FYI #2: you must want to want to draw characters of colour. No obligation, no desultory "oh right, diversity quotient fill", no afterthought (unless that afterthought then takes time, of course! :D). This is not a reprimand that YOU MUST DRAW CHARACTERS OF COLOUR ALL THE TIME, I WILL BE MONITORING YOUR ART OUTPUT. You do what you want. If you want to draw characters of colour without feeling guilt-ridden or like this is a challenge or judgement on your art, then please read on.
FYI #3: The advice I give in this guideline (ie take the time to think about what you draw) really applies to everything. The reason I'm writing this out is because it's one thing to know general knowledge; it's a whole other task to know how to apply general knowledge to specific tasks.
WHY IS THIS RELEVANT?
In terms of most fanart, there is a dearth of visualized characters of colour. I think the main exception to that is perhaps manga/anime fandoms (I say 'perhaps', given how many debates there are about the ethnicities of manga characters); but for me, it's still not enough.
Fanwriters have been batting this topic back and forth for a while now. When faced with a diverse cast of characters in a fandom, issues of character depth, character plot, character story and character interest are cited as reasons why it's sometimes difficult to write the character(s) of colour. And who can blame many fandomers for thinking this way? Many times the official writers of a movie/book/tv make the white characters more 'interesting' and therefore in fandom, more easy or compelling to write. Official writers do this on purpose, because the entertainment industry is convinced that people only want to watch white heroes and the stories of white people. They will make more money if they use lead white actors; and yes: financially-motivated discrimination is still discrimination. Anything with lead characters of colour is generally considered 'special interest', 'niche' or 'fluke success'. Or, you know cancelled. (But I digress, ahaha I distrust the entertainment industry so very much. Ahhh yes.)
So! When it comes to fanart, this reasoning can still apply. White characters are generally the main characters of large (or well-known) fandoms; therefore in fanart they get drawn more. They are considered more 'interesting', because the official writers of the canon tell and demonstrate to us that they are by giving them the complex character development, stories and plot. (RPF ties into this, but that's a social commentary I'd rather not get into here.) :D
So. Why is this important to drawing characters of colour? Read on!
My Tale of LOL!Woe: Part 1
The person who originally emailed me about this was a Westernized woman of colour. She has learned to draw from white reference and therefore only drew white characters. Only recently has she decided to start thinking 'outside the box', so to speak, and she was emailing me for any advice that I might have.
I emailed her back and said (paraphrased):
This hits close to home for me as well. I'm ethnically South-Asian and I too live in Canada and I grew up drawing white people based off of white people references. Most of the artwork I looked at (fanart, concept art, illustrations, graphic design, comic books, etc) depicted white characters or subjects. Even my imagination was framed in 'white aka default'; so even when I was just doodling idly in my college notes or drawing for fun, it never even occurred to me to draw anything but 'default' (aka: white) characters. Like so much that surrounded my life, it just seemed like the 'normal' thing to do - white features were the default, interesting, mainstream 'style' to draw.And there you go. That is why this write-up is relevant.
Only recently did I break out of that feeling that drawing characters of colour took a special sort of niche-interest effort (or even obligation). With that realization, my own personal mentality kind of switched as well. Drawing all the many features/characteristics/personalities of characters of colour suddenly fascinated me in the same way that drawing the features of white characters did.
THE....CHANGENING *cue scary music*
So! You're here, on the cusp of "oh hai, drawing something other than (slashy and/or cute) white dudes sounds kinda cool!" but you still find yourself drawn (ha ha pun intended, oh yes) towards those characters, feeling a helpless pull towards what is popular in fandom (slashy cute white dudes) because hey they're fun and interesting to draw, dangit! I know the feeling, particularly when it came to experimenting in technical artistic styles. If I want to try out a new watercolour technique - who better to practice on than the peaches-and-cream skin of Harry Potter? If I wanted to practice my sequential art - why not just use Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson? After all: everyone can connect to these characters, and they're cool and fun to draw. Right?
Here's another tale to pique your curiousity outside the cycle of (slashy and/or cute) white dudes:
My Tale of LOL!Woe: Part 2
There was a Reboot!Star Trek challenge fest thing, a little while ago. For the challenge, I had to draw Sulu (the John Cho version) and
But no matter how many times I went over the drawing it kept frustrating me: he just wasn't looking enough like John Cho, and I couldn't figure out why. So I used Mr Google, pulled up some image references...and what I saw shocked me. What I originally drew was something like this:
What John Cho actually has is something like this:
Geez, did I ever get his eyes wrong. Why did I get them so wrong? Because I had instinctively, subconsciously given him the typical generic!Asian!slanted-upwards eyes. That is to say: my imagination just sort of filled in the stereotype-short-cut reasoning that a) John Cho was Asian; therefore b) John Cho had slanted-upwards eyes.
