Kid’s Illustration and Colorism (aka black line art is a problem but not the only problem)

It’s not hard to build a certain level of diverse representation into your illustration. You get to choose your characters’ skin colour, features, clothing, body shape etc etc. 

But there’s one area where I just keep failing, and that is creating characters with very dark skin. I think the difficulty I’m having is this: picture book illustrations are simple and one of the aspects of simplicity is that my characters are each a flat skin colour. If that skin colour is dark, then you cannot easily read their expressions (because I haven’t come up with a way to draw their expressions). It’s hardly a good representation of a group of people if they don’t get to express emotion.

This girl’s expression is only easily readable because I didn’t make her skin any darker:


I tried to deal with this once by giving this kid paler highlights but tbh I wasn’t happy with the outcome.


Another time I added a little more lighting effect and this worked well imo, but adds a layer of complexity that, to me, makes the picture seem more ‘grown up’ (aka for older, rather than younger, kids):


Part of the problem also seems to be that against a white screen or pale background, our eyes see dark shapes more in silhouette – the contrast to white is greater than the contrast in the face and so that’s the part that draws our attention.


Do we just need to start over with black paper and a white pencil and see where we go? Do we need to throw out our simplistic picture book conventions? Do I need to give up the idea that I can make a face a single colour and still create v dark skinned characters with obvious facial expressions?

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while will know that this has been in my mind for ages. I am still no closer. I am still googling to no avail. I can’t even find other people having this discussion. So… this is just an update, I guess. And a plea for thoughts. Also a suggestion request: can you think of an illustrator who draws picture book characters with very dark skin?

(Let’s not even start on inked greyscale illustrations. They are even worse.)


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