Creating Vibrant Skin Tones in Paper Sculpture

How I used the Humanae project by Angélica Dass to create a reference library of life-like skins tones for paper sculpture.

A couple of months ago, I created this little study of "The Piper". I was really unhappy with how the skin tones turned out – they looked very blah, wrong color tones.

As I was feeling frustrated with these colors, I ran across the following image in my social media feed.

Seeing this literally derailed my work for the next three days as I researched the image, the corresponding study/TED talk, and then worked through how to adapt this idea to my own work/process.

The image is part of the Humanae project by by Angélica Dass. More information can be found at:

In a nutshell, Ms. Dass has photographed hundreds of individuals of all ages and races and paired a corresponding PMS color for the person's overall skin tone.

After posting my initial blog, I was contacted by the Humanae project and asked to point out that: the use of "the Pantone numbers was only a tool. Pairing thousands of portraits of people from diverse parts of the world with their Pantone codes, the goal is revealing that the racially charged skin color labels --­­ red, white, black and yellow --­­ are not only inaccurate but also absurd. The Pantone scale is only used as metaphoric tool, but finding a person's Pantone is not the goal of the project."

For my own personal benefit, I used what I saw and learned through the Humanae project to broaden my understanding of the range of colors available for skin tones. Because I need to portray diversity in my illustrations, it was imperative that I have the skills to show the beauty and range available, given the limitations of the media.

I chose to group skin tones of similar values, as the physical limitations of paper and reproduction will never come close to the true variety that exists. However, I was informed by the Humanae project that "ordering the portraits in range of colors is opposite to Humanae's values." I respect that, and have removed the photos of my grouping their images.

I own this set of Pantone Color charts from when I did more graphic design work. Don’t laugh – they are the 2002-2003 version and quite out of date! However, the numbers still correspond to the Pantone Coated swatch library in Photoshop. (And since I don’t really use the charts anymore, I didn’t want to buy the updated version 😉)

I compared my physical PMS chart to my physical colored paper samples. Obviously, the PMS colors had much more variety then my paper samples, so I had to consolidate into those numbers into paper swatches that were related colors.

I then printed off the images of the people matching the PMS colors for each paper color, and glued it onto a large sample swatch of the paper.

I then did a color chart of various inks/pastels on each paper sample, for future highlight/shadow reference.


This may seem like a lot of busy work, but I learned SO MUCH about the variety of colors and skin tones I can and should be working with. It was fascinating to have to rethink my own understanding of skin tones and colors, and to challenge my assumptions about diversity.

And now I have this amazing resource.

This is my definitive (for now!) list of commercial available colored papers (links to manufacturers at in previous post) and corresponding PMS colors for skin tones. If I get permission, I will link in the future the photos of corresponding individuals to the paper colors.

My chart is in order of light to dark paper swatches, because numerically doesn’t necessarily follow for the PMS colors. My binder ring of papers is organized in light to dark tones also.

There were several colors (Hemp and Peach) that didn’t directly correspond to PMS colors generated form these images but I felt were appropriate include in my paper library.

If you want to use this same idea, you really have to make your own physical color samples – nothing on a monitor will have a practical use because there is such variation. What I see is almost certainly not what you see.

Practical Application of Skin Tone Library for Paper Sculpture

If I have a general character in mind, I can look at representative people for the skin tone and select one that matches what I envision.

If I'm creating a portrait of a specific person, I can cross reference a photo of the individual and pick a midtone skin color with the eyedropper in Photoshop. I can then bring up the corresponding PMS number (which I then can find on my chart). Of course that there are limitations in color translation – but at least this gives me a place to start!

Once I’ve selected the base color for my skin tone, or am deciding between several, I can cross reference it to other color swatches in the piece to see how they will play together.

I think that part of the “deadness” of the skin tones in “The Piper” is because of the vibrant, jewel tones of the surrounding colors. I need to go back through and recreate the skin pieces with a more appropriate color (future post).

Slowvember 2018 pieces:

Paper choice for "The Star Maiden":

Daler-Rowney Murano "Oatmeal" (PMS 7515C)

Since this is a Native American folktale, I wanted a slightly darker color with lots of warm undertones.

Paper choice for "The Spirit in the Bottle”

Canson Mi-Tientes "Honeysuckle 350"

(PMS 7520C PMS 7513C PMS 475C)

Since this is a German fairytale, I wanted a slightly lighter, pink tone.

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