Dark color theory.

Updated: Dec 25, 2019


Something I didn't get to cover very much in "How to Draw Black People" was the relationship between light and color. Light and color sometimes get glossed over in teachings about coloring skin tones because lighter skin reflects color similarly to white surfaces. So, a common practice is to increase the brightness and intensity of colors to emulate the reaction of light.




With dark skin tones that approach can lead to a couple of problems. This first problem relates to color theory. Dark colors are...well...dark. So increasing the brightness and intensity of a dark color changes it into a different color altogether.


The second problem is dark colors reflect less light. When there is one main light source on two people, one with light skin the other with dark skin, the color of that light source will adjust the color of the lighter person but not the person with dark skin. Light colors are also warmer than dark colors, so the temperature of the color of the light source will affect the darker colors differently.


For lighter skin tones these aren't problems because those colors will adapt to the light source. However, if you intend to create dark skin characters you must map out your value scale with dark color theory in mind. (don't google it, I made that term up right now)




Dark color theory is just the part of color theory that pertains to dark colors, the principles are as follows:

1. Dark colors, specifically the ones used for darker skin tones, diffuse light.


For black people, specific lighting situations have to be produced for filming and photography. When referencing Black people for design purposes its easy to lose sight of that fact and interpret the light in reference images to be a natural reaction. Obviously, photography is a different medium and requires different techniques for desired results. At the same time, the way light is diffused by dark colors, meaning it spreads out evenly, is something visual artists can learn to incorporate. This doesn't mean intense bright spots on dark skin is unnatural or incorrect, just remember that the lighting situation is important to keep in mind.


2. Warm colors light dark skin evenly. Cool colors create more contrast.




When deciding on colors for a design or a single piece, keep the temperature in mind. Building up light using shades of gray is one solution, however, it does very little for mood and color scheme. Work with the same attention to detail as a photographer and plan for the way the color of the light source will affect dark skin tones. Cooler colors will make the shadows deeper and the brighter the light source the darker the shadows; the opposite is true for warmer colors.




These two principles will help address the darker skin tones but the colors you choose are equally important.


These color palettes are groupings that I designed to be used for creating Black characters under various lighting situations. You can download them for free in the supplemental file section.


I designed them to be used with a blend and blur technique I lay out in the pages of How to Draw Black People, however, you can use them in any manner you feel best suits your needs.

I hope this has been informative and useful! Don't forget to sign up for updates at the bottom of the page and check back weekly for my Thursday updates. Happy holidays to you and yours :)