Monday, August 14th, 2017 01:34 am
I feel weird making a post about this as a super pale white person, but I keep seeing other artists draw dark characters really badly in the sort of flat colouring used in animation and comics etc, and don't know of any better guides. So here's what I've figured out. If people know of better techniques or guides, or if I've inadvertently said something wrong or offensive, please let me know.

So. This isn't about how to draw dark skin realistically. That's largely achieved by just looking at actual POC and trying to capture them accurately: hard work, but straight forward. It's also not about how to depict the features of POC in a cartoon style, which is a whole other complex topic. I poked at those kinds of issues ages ago.

I'm also going to assume that we all agree that it's good to depict dark skinned characters at all :P

This post is specifically about the problem of how to effectively depict dark skin in a flat colouring style eg the cel shading used by anime, or the inks + colour of old school mainstream comics. Most of the time this kind of style uses black lines to outline major features, and on dark skin those features can get lost. As a purely technical problem this applies to dark blue people as much as dark brown ones, but the latter actually exist so are more important to represent well.

Here's an example, using a crappy edit of the dark eyed, dark haired Yukari from Azumanga Daioh winking:
Yukari from Azumanga Daioh with medium brown and dark brown skin

The original version has very pale skin, and all the details of her hands and nose etc show up very clearly. When she's darkened a little, this is still basically true. But when she's made very dark all those details are hard to make out, and her winking eye almost vanishes. Also, without highlights her face looks weirdly flat.

Now consider the real dark skinned person Lupito Nyong'o in fairly dark lighting, with similar midtones to the edited Yukari. Her features are still distinct, outlined by highlights and a range of shades of shadow. How can we capture that in flat colour?
Lupita Nyong'o

So! Here's the approaches I have encountered, and my thoughts on them. I'm just a well meaning white artist with no formal training, so don't take my word as read! A lot of cel shaded/comic art these days isn't quite flat colours, instead using gradients and fuzzy edges, but the same basic principles apply.

Just draw dark skinned characters in the generic flat colour style anyway

I'm not a fan of this approach, it seems pretty racist to only have pale characters look good in your art, but I'm listing it for completeness. Consider James from the Princess and the Frog: the darker female characters at least have makeup but his face looks really featureless.
James from the Princess and the Frog

Only draw skin as relatively pale, even when characters are meant to be dark

I'm not a fan of this approach either, but it's by far the most common, especially in media from Japan. See the lightness of the characters in this list of Top 10 Dark-Skinned and Black Anime Characters. English language visual novels are usually just as bad, see for example the "diverse" cast from the Voltage USA game Castaway:
The cast of the game Castaway, everyone is pretty pale including characters who are probably meant to be read as POC

(Obviously a cast can be ethnically diverse and still not have any very dark skinned characters, but they're all like that)

Some argue that this is just artistic convention: literal white skin is meant to be read as the light beige pale people are in reality, and by extension light brown skin is intended to be read as representing what would be quite a dark brown in reality. And there is some precedent for this is anime and manga, which represents the dark hair and eyes of ethnically Japanese people as anything from actual black to light brown to pink, but still expects the audience to know it's meant to be dark.

For example, compare the Full Metal Alchemist manga and anime. In the manga, Paninya's skin is a very pale grey and Ed and Winry's are pure white. In the anime, Winry and Ed have pale pink skin and Paninya is a light brown. In this case Ed and Winry are intended to really be blondes, but we are plausibly meant to read Paninya as actually being darker still in reality.
Paninya vs blondes: manga vs anime

I'd put an example of the comic version of a live action character being much paler than they are in reality, but I couldn't find any (a good sign, I guess :)). I know it's happened, though!

But regardless of how this convention is read in Japan(*), white audiences in the US/Australia etc do not reliably read the colours as intended, imagining Japanese characters with pale hair as actually blonde and black characters with light brown skin as actually light brown etc. If you're drawing for a Western audience and want them to view a character as dark skinned, you generally need to actually colour them dark.

And anyway, given the history of whitewashing and erasure dark skinned people have experienced in real life, it feels pretty skeevy to always use an artistic convention which makes them look pale. There are times when it make sense (eg if you're just drawing thin black outlines on white paper) but in those cases at least make sure you don't whitewash POC by, say, giving all your black characters straight hair and tiny pointy noses (some black people have those features, but if that's the only way you ever draw black people you are doing something wrong).

