Art Supply Companies Contend with Racism as ‘Flesh Tones’ Come Under Scrutiny

Recent Black Lives Matter protests have swept the world, in the process forcing museums, galleries, and art businesses of all kinds to contend with histories of racism. Now, that reckoning has even extended to art supply companies, which are being forced to grapple with the racist implications of the ways they have long marketed paint colors and palette sets. 

Much of the reason major companies like Faber-Castell, Tombow, and Winsor & Newton have faced up to this history is because of a campaign by Jackson’s Art, one of the world’s largest art supply companies, which is calling on brands to confront various forms of racism. Galvanized by the Black Lives Matter protests, Jackson’s Art, which is based in the U.K., has begun to focus on the issue of what constitutes a “flesh tone.” For many brands, “flesh tones” have long denoted peach- and beige-colored colors—ones that have long been used to paint figures with white skin. But Jackson’s conviction is that calling these colors “flesh tones” centers whiteness in a way that is harmful—and even out of step with current developments in art.

“You don’t want to bring up a child of color in a world where the norm is something different from them, where they’ve been made to feel off or unconventional,” Laura Takashi, content manager at Jackson’s, told ARTnews.

Jackson’s campaign is one that is part of a larger project facing multiple industries that involves efforts to shift the spotlight away from white skin. Within the makeup industry, companies such as Maybelline and Lancôme have begun reconsidering how the term “nude” need not only apply to tones meant for white consumers. And this May, shortly before Black Lives Matter protests broke out in June amid the police killing of George Floyd, Crayola unveiled a “Colors of the World” set that includes brown and black crayons alongside white ones.

Although companies have only recently become interested in changing what we mean when we say “flesh tones,” historians have considered the issue for a while. Some scholars trace the term “flesh tone” back to 17th-century portrait painting, whose subjects were often upper-class and white. Critic Roger de Piles, for example, used the term in his 1673 treatise Dialogue sur le Coloris, a seminal book on color theory during its time. De Piles wrote that, in Baroque art of the time, the “flesh tones” of white skin were set against deep shadows to masterful effect in the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, who ought to have been considered some of the finest artists of the era, in the critic’s view. De Piles then set up a palette with tones artists could use to paint flesh; almost all of them were lightly colored. 

For some historians, efforts such as de Piles’ have upheld and centered whiteness when it comes to mass media and art-making. “It seems pretty clear that the association of pale colors with ‘flesh tones’ is just another aspect of what we might call ‘normative whiteness,’” said W. J. T. Mitchell, a professor of art theory and criticism at the University of Chicago, referring to a concept in critical race theory that whiteness is the socially constructed default to which all other minorities are compared.

Takashi views Jackson’s campaign as one small step of beginning to undo this emphasis on whiteness. According to her, most companies that were approached about the use of the term did not protest when Jackson’s suggested that change was needed. As for its part, Jackson’s has already addressed its own inventory: its oil paint color “Flesh Tint,” which was used to refer to a deep peachy color, has been renamed “Pale Terracotta,” and its skin tone pastel set was expanded to include a wider range of colors, among them “Burnt Sienna,” a rich reddish brown color, and “Burnt Sienna Extra Dark,” a deep blackish brown. 

Faber-Castell, a leading art material supplier, was among the companies that has changed its terminology for its offerings as a result of Jackson’s campaign. The word “skin” was dropped entirely from all packaging, and certain hues were renamed. When asked for comment, a representative for Faber-Castell directed ARTnews to a statement the company had provided to Jackson’s that reads, in part, “[We] did have Dark Flesh, Medium Flesh and Light Flesh and they have now become Salmon, Coral and Beige Red.”

Gamblin, an Oregon-based paint supply company, has changed the names of two tones it called “Indian Red” and “Indian Yellow.” The company had labeled the paints as such because the pigments in them are imported from India, but for some, the tones recalled anti-Indigenous racism. Now, those colors will be called “India Red” and “India Yellow”—a slight difference that Gamblin believes will incite a big change.

“If you know the stories of these pigments (and they’re good ones), then you get it and no worries,” Gamblin said in a statement. “Absent the story, however, the color names could feel quite different and, basically, not good.”

While the changes spurred on by the Jackson’s quickly have come about quickly, largely over the last year, some art supply companies are taking a slower approach. Schmincke, a German retailer, currently sells a peach-hued “Skin Color,” which it has referred to as “a traditional, historical designation.” A representative for Schmincke promised that the company will change the name in future products that include the color, but offered no timetable for its name’s retirement, as “conversions will take some time.”

Takashi said she is aware that she will be accused by some of unfairly politicizing art supplies, which are not often thought of as grounds for debates about colonialism and racism. She dismissed those allegations as “old-fashioned lazy thinking,” saying, “As we become more aware, we change the way we talk about things. The words we use for things affect how we think about them.”

International art suppliers have been asked to discontinue paint names that prioritize white skin tones.Read MoreARTnews, News, Faber-Castell, Gamblin, Jackson’s ArtARTnews.comRead More

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