Filled with sticky, gelatinous horror and shame, I quickly changed my lineart to reflect that actual shape of his eyes, then added some (similarly shamefully stereotyped) tweaking on his mouth and nose - and bam: there was cartoony Cho!Sulu.
In the end, it was really gratifying to realize just how wrong and stereotyped my way of thinking was. It jolted me out of artistic complacency. It was about this time something in me clicked. My eyes opened and I was amazed with how much I had previously shut out under the underlying subconscious mentality that 'drawing white characters was default and interesting enough'.
PELASE NOTE: THIS IS MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. I am not saying that this is how all fanartists feel all the time or that other artists are stupid and ignorant and should feel bad about themselves. I am saying that, as a woman of colour, it was a shock to realize just how much internalized 'white = default' mentality I harboured and spilled out into my art-making. I wanted to share this experience with you so fellow artists know they aren't the only ones seeing the elephant in the drawing room (ha ha, another pun there. hardy har har).
SO WHAT NOW?
Everyone's techniques are different. No one can teach you how to break out of the box, other than yourself (LEARNING MOMENT!! awwwww!) However, I do have some fun suggestions/exercises for you to try out, if you're interested in more learning moments with yourself!
1) think up a non-white, real-life character (an actor's portrayal of a character) from a TV show or movie or RP or musicfandom and draw their likeness from your memory. Pull up some photo references and see if you have taken stereotypical shortcuts to make them look effectively non-white, and how much it matches up to their actual features.
2) study some non-white faces of your choice and then break down the characteristics/features into as stylistic/cartoony style as you can muster. Sort of like a caricature, but focus less on getting the actual likeness and more on the features that define that person's face as their race/ethnicity.
- what's really neat is when you look at people with diaspora and/or mixed-race features. The nuances of blended racial features can be really fascinating to translate effectively into art. I personally realised this when I drew Sam and Dean Winchestgopal. I wanted them to look West Indian (from the Caribbean), rather than East Indian - and yes: feature-wise, there are differences. :D
3) I know this sounds completely silly and elementary, but just like the features of white people can differ wildly (ie long noses vs button noses vs hooked noses) - so too can the features of non-white people in their specific groups. Like my John Cho example: not all Asian eyes are slanted upwards. Obvious statement is obvious, right? You might already internally be aware of this as general knowledge and/or because it's your life. But I find it's good to consciously remind yourself when you put pencil to paper. After a while, this mentality will become ingrained whenever you draw.
4) If you're a structured artist and you're looking for some hard technical references/jumping off points, I definitely recommend looking through CedarSeed's Artist's Guides to Human Types. She provides from really cool insights into human types, without you feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by doing the research yourself. There are a lot of visuals for artists to look at, if you're not interested in heavy reading!
5) Don't be afraid to draw a face and then be like "wtf omg this is THIS IS SO STEREOTYPICAL, I AM SO EMBARRASSED." Because you know what? It's a learning moment and you should be proud of yourself that you realized how you are drawing. The joy is trying to figure out where and how you can tweak the features to figure out how you can make characters of colour look less like 'This is The Black Guy' and more, like, human.
6) Artists' comments have suggested starting a library of faces, skin tones and features. You can source not just from photographs, but also art from other artists (FYI: keeping a personal library of artist's work that isn't shared by anyone else is not considered stealing. Unless the artists SPECIFICALLY forbids it, I think saving art to one's personal desktop is acceptable etiquette). Sometimes seeing a range of styles can help expand your own perceptions on what works!
WORDS OF ADVICE
- Do not try to tell your friends how awesome it is that you're drawing characters of colour and actually, they should really start doing it for the sake of Peace on Earth or something like that. They won't like you, and they won't like drawing characters of colour.
- On that note: I am not saying all white characters are all forever evil and horrible and wrong. I refuse to convince you that this statement is what I believe.
- A fest/gift exchange is not the time or place to bravely!defy! the prevalence of white characters in fandom. You signed up to do a piece of art to the specification of your recipient, and it's best for all if you joyfully commit to that.
- Not interested in just doing art for yourself? Looking for places that give you opportunities to work on characters of colour? Dark Agenda has a myriad of fests you can participate in! If you know of other comms, let me know and I'll link back.
- Looking for a safe, artist's space to get more opinions, advice and general fanart beta services? Look no further than artbeta.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
- Have any stories or experiences of your own to share? Drop 'em off here (anonymous comments allowed).
- Have questions? Ask away!
NEXT TUTORIAL: USING PHOTO REFERENCES - the hows, whys and whats