(*)which I'm not qualified to poke at, and I think a white Australian pontificating on representations of race in Japan would be pretty obnoxious. But it is worth noting that the live action Fullmetal Alchemist movie has an entirely Japanese cast even though it's set in fantasy analogues of Germany and the Middle East. Paninya doesn't show up in the part of the manga being adapted so I don't know how she would be cast.

Thicker, more distinct lines

This only works up to a point, but does help stop details being lost.

Consider Roy from Order of the Stick. The art style is just black lines and dots with no extra colours or detail, but his eyes and mouth are stark enough to be pretty visible, even in the small scale of the comic:
A panel from Order of the Stick with Roy saying Uh I think its a chain shirt

Darker and more distinct shadows

This is similar to "thicker lines" but allows for more detail and subtlety. This is the way all mainstream western comics art tends to be drawn.

Consider these pictures of Black Lightning and The Fierce Swordsman from Afro Samurai: both have quite dark skin, all in a flat colour, but the black shading helps the features pop.
Black Lightning and Afro Samurai

Also, adding lots of shadow can make the unshadowed parts look more like highlights than midtones, implying that the overall skintone is darker than the visibly coloured parts. For example, this panel of Shuri and her mother from the Black Panther comic (which uses gradient colour instead of flat, but would still work if it didn't):
Two women from the Black Panther comic

I took that image from this Black Panther review, they have a bunch more nice images.

Even pure black and white art can make skin look dark if the shadows are done right. I don't have any good examples of this but know I have seen it.


On of the key visual differences between light and dark skin is how much more visible highlights are on dark skin. Adding highlights to dark skin makes it look much more three dimensional, and makes features stand out. The two approaches with flat colours are thin lines and blocks of colour.

Here's the relatively pale Remy and black Dutch from the anime and manga versions of Black Lagoon. Dutch has deeper shadows in the manga and subtle line highlights in both:
Remy and Dutch from Black Lagoon

Now compare to cosplayers of the two characters. Notice how the paler woman cosplaying Remy has less visible highlights than the darker guy playing Dutch.

Compare these two panels of Finn from the Star wars comics standing next to a paler character, and similar scenes from the movie. In the one with no highlights his face seems much flatter and his features more indistinct. Notice that the highlights in the comic don't match reality, but still create a nice effect
Finn in the star wars comics: highlights vs no highlights vs live action

In this panel of Martha in the Dr Who comics her features are very sketchy but still clear thanks to a mixture of blocky highlights and black shading.
Dr Who and Martha: comic vs live action

Here's a guide to shading dark skin tones, it's not quite flat colours but still shows what a difference simple highlights can make.

Very important note: do not create a darker version of a pale character with highlights by just making everything darker by the same amount, or your highlights will look too dark. Highlights on dark skin are much brighter than the skin around them, while highlights on pale skin are more subtle.

For example: Here I added a hue/saturation/brightness adjustment to the pale Peter Parker's skin so that his mid tones matched those of the black Miles Morales. The darkened Peter's highlights are too dark and soft, and don't emphasise the shape of his face the way Miles' highlights do:
Peter Parker and Mile Morales, with a very badly racebent Peter

The same principle is why the highlights on the black parts of the spider suits are much more distinct than those on the red parts of the suits.

Pale linework

This certainly creates contrast and can be very effective, but is also really different to the default, and can be visually confusing if you're not careful. I know I've seen better examples (including some that mix dark and light lines depending on context) but I don't have any to hand so here's some art by me of Lucretia from The Adventure Zone:
White sketchy art against a black background of Lucretia from The Adventure Zone

Dark blue lines can stand out better against dark brown skin than pure black, but the effect is pretty subtle.

In Conclusion

Which approach is best for you will depend on your specific art style. I tend to use a mixture of thick lines and blocky highlights myself, as in this picture, but have used all the techniques listed here at different times. Experiment and practice and make your characters look awesome :)

Finally: please don't let this post make you feel bad about your art, and don't use it as an excuse to look down on other people's art, my analysis is pretty simplistic and art is complicated. The aim is to give people tools to expand their creativity, not strict rules to limit it.

Extra links collected since I made this post: