As an author, I can tell you that sometimes it’s hard to describe your characters accurately. I mean, we can see these people in our heads, we know exactly what they look like…but sometimes when trying to translate that into text you start running out of words and just fall back on the old simple standbys you’re familiar with: light, dark, brown, tan. Those words might not describe the character’s appearance exactly, but they’ll give someone a general idea, right? They do the job.
Or at least, they can. But if you get out your thesaurus and go browse some very special photographs, you can do better.
The photographs belong to Humanæ, a work-in-progress project by Brazilian artist Angélica Dass, who “intends to deploy a chromatic range of the different human skin colors” using the Pantone color system. Pantone, for those of you who aren’t graphic designers, is a system used for matching colors that allows you to make sure the color(s) you use in a project stay consistent across the board. Dass has applied this matching to photographs of people who volunteer to be part of the project, revealing in an astounding rainbow of skin tones ranging from palest parchment to nearly black and every imaginable shade in between…and that could end up being your favorite thing in the whole world if you’re trying to create better descriptions for your characters, especially if you’re trying to have illustrations done of any of them.
I should probably mention right now that the Tumblr site for Humanae could really quickly become an epic time-waster if you like to people-watch, because aside from the fascinating range of human skin tones being represented every kind of person you can think of is pictured there. Babies. Old people. Younger people. Little kids. People whose ‘neutral face’ looks angry, irritated, or sad. People who smiled anyway. People who looked like they weren’t too sure about this whole picture-taking thing. One woman who couldn’t meet the camera’s eye, and another who looked so scared it was worrisome. A little boy who’d no doubt been told not to smile, so he produced an adorably fierce little scowl for the camera instead. Just an incredible wealth of personality and expression and mood pouring down the seemingly endless page, beautiful in its depiction of the ever-expanding diversity of humanity.
Okay, now that I’ve proved I can wax lyrical – something all writers are required to do on a regular basis or they take our Real Writer™ card away – I also feel the need to warn you that if you go plug in one of those color numbers on the Pantone website looking for a matching swatch, chances are you’re going to come up with a swatch that definitely isn’t a human skin tone color. No idea why, it’s either just my monitor or it has something to do with Pantone having their own dedicated set of ‘skin tone’ swatches which use entirely different numbers. So if you’re character-coloring and using Humanae to do it, my suggestion would be to write down the Pantone number and save the photo, and maybe use a color picker to get an RGB or CMYK value off the photo’s background while you’re at it. Oh, and make sure your monitor is properly calibrated.