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:

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

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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):

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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.

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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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