelian, Smoky Quartz, Rutile, Pyrite, Citrine, Gypsum
- These are trickier to use. As with some complex colors, the writer will have to get us to understand what most of these look like.
- If you use these, or any more rare description, consider if it actually “fits” the book or scene.
- Even if you’re able to get us to picture what “rutile” looks like, why are you using this description as opposed to something else? Have that answer for yourself.
"His skin reminded her of the topaz ring her father wore at his finger, a gleaming stone of brown, mellow facades.”
P H Y S I C A L D E S C R I P T I ON
- Physical character description can be more than skin tone.
- Show us hair, eyes, nose, mouth, hands…body posture, body shape, skin texture… though not necessarily all of those nor at once.
- Describing features also helps indicate race, especially if your character has some traits common within the race they are, such as afro hair to a Black character.
- How comprehensive you decide to get is up to you. I wouldn’t overdo it and get specific to every mole and birthmark. Noting defining characteristics is good, though, like slightly spaced front teeth, curls that stay flopping in their face, hands freckled with sunspots…
G E N E R A L T I P S
Indicate Race Early: I suggest indicators of race be made at the earliest convenience within the writing, with more hints threaded throughout here and there.
- Get Creative all by yourself: Obviously, I couldn’t cover every proper color or comparison in which has been “approved” to use for your characters’ skin color, so it’s up to you to use discretion when seeking other ways and shades to describe skin tone.
- Skin Color May Not Be Enough: Describing skin tone isn’t always enough to indicate someone’s ethnicity. As timeless cases with readers equating brown to “dark white” or something, more indicators of race may be needed.
Describe White characters and PoC Alike: You should describe the race and/or skin tone of your White characters just as you do your Characters of Color. If you don’t, you risk implying that White is the default human being and PoC are the “Other”).
- PSA: Don’t use “Colored.” Based on some asks we’ve received using this word, I’d like to say that unless you or your character is a racist grandmama from the 1960s, do not call People of Color “colored” please.
- Not Sure Where to Start? You really can’t go wrong using basic colors for your skin descriptions. It’s actually what many people prefer and works best for most writing. Personally, I tend to describe my characters using a combo of basic colors + modifiers, with mentions of undertones at times. I do like to veer into more creative descriptions on occasion.
- Want some alternatives to “skin” or “skin color”? Try: Appearance, blend, blush, cast, coloring, complexion, flush, glow, hue, overtone, palette, pigmentation, rinse, shade, sheen, spectrum, tinge, tint, tone, undertone, value, wash.
Skin Tone Resources
- List of Color Names
- The Color Thesaurus
- Things that are Brown (blog)
- Skin Undertone & Color Matching
- Tips and Words on Describing Skin
- Photos: Undertones Described (Modifiers included)
- Online Thesaurus (try colors, such as “red" & "brown”)
- Don’t Call me Pastries: Creative Skin Tones w/ pics 3 2 1
Writing & Description Guides
- Writing with Color: Description & Skin Color
- Describing Characters of Color (Passage Examples)
- 7 Offensive Mistakes Well-intentioned Writers Make
I tried to be as comprehensive as possible with this guide, but if you’ve asked a question regarding describing skin color that hasn’t been answered within part I or II of this guide, or have more questions after reading this post, feel free to ask!
~ Mod Colette
Yay! Words for brown that are not food!
Includes torso, head, foot, and various hand poses - select from menu on the right!
Hahaha—reblog comic about having trouble drawing hands, follow up by reblogging 3d rotatable resources for people who have trouble drawing hands.
felt like doing a tutorial thingy (what should I call these??) again! I think I’ll make a tag for these in case I do more. This time I’m gonna talk a little about how angles affect how clothing falls aaaand stuff. here we go…
Given: The first drawing of these three is how the clothing naturally wants to fall, how it is made to be shaped. Or, whichever pose you could take that will give the garment the least amount of creases.
- I’ll actually talk about the green first; this is a representation of the hip box, which itself is a representation/simplification of your whole pelvis area. You see how your legs and hip box oppose angles here. in almost all poses except standing straight, your hip box and legs will create a bent angle, which affects how clothes fall.
- The red/blue is the skirt (obvs), the red specifically is the ellipses of the top and bottom openings of the skirt. This skirt is very stiff material for the sake of this example, so notice how the two ellipses always match eachother. the top ellipse is where the skirt is actually attached to the body, so it’s the boss; the bottom ellipse will more or less do exactly what the top one does.
- here’s where the fact that the legs and hip box are at different angles becomes important. The top of the skirt is attached to the hip box, but the bottom ellipse is in the realm of the legs. The orange lampshade shape diagram there is a simplification of this. It is very much like if you were to tilt a lampshade. The side you are bending towards will hug the body and create creases. The side you are bending away from will fall off the body in a straight line.
It even works with pants, though as the bottom ellipse(s) gets farther away from the top there’s more room for the garment to get distorted by gravity, perspective, and bent knees and such. But with this last example you can really see how the side touching the legs really hugs the body underneath, whereas the other side hangs off of it in a straighter, crease-less line.
Dresses are a little different because their top ellipse is attached to your torso/ribcage mass rather than the hip box.
Much of the time you get the same result as with a skirt. However if the hip box and ribcage mass are opposed sideways rather than forward or backward, it becomes a little tougher:
You can see in the third drawing how a shirt and a skirt together would fall in opposite ways if your body is bent sideways. If the shirt is long, just like I mentioned above about the long pants, there is more distortion of this effect.
I’ll take what I said above, “The side you are bending away from will fall off the body in a straight line”, and add a bit to the end: “… until it hits something.” In the fourth drawing above, the garment is falling off the body in a straight line on the right side. If you lengthen the garment:
The straight side continues down as normal until it hits the leg and becomes the body-hugging side. in response to that, the body-hugging side from farther up becomes the straight side when it falls off the hip.
Aaand with that I think I’ll stop lol. I hope that wasn’t hard to understand. It’s easy to do yourself, just wear a skirt or some loose pajama pants and take hula poses in the mirror lol.
For all of you who have been longing for ME to make a tutorial about clothes, I truly recommend you to read this post. Since it covers the area in clothing that many other tutorials never mention, clothing is more than just “drawing folds and wrinkles”, it’s about knowing how the design and the behavior of our bodies affect it.
Read this. Please. It’s so easy explained.
rebloging for future reffs
We are always told to use body language in our writing. Sometimes, it’s easier said than written. I decided to create these cheat sheets to help you show a character’s state of mind. Obviously, a character may exhibit a number of these behaviours. For example, he may be shocked and angry, or shocked and happy. Use these combinations as needed.
I feel like this could be helpful for artists to express emotions through the body language of a character
The most valuable chart…
yes thanks for colouring it I had a hard time reading that
Eyes, nose, mouth, head, hands, ears and folds reference drawing tutorials.
I’m not sure why I just found out about this but….amazing! So fast and simple!
oh my shit ♥
This is lovely! I’d also like to recommend Design Seeds for colour schemes.
hellllooo help for electronic illustration project
yoooo what i need by tomorrow
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU