Interesting Science About The Colour Of Human Skin

man gets inked in a tattoo parlour

If you’re buying a gift for a young artist, a favourite of mine is a box of skin tone pencils or pens.  My Crayola box of the 80s included a ‘skin’ colour — in reality no one’s skin — symbolically and problematically the crayon was ‘white skin’. An entire box of skin tones is a far more inclusive gift.

Derwent skin tone pencils

WHY THE DIVERSITY OF SKIN COLOUR?

Our hairlessness has become a source of what we think of as beauty, a reality validated in every National Enquirer article about a “wolf boy”. It also has widespread consequences for our health and quality of life. It is the reason for the origin of melanin (the compound that, when present, makes dark skin) in sunny regions. The production of melanin in cells is just under the surface of the skin evolved in Africa, along with our loss of hair. All of our ancestors produced melanin and so were dark skinned, but when some of our ancestors moved out of hot climates, melanin blocked too much sun. At least a little sun on the skin is necessary for our bodies to produce vitamin D. Dark-skinned individuals in sunless places suffered rickets. The died, and so, with time, pale-skinned genes were favoured, not just once but several times independently, with the northward migrations of humans. In other words, the variety in our skin color would not exist were our skin not exposed in the first place by our lack of hair.

– Rob Dunn, from The Wild Life Of Our Bodies

MORE

1. Nina Jablonski on the Evolution Of Skin, a Research Unplugged Podcast, available on iTunes U podcast from Penn State. She also did a TED talk, breaking the illusion of skin colour.

NOTES FROM THE PODCAST

Human skin is not much different in its basic structure from the skin of other animals walking around. But other mammals tend to be covered in hair, so it looks quite different. Humans are functionally hairless. This makes us very sweaty.

The next uniqueness is that human skin comes in a variety of natural colours. This is unique to our species.

The last unique feature of human skin is that compared to other animals we actually do things to our skin. We decorate it and use it as a canvas for self expression. Makeup, tattoos, piercings have great social significance.

Nakedness and sweatiness go together. In the course of evolution of our lineage, skin is hard to learn about because skin cannot be preserved. Nevertheless we have good evidence and we know we’ve had naked skin for a long time. This has been necessary for us to be more efficient sweaters. Humans and other primates are excellent at losing body heat through sweat. A dog pants to lose heat. A sheep loses heat through a mechanism at the base of its brain which allows it to cool a lot of blood flowing through the brain in particular via its nose. The more active the primate the more numerous its sweat glands. We come from a type of ape that has a moderate number of sweat glands. Other apes were extremely energetic in their activity, similar to modern humans so they must have had the ability to cool themselves with sweat glands. We’ve had excellent sweat glands for 2 million years.

When a horse sweats a lot they actually lose their ability to keep cool because their hair becomes compressed and their ability to lose heat through evaporation is limited. So the more hair you lose the more cool you can become by sweating. This is why we became hairless.

The ancestral form of our lineage lived only in equatorial Africa (2 million years ago). Hairless skin without pigment is very subject to burning. Recently we’ve become very aware of the sun but before that people didn’t protect ourselves well from the sun. Before that unpigmented skin burned a lot. This damage is not just the kind that causes you to have wrinkles and have skin cancer when you’re older but is actually damaging the DNA in your body essential for normal health and reproduction. So all of a sudden sun doesn’t become a little bit bad for you but a positive liability.

It was at this time in our evolutionary history that our species became darkly pigmented. All of us around 2 million years ago were darkly pigmented. The story of skin pigmentation then really starts out at this common denominator and it becomes interesting as the population disperses. This occurred quite quickly and we have humans going into Eastern and central Asia then Europe over the next million or so years.

When people went into these places their skin colour underwent major changes. Pigment in skin not only protects against dangerous effects of ultraviolet radiation but also is to do with making Vitamin D. Evolution is happening in our skin all the time. The pigment is filtering out a certain amount of radiation but also allowing a little bit in so that you can make vitamin D. Organisms like humans are remarkable in that through the course of natural selection we’ve tinkered with the amount of pigmentation in skin exactly right.

Outside the tropics, where humans first evolved, there isn’t very much of the UV radiation that makes vitamin D, and yet we need vitamin D to be healthy. That’s why, as humans moved into higher latitudes lost pigmentation, many of us have lightly pigmented skin, especially in northern Europe and northern Asia. This pigment (melanin) can be produced temporarily by people who tan. It was an important response that evolved in some people to deal with the increased UV that occurred for part of the year. (Summer)

We use skin constantly to advertise ourselves. Even for those who put no decoration on our skins, our skin tells a lot about your state of health. It immediately gives a signal to any observer about age, how much sun exposure you’ve had and what your likely ancestry is, even from 50 yards away.

If you have a certain amount of makeup on of a particular kind, or if you have tattoos of various kinds and positions we learn even more about you before you say anything. We use these cultural mechanisms to great advantage, to give people info about ourselves before they even talk to us. In modern society where speedy social interactions are the rule rather than exception more and more people are relying on this kind of advertising. (eg black and white goths)

There’s a difference between cosmetics and something like a tattoo or piercing. Many older people can’t relate to tattoos as a visual medium and think it’s a foolish thing to do. After interviews, I realise young people think extremely carefully about it because they want a tattoo to be another symbol of themselves. Tattoos are not something people undertake frivolously. The vast majority consider it very carefully. It speaks of very deeply held aspirations about themselves, and have become extremely popular in the last 10-15 years.

There have always been men who tell women not to wear make up. One example from history is a London minister of St Giles in the Fieldswas not fond of cosmetics and in 1616 railed against ‘paps embossed, laid forth to men’s view’.

A treatise against pain and tincturing

We use our skin to gather information about our environment through the sense of touch. A lot of animals do this but we use our sense of touch tremendously, especially the tips of fingers and face. We gather a huge amount of info about our environment and about each other. Primates evolved to constantly touch one another. Humans living in a hunter gatherer society have a tremendous amount of physical touch between members, but our society has regulated against most of this kind of touch. If we were chimpanzees a roomful of students would be intertwined with one another, grooming. We tend to discount this part of our legacy. Touch is very important to normal childhood development and physiological well-being. Individuals in nursing homes do much better when they are touched and hugged.

Makeup Counter by Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) The Saturday Evening Post cover March 10, 1951
  1. Surprising Siblings: Black and White Brothers Are Actually Twins shows that people of Caribbean descent often carry European DNA.
  2. Some Doctors Aren’t Wild About Self Tanner And Prefer You Stay Pale from Jezebel.
  3. And if this article doesn’t stop you from using sun beds nothing will, from Women’s Health.
  4. Based On The Colour Of One’s Skin, in which we are cautioned against confusing skin colour and racial identity, from Zero At The Bone
  5. Crayons that come in lots of different ‘skin colours’.
  6. The Enduring Popularity Of The Tan from The Beheld
  7. A depressingly large number of Nigerian women use harmful skin bleach, from Jezebel
  8. Tanning Is a Young, White, Female Problem. And It’s Deadly, also from Jezebel.
  9. Pigmentation: the simplest of complex traits not so simple? from Discover
  10. Neanderthals Came In All Colours, Discover

Header photo by Paladini Mauro

Do Americans really frown with their mouths?

I saw this widely shared on Twitter and wondered if this frown analysis were an oversimplification of reality:

On the other hand, it may be true. It would explain why (American-made) frowny emoticons have no eyebrows to speak of. This explains why the frowny emoticons have never looked satisfying to me. They just look mildly disappointed with the world.

Expand to GIFs and it’s easy to confirm the hypothesis.

American actor:

Apparently this kid is American but we don’t know for sure:

British actor:

via GIPHY

Vulture (American) describes that (British) Fleabag scene above as a ‘laugh pout’. It’s definitely a conspiratorial, theatrical frown to me.

But then, Britney Spears is American and here we clearly see her using her eyebrows. I have no idea what emotion she is expressing here because GIFs are without context. But Americans clearly use their eyebrows to express a range of emotions. She looks incredulous and slightly disgusted to me, as if she can’t believe the interviewer just said that.

I’m neither American nor British. But I wondered how I, as an Australasian, would depict frowning in art, because this has implications for illustrators, right? This involves going back into art I’ve done in the past. Facial expressions are more subtle in the sombre works, more exaggerated in cartoony works.

from Midnight Feast

I had labeled this ‘cranky librarian face’

I had labeled this ‘Fluffikins looking right annoyed’

Without looking too far, I realised I make use of both eyebrows and mouth downturn to depict frowning, at least when it comes to cartoons. When it comes to depicting a serious, sombre mood, I do very little with the face.

Just the other day I posed a 3D model frowning and came up with this:

The character is meant to be feeling annoyed and is also concentrating. I was using software which lets me control the eyes separately from the mouth, which is important information for this nonetheless rubbish experiment.

But I have lived part of my life in New Zealand, about half my adult life in Australia. So my own examples prove nothing either way about Americans vs Brits.

What if I compare British picture books to American picture books? Might we then see a difference?

First I need to find some characters with eyebrows and a human-esque mouth. (Pigeon from the Mo Willems series won’t do here — pigeon has a beak, dammit.)

I’m immediately hampered with a deeper issue. Is this even what Americans would describe as a ‘frown’? Does a frown denote sadness? That’s just a sad face, right? I mean, it’s right there in the title:

Or does a frown denote something else, like contemplation of hard things?

American illustrators definitely make use of the eyes (eye shape in lieu of eyebrows) when the frown indicates anger. But is this a frown? (The mouth is open and therefore useless to us here.)

from Z is for Moose illustrated by American Paul O. Zelinsky

Let’s go briefly to the UK. I’m searching for Shirley Hughes because she draws a lot of people, and people have proper mouths.

The mother is frowning, right? She looks concerned and she’s mostly using her eyebrows.

Look at Mog, though, by Judith Kerr. Cats have naturally downturned mouths, to the point where I believed all cats were always sad when I was little because if you look at them from the front this is what you see. But if you look at them side on, they’re enjoying a perpetual joke. Mog’s eyes have been reshaped to look mournful rather than frowny. Is this a frown to you? I don’t even know anymore.

The character below is by British illustrator Chris Riddell. Eyebrows feature heavily. The mouth is narrow rather than downturned. I’m definitely getting ‘frown’ here. To me, this is the archetypal frown. All of the characters to the right are frowning.

Here’s what I think’s going on. The concept of a facial expression is different from the reality of a facial expression. Actors, emoticon designers and illustrators are all working with the concept of frowning rather than with the reality of it. Britney Spears appears to be mid-interview above, whereas Steve Carell is acting. The same facial expressions, even if there were no difference at all, may well be labelled differently on each side of the Atlantic.

If you’d asked me to describe Steve Carrell’s face above, I wouldn’t have come up with ‘frown’. That’s not what I could call a frown, even if Giphy calls it a frown, even if the underlying emotion is frowny. I might have used words like sad, contemplative, thoughtful. His expression is clearly negative — he’s not thinking of something great, but that’s not a plain ole frown to me.

Illustrators, as you were. I reckon any difference between England and America is a labelling difference.

We may find something quite different if we went to Asia or into Maori culture, where eyebrow language is DEFINITELY a thing. I had to learn it myself as a young adult, moving from the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand.

 

Tom Barling Illustrations?

A while back I blogged about Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton, illustrated by Tom Barling. There is remarkably little on the Internet about Tom Barling considering how much work he produced.

Perhaps you are knowledgeable about this English illustrator and can tell us whether the following illustrations are indeed by him? We have good reason to believe that they are.

But it would be great to have that confirmed and to know which project they were for. Please get in touch if you know anything about them, or would like to hazard a guess!

In any case, they’re beautifully rendered and deserve to be on the Internet. They remind me a little of Maurice Sendak’s work.

The eyes on this girl are quite unusual.

I think I might get nightmares tonight. She reminds me of a Black Eyed Kid of the urban legend:

Black-eyed children (or black-eyed kids) are an urban legend of supposed paranormal creatures that resemble children between the ages of 6 and 16, with pale skin and black eyes, who are reportedly seen hitchhiking or panhandling, or are encountered on doorsteps of residential homes. Tales of black-eyed children have appeared in pop culture since the late 1990s.

Apparently the paranormal stories started around 1996, but these illustrations look a bit older than that to me. What do you think?

But that smile… That pasted on smile…

Is the horse stylised based on cave drawings? I notice the girl’s eyes are drawn differently here.

Is this a piece of jewellery, or a ninja weapon that you throw at enemies? What better image to put on a shuriken than a black eyed kid and her pasted on smile?

The Gingerbread House In Hansel And Gretel

Kubel Gingerbread House

When an illustrator signs on to illustrate a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, I bet the scene they look forward to the most is depicting the gingerbread house. On the other hand, how to make it original?



OTTO KUBEL’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Kubel added black witch’s cats, which should have alerted the children, really. The children are rosy cheeked and look pretty well-nourished to me. The witch isn’t immediately obvious. The eye is drawn to the children first, catching the ambient light. The witch is dressed in white, but remains standing in shadow. The house is small, closing around her, like the house itself will gobble you up. The foregrounded tree reminds us that we are in the forest.

