CreativityColourThe colour of colours

The colour of colours

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Reading time: 5:00min | Why we should cherish skin tone as the queen of colours.

Young woman with Vitiligo skin condition. Photography: Olena Gorbenko, Getty Images

For us, humans, the skin tone is the measure of naturalness and vitality. We can best judge by skin tone if we like the pictures of a particular camera or not. We see no other colour so delicately and empathically, and no other colour is so different from case to case and yet has the same name. Skin tone is not ochre, is not blackberry – but skin tone. It lives from a unique mix of colours. Even if yellow and orange shades, tinted towards ochre, dominate the colour skin tone at first glance, neither of the two shades will ever be able to reproduce a skin tone in such a way that we would accept it as convincing.

Skin tones live from the iridescence of all possible colours that human skin can produce. The most obvious is the cyan of a beard shadow or the fine red of baby cheeks. With the danger of equalising make-up can render a skin tone unnatural to such an extent that we speak of plastic. Right make-up is an art in itself!

The light-white skin tone is mostly presented by white-blond or albino people. There are also black-haired people with a noticeable light-white skin tone. Such skin tones have a porcelain character with subtle gradations into reddish, ochre and greenish-blueish. They are hard to tackle in colour correction because their luminosity sits in very light areas and can swiftly appear lacking in vitality. They are also a challenge in colour correction.

Young woman with red hair. Photography: Stocksnap, Pixabay

With people of African or Australian descent, the skin tone is often deep dark to medium brown, with distinctly warm colour worlds, which, like any other skin tone, retains some of its vibrancy from subtle shades of colour into the entire colour spectrum. But also, darker skin tones live from a vivid contrast with bright back-lights and rim-lights, which as reflections make the skin look particularly lively.

Young African woman. Photography: Jackson David, Pexels

Darker skin tones are closely related to the so-called Caucasian-European skin tone, which, depending on the tan, evenly follows the dark skin tone to the bright side and can be touched digitally just as conveniently. Although the brightness is often close to the Caucasian-European type, Asian and American Native skin tones can develop a fine to distinct delicacy in the olive range, depending on the area of their descent. This delicacy can quickly be lost if the camera cannot differentiate finely enough or if one messes up in colour correction.

Young Asian woman stretching. Photography: Stefan Dahl

At this point, I would like to point out that skin tones and their characteristics are in endless flux. There are no boundaries and no gradations. But there are apparent differences if you specifically take out notable examples. This consciously selective perception is, among other things, the basis of racism. However, as an experienced photographer and filmmaker, one learns that the world of skin tone is not made up of selected stereotypes, but is complex.

There is no sorting terminology for skin tones such as “race”. The concept of race in the context of people, no matter how pseudo-scientific attempts are made to justify the term race, is this: a malicious terminology to promote — by White grievance — excluding identity policies whose aim is to keep a white minority in power. Personally, I am grateful that our world, though apparently finite as a sphere, remains a boundless universe. There is always room to discover something new. How bleak and boring would be our world if we humans all had a similar skin tone.

If the aim is to reproduce the skin as vividly as possible, we should consider the effect on skin tones when determining the luminance contrast. The same is true when we adjust the RGB sliders to make the colours of the image more vivid. Making a picture cool can look great and make a lot of sense in terms of content. But the strength of the cooling effect is determined by the skin tone. If the skin tone loses its liveliness, a zombie-like quality or morgue skin tone is noticeable, we may have overdone it. Conversely, it works with a desired warmth in the picture. From a certain degree of orange and ochre tint on, warm colouring overshadows the delicacy of the skin tone and has a levelling effect; the skin tone appears without contrast to the surroundings, and, with too much saturation, turns into a cheap carrot tint.

Often there is the temptation to isolate skin tones and perform a so-called secondary correction. In most cases, this is only meaningful with a lot of routines and the experience that such a measure usually goes astray. If the skin looks awkward or just plain wrong, one should first look for the error in the previous general colour correction (colourists call that primary colour correction).

Sometimes a soft and bright skin tone is desired, which can best be described as porcelain. The way to achieve this is by desaturating the image and perform a flat luminance contrast in the brightness range of the skin tone. Another way is to select the whole face with a mask and then lighten it up a little (e.g. with the Brightness slider) and adjust saturation accordingly. This way, the colour of the skin tone is preserved, still matching the surroundings, and the brightening will look like an extra light.

Much depends on the preparation and the design concept when we structure the image. De-saturation of the skin tone works best when there are intense colours in the picture, whose saturation despite de-saturation still prevail to a certain extent. The choice of clothes can play a significant role in this case. But it must be clear that a person who comes from the beach with a tan or is of African descent will never get a porcelain skin tone. On the other hand, they have the advantage of looking healthy and vital in most cases from the outset. It is not for nothing that a tanned skin tone has become a desirable ideal in western culture.

The colour-grading of pictures is similar to the work of a magician or an illusionist. If we succeed, the viewer will never get the idea that we have touched and manipulated the colours of the image but will take the image for granted. If the colour manipulation is blatant, it must be so good that we speak enthusiastically of a strong look. If it is less inspiring, it acts like a preset or filter, which is what we wanted to avoid in the first place. Ideally, the colour design matches the content of the picture and does not raise questions. If there are no questions, the goal is usually achieved. If no satisfactory result is achieved despite an intensive study of the colours, the problem will be found in the idea. Then the rule No.1 in art applies: Kill your darlings.

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