Saturday, January 23, 2010

Color in Picutre Books

So Anne brought up the topic of color, i.e. race.
A slightly different but related topic is that of color in picture books. There has been a trend since the 90’s to depict a character of every color and type in a group scene. A classroom might then include, an Ivory person, a Raw Sienna person, a Sandstone person, a Sepia person, a Brown Earth person, a Red Earth person, a Yellow Ochre person, and the one that makes me cringe every time I use it, a Flesh Tint person. One almost never uses straight-from-the-tube White or Black for skin tone. It just wouldn’t work. (you also have to depict the token kid-in-wheelchair, but that’s not so linked to color)

Personally the browns and reds make the most beautiful skin tones. My all time favorite is Raw Sienna. And yes, all this becomes annoyingly politically correct when painting a classroom of kids—perhaps why bunnies are so much more appealing. Bunnies, dogs, mice, what have you, have a much wider array of color to choose from, including grays and pinks, and some can even have spots, which is really exciting! It really becomes quite dull visually to have a group all painted the same color, so in that sense it has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with visual variety and color. In my opinion, the less human the character the more you can do with race, in a more subtle, yet at the same time much more pleasing way.

After all, a Frog and a Toad can be best friends and they are very different shades of green. Actually one looks more like Brown Earth and the other Olive Green. Doesn’t this give us hope?


  1. And two female bunnies can be longtime companions!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I agree with you, Lisa. More color is better. Animal characters also have that embedded information about type-- like loyal and brave lions or hyper squirrels. I think that is why books like Leo the Late Bloomer are so much stronger. There is another layer of contrast. A brave tiger named Leo has even more to overcome when he is shy or different. Artistically, the images are so much stronger: a leaping, stripped orange tiger with red flowers and green grass is better than some poor pail biped sitting at his desk doing spelling homework. The message is stronger and so are the illustrations. Here is an example of a more serious book that could have been presented in nonfiction-after-school-special-type of way. Instead it looks alive. As an artist, I say the pictures are even more important than the text in a picture book. Poor coloring and the message is mostly lost. The pictures make friends with the reader first. Any awkwardness or insincerity about race, gender or any other subject will show first through the pictures, because they illustrate the text.

  4. All the World, written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee, is a beautiful pb that came out this fall. I interpret the main family unit in the story to be multi-racial. The mom is very blonde. I've seen the father described as black and as hispanic. I think some readers could interpret him as being white, but with olive-toned skin. It's interesting how using a light brown skin tone and specific hair features can evoke so many different interpretations. I hope that multiracial readers will also be finding reflections of themselves more frequently in future books.