Kubel Gingerbread House

Otto Kubel was a German painter and illustrator who lived from 1868 – 1951. He studied at the Dresden School of Applied Arts then worked uneventfully, it seems, as an artist and sometimes illustrator of children’s books. 

He did live in various different places around Germany: In the early 1900’s Kubel went to live in Furstenfelbruck (a well-known artists colony — home of “Die Brucker Maler”). He then lived in Munchen  where he basically stayed put, apart from the later part of the Second World War in which he stayed in Partenkirchen.

If you can read German, here’s some more about his illustration.

WANDA GAG’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Wanda Gag had only black and white to work with. She surrounds the children with white so they don’t disappear by accident into the image. This makes it look as if light emanates from the children themselves. In most depictions of the gingerbread house, light seems to come from the house itself, or out of the surrounding trees. The witch has not yet appeared, but a black cat on teh stoop lies in wait.

by Wanda Gag
by Wanda Gag

See: Wanda Gag’s Americanization Of Grimms’ Fairy Tales a scholarly paper from Jack Zipes.

  • Wanda Gag made the Grimms’ fairy tales popular in America during the 1930s and 1940s, which is when anti-German sentiment was on the rise.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as produced by Disney in 1937, helped when it came to popularising these German tales across the Atlantic.
  • Wanda Gag was born in 1893.
  • She was the daughter of a ‘free-thinking painter’ with seven children who he couldn’t feed properly. This might explain partly why Gag felt so drawn to a tale which is ultimately about starving children? Her father died when she was only 15, too, in which case it’s possible she idolised him in the same way the tale idolises paternity (and vilifies maternity).
  • Gag is most famous for her book Millions of Cats.
  • She died in 1948, before she had finished the job she had set out to do, which was to translate and illustrate 50 of the Grimm tales.

KAY NIELSON’S GINGERBREAD HOUSE

These children look a bit thinner than many other depictions. The trees are absolutely huge. The foliage growing around the house has been affected by its magical aura and are therefore green when all the other trees are coloured in ochres. There’s a soft curviness to this illustration. The only hard angles are the windows and chimney. Light comes from the house, somehow.

Kay Nielson 1925
Kay Nielsen 1925

Kay Nielsen was a so-called Golden Age illustrator from Denmark who lived from 1886-1957. (Despite the name Kay being largely a feminine name in the West, in Denmark it is a masculine name.) Like Wanda Gag, he came from a highly artistic family. In 1939 he moved to California and because he was a white man and also good at art, he secured a job working for Disney. Can you guess which movie he worked on, judging by his style?

Well, he did some concept paintings for The Little Mermaid. His work was used in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia. (Here’s the thing about that movie: It wasn’t actually produced until 1989. Nielsen died a long time before then.)

Walt Disney only employed him for four years. He had to return to Denmark, where he spent his final years. Unfortunately, trends had moved on, and Nielsen’s style of illustration was no longer in fashion.

FELICITAS KUHN

illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Felicitas Kuhn

VOJTECH KUBASTA

Vojtech Kubasta pop up illustration of the Hansel and Gretel candy house

MARGARET TARRANT

LORENZO MATTOTTI

This is a much more recent publication. I’ve covered it here. This text was written by Neil Gaiman, who crafted a less sexist version than the usual, giving Gretel more agency.

This one looks almost like a photo which has had a Photoshop filter put on it. Look closer and you immediately see it’s not, but there’s a weird, unsettling realism about it. The light comes clearly from the moon filtering through trees, though Mattotti has surrounded the children — or the shadows of the children — with white as Wanda Gag did. The layout is also similar to that by Wanda Gag, with the children coming in from the right to a house positioned centre left.

Hansel and Gretel forest scene
by Lorenzo Mattotti

SHELBY RODEFFER

Rodeffer is an artist working today, in a style that harks back to the 1970s. This is a relatively symmetrical version of the gingerbread house. It doesn’t look all that much like food — it doesn’t make you want to lick the page, but the hints of sweets are there. (It would be hard to make this look tasty in this colour palette).

one of a series of posters by FamilyTree
one of a series of posters by FamilyTree

BILL BURGARD

The trees are foregrounded in this minimalist illustration. This is a forest with no life in it at all. There is a light source, coming from the bottom left. The house itself is almost in the centre of the layout… but not quite. These two aspects combined contribute to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere.

Illustration by Bill Burgard for a performance
Illustration by Bill Burgard for a performance