It was the mid-nineties, at the start of a first-year art course at Western University, and we’d just been sent a list of supplies to purchase for class. I felt guilty spending on the course because I wasn’t an art major; university, within my immigrant family, was a place to study science or engineering. But I couldn’t eradicate my artistic inclinations altogether. During the lecture, and unfortunately rather too late, the professor detailed the importance of high-quality materials. I looked at my set of brushes—I’d chosen the most affordable—and they said “squirrel.”
The instruction on materials was a demarcation: lines of belonging were being drawn. While that first instance of artistic exclusivity was funny to me, the second was not. When it was time to start our projects, I visited the store for a few more colours. The air smelled of linseed oil and particle board. I scanned the pleasing visual gradations of swatches on the shelves. I loved their language: burnt umber, raw sienna, ultramarine blue. Then I noticed a peach hue called “flesh tint.” Hurt stirred in my chest, a dense cloud, a thing that could swell and rise into tears. That wasn’t my skin colour. It was, to be accurate, nobody’s: too orange. But the name wasn’t meant to be precise—it was an ideology, a shorthand for whiteness itself.
While I was accustomed to currents of racism in everyday life, the moment found me vulnerable. Sure, art history was a clutter of intersectional oppressions—Paul Gauguin’s fantasy renditions of the women of Tahiti, the Group of Seven’s erasure of Indigenous people—but, in high school, the studio had felt like home to me. In a predominantly white, suburban environment, the teacher had created a refuge, and she encouraged me to bring all my ethnicities to my projects. My family is South Asian, East African, and Northern European. I was made of stories that had originated far apart. In the studio, I could hold those threads in single compositions, and what formed felt instructive to my own becoming. I made portraits based on photographs of my grandparents and used collage to place them in the Hagia Sophia, currently a mosque. I drew Dutch landscapes on my arms with mehndi. The room was a place of reckoning, remaking, and self-invention. There, the rigidities of history became workable again; they could be turned to my purposes, infused with a fidelity to what I’d lived.
Back at the store, I held my hand up beside the rectangle on the tube of paint. My own skin was only a little darker, though tonally different—yellower, with some blue—but I understood the label’s enduring message of segregation.
The first known artistic use of “flesh tone” in reference to a colour mixed from a basic range of tones is found deep in the colonial past, in a seventeenth century French painting manual. It occurs again as “Flesh Red” in Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, an 1814 book that appends each shade with references to animal, vegetable, and mineral counterparts; its sole invocation of the human is in the pale, rose-pink tint. Premixed paint colours first arrived in the 1870s, created for convenience. The advantage of a “flesh tone” or “skin tone” is that it allowed painters of pale-skinned subjects to arrive at the needed colours with minimal adjustments.
The day I first discovered the term, I checked the other brands of paint; most had a similarly named product. I took down their company information and, from the campus library—where the internet lived at that time—wrote each one an email explaining why the terminology was normative and racist and advising them to drop the label. I wasn’t surprised to hear nothing back. There must have been gradual pressure from other directions, though, because a few years after my degree, I saw that the term “flesh tone” was occasionally replaced with the supposedly more neutral “portrait tone.” I thought of all the portraits I’d seen on campus, the ponderously framed paintings of esteemed white men in robes or suits. The new wording was exactly as problematic as the old, and it even more pointedly raised the question: Who is worthy of portraiture?
American artist Mark Bradford takes on this question in his painting 150 Portrait Tone. It has a vast surface, diffusely marked with the light-salmon colour of its title. Its devastating imagery and text are based on the police killing of Philando Castile, in Saint Anthony, Minnesota, during a traffic stop in 2016: they suggest the shape of his twisted left arm after police shot him repeatedly and depict the phrases spoken by his girlfriend as he died. Racism has a range of diverging forms, and the attack that Castile and his family suffered, not to mention the atmosphere in which police brutality is a constant presence, is outside of my experience. But I know the continuum that the painting invokes, the line one can draw from the centralizing of a certain paint tone as human skin to the violence unleashed on people who do not resemble that colour.
This is the reason I’ve petitioned regional paint producer Tri-Art Manufacturing and its local art store in Kingston, Ontario, about their use of the term “portrait tone.” I’ve done this by phone, by email, and in conversations with store employees at the counter, often art students. I recall speaking to a blond worker who cringed at the archaic naming and had repeatedly raised it with the owners as well, a student in a turban who shrugged and said he’d never thought about it before, and another who pointed out that bra companies had used the same “flesh” terminology for pale beige or pink.
Tri-Art’s explanation was as follows: “We chose ‘portrait tone’ for one reason, portrait painting depicts any subject, tone depicts an infinite colour range, hence ‘portrait tone’—any subject, any colour.” It wrote that the colour was meant to be used not directly from the tube but as a base for mixing. There was no acknowledgment that the Caucasian shade was a distinct gesture toward light-skinned portraiture. To the company, light peach remained an unexamined standard, which imposed a kind of shadeism: the darker one’s portraiture subject, the further removed from the starting colour. “That all being said,” the response continued, “we realize that not all people understand colour mixing theory or understand the intention of this type of base mixing colour, and our last intention is to offend anyone.” Tri-Art went on to state its plan to alter the name and that it could take a couple of years before I saw a change on the shelves. Until then, I won’t be at its store.
Tri-Art’s evasion and oblique redirection of blame were familiar. I knew them from the trajectories of other conversations on racism; how often people grasp at rationales rather than utter the words “I’ve been racist.” And Tri-Art is not alone in its use of vague, deflecting language. In July of this year, British art-materials website Jackson’s made changes to its own product-naming practices—revising “Flesh Tint” to “Pale Terracotta”—and contacted suppliers to ask for similar commitments. The majority agreed, citing the “Black Lives Matters movement,” “unintentional, possible associations,” and “empowering equality and celebrating diversity.” It all seemed disingenuous to me: a retraction made too late and without real evidence that what was being undone had been examined.
Still, there are days when I’m willing to risk a belief in progress. Crayola—which renamed its own “Flesh” crayon in 1962—recently released its “Colours of the World” crayon set, featuring a plausible range of twenty-four human skin tones. It was a move in a constructive direction, directed at ages when it would matter.
I knew that what I was asking Tri-Art for was symbolic, but I love the arts precisely because the divide between the symbolic and the real has never been entirely clear to me. We exist in an exchange with our surroundings, and when they contain the possibility of our intact selves, that shapes our bearing in the world. At its core, antiracism is the struggle for communities in which BIPOC people may remain whole. There are priorities in the fight: safety from police, access to clean drinking water, the right to migrate—these are each more urgent than representation, but their symbolic and physical aspects originate in the same realm.
We see the limits of traditional tonal representations in Angélica Dass’s ongoing internet-based project Humanae. The Brazilian Spanish artist has created thousands of photographic portraits, and for each face, she matches an area of colour from the subject’s nose as closely as possible to a standard Pantone colour and uses that as their background. Dass’s work undermines what she refers to as the historical European classifications of “white,” “black,” “yellow,” and “red” people; her astonishing range of tones illustrates the beauty and individuality of skin colours. As well, there is a resonance to each subject’s own central colour functioning as their aura—it expresses how the racialized gaze places us within an arbitrary field that will determine part of our worldly experience.
I recall some of the pieces I ended up working on during my years on campus. One is an obvious self-portrait: we were photographed beside a television screen, for the blue glow, and then instructed to reproduce the image using tiny bits of paper cut from magazines and catalogues. It was achingly slow work that asked us to observe colour as accurately as possible. It was a conjuring of our magnified, ghostly faces from scraps of reductive, commercial imagery. My year-end project, on the other hand, consisted of hundreds of small drawings of the things I’d seen and imagined on my walks to the art building. I glued them to the risers of the main stairs, densely on the lower ones and more sparsely as they went up, to indicate that the images arrived with me and then dissipated.
That was, in retrospect, more of a self-portrait than any depiction of my surfaces could be. And making it gave me, momentarily, what art might afford us all: the chance to express our inner lives, far past the strictures of others naming our parts.