Why Every Designer Should Have a Skin Tone Chart

Last time, we talked about creating a color swatch sheet — basically, a piece of paper (or papers) that included all the colors that you work with. For me, I have color swatches from Prismacolor Premier colored pencils to Crayola crayons. The reason for this is because not only would I use these colors to render (as with the Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils), but I want to use them as a way to find colors that I might like when I’m out shopping for fabric, or when I’m coming up with a concept.

Each color for each brand is significantly different, and until I get my hand on the PANTONE color chips, this is the way that I would have to do it. However, there is another thing that is of equal importance. Skin tone. Now, you may not see the necessity of having a skin tone chart — until I show you.

Whenever you’re rendering an illustration (especially for design communication), having a skin tone chart helps to guide you into choosing the perfect skin tone for whatever design you’re working on. And it also helps you to render your skin tones right on the first try. Essentially having a skin tone chart and having a color chart is the ‘croquis’ for design and illustration rendering. They help to prevent color mistakes.

Going about creating one is a similar process to creating a color swatch sheet, however, there are a few differences. For some people, listing all the colors (along with a swatch) that will make up a skin tone is sufficient. They have a color gradient, starting from the lightest or base shade and progressing to the darkest shadow tone with a blush color between. For others (such as myself), drawing a front-facing face and actually rendering it works the best because it shows me what to expect when I choose this set of colors for a skin tone. It also acts as a guide for how I should render it. Besides this drawing, I list the colors that I used with that skin tone: the base color, the mid-tone, the shadow, and a blush. For some, I use a fifth color, a transition, and this color is particularly useful for darker skin tones.

For others (such as myself), drawing a front-facing face and actually rendering it works the best because it shows me what to expect when I choose this set of colors for a skin tone. It also acts as a guide for how I should render it. Besides this drawing, I list the colors that I used with that skin tone: the base color, the mid-tone, the shadow, and a blush. For some, I use a fifth color, a transition, and this color is particularly useful for darker skin tones.

And speaking of darker skin tones, you want a skin tone chart so that you can have a selectable range of complexions. From your palest Caucasian to your darkest African, and all the complexions in between helps your illustrations tremendously.

For me, I use four categories and within each category, I have three complexions. I have a light or pale category, tan, brown/olive category, and dark category. All of this helps me to be more organized in choosing a skin tone. Each category has a neutral or rosy tone, a yellowish or warm undertone, and a cool undertone. I think this is very important to me when rendering because I want my garment illustrations to pop out on paper just as it should in real life. Just as how styling a model is a big part of being a designer, this skill should be reflected in your illustrations as well.

I limit myself to at least twelve skin tones, but of course, in the real world there are much more than just twelve so having a base to begin with, helps for when you may want to try replicating other skin tones and if you come across one that isn’t on your chart, you can always make room for that addition. Having this kind of chart doesn’t make you any less of an illustrator, but it makes you better at being one.

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