Black Art History

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In this article I’ve assembled a selection of artworks that depict people of African heritage dating from Greek and Roman antiquity to the end of the 19th Century. I find these artworks inspiring for miniature painting, sculpting, and world building, and I hope you will too.

Louvre paris maure dit le moro 3This statue is on display in the Louvre. It’s known as Maure or Il Mauro. It is composed partly of a classical Roman statue fragments (the torso clothing), and partly of elements sculpted by Nicolas Cordier in 1611 (the head). A thesis with a great deal more information on this statue and its artist is available, and includes more images of art that depicts people of colour at the end. 

If you find painting dark skin challenging, I have written an article about how to paint darker skin tones on miniature figures that includes helpful tips and specific paint colour suggestions.

Ds group after cr

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Articles and Sites with More Information

People of Color in European Art History
I am heavily indebted to this site for discovering many of the images included here. This site includes artworks depicting any people of colour, not only those of African heritage.

Black Africans in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art
I discovered several of the Antiquity era images through this site, which also discusses issues related to cataloguing and display of historical art.

Dutch Golden Age Art Wasn’t All About White People
This New York Times article was a real eye opener about how much Renaissance artwork depicted people of African descent! This overview of a Rembrandt Museum exhibit includes some additional information and pictures of more artwork.

Africans in Greek and Roman Art

The Outrageous Neglect of African Figures in Art History
Includes several additional portraits and other interesting art pieces from the 1500s through 1800s.

Hugo Award winner N. K. Jemisin ponders the paucity of black people in fantasy or futuristic fiction.

African romanThe date when this was created is disputed. It may be from Second Century CE, or it may be from the 17th Century, similar to the above statue. From the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome. The eyes are white marble, not painted. Statues were painted, however, and there is a lot more information on that in the next section.

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This section includes artworks from Ancient Greece, Rome, or its territories.

The sculpture of antiquity is an interesting subject for figure painters since current research suggests that Greek and Roman sculptures, and even carvings on buildings, were painted very colourfully. Scholars use the term polychromy to describe statues or decorations that are made of materials in or painted with multiple colours. So what we do can be considered part of a long tradition! Traces of the pigments remain, and some of the reconstructions based on them would have no problem competing with a Harlequin army for most colourful. I’m linking to some articles with more information, photos, and videos.

True Colors of the Classical World

True Colors from the Smithsonian

Ancient Sculptures Reveal their True Colors

The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture from The New Yorker

Alabastron croppedAthenian perfume jar, circa 480 BCE.

Roman fresco fragmentDetail from a Roman fresco.

Portrait croppedPortrait of a child, circa 150. From the Getty collection.

Rh j fayum montage 1Examples of three Fayum mummy paintings. These panel portraits were a part of funerary practices in Egypt during the Imperial Roman era. An encaustic (wax) or tempera portrait was painted on a panel placed over the face of a mummy. Many of these are strikingly beautiful and haunting paintings.

Ht mummy2 jef 121026 wblogScientists have made facial reconstructions from some of the mummies found with the portraits to compare the physical characteristics of the person with the painted portrayal.

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7th Century

Hadrian manuscriptPortion of a manuscript describing Abbot Hadrian/Adrian, who traveled from Africa (likely Libya) to Anglo-Saxon England and helped spread the Christian faith there.

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13th Century

Saint Maurice MagdeburgSaint Maurice, from the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice in Magdeburg, Germany. Artist Unknown. (More on Saint Maurice. Click images on this search to see a lot of depictions of Saint Maurice!)

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14th Century

Gluttony detailDetail from Gluttony at a Feast in a treatise on the Seven Vices. The full painting depicts a Tartar Khan at a lavish banquet. At the bottom of the drawing are a number of musicians entertaining the diners, including these.

Marco polo detailDetail from a travelogue based on the stories of Marco Polo. It is known alternately as the Travels of Marco Polo, Livre de Merveilles du Monde, le Secret de l’Histoire Naturelle, and other titles. You can see a better resolution version of this image.

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15th Century

Aurora consurgens zurich 060 f 29v 60 darkangelAngel from the Aurora Consurgens, an alchemical treatise. The entire book is scanned and available to peruse.

Cat318 ov detailDetail from The Crucifixion, believed to be by Simon Marmion. 

Folio 193r The Exaltation of the Cross detailDetail from The Exaltation of the Cross in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

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16th Century

Mathis Gothart Grünewald 011The Meeting of Saint Erasm and Saint Maurice. Artist: Matthias Grunewald. (More on Saint Maurice. Click images on this search to see a lot of depictions of Saint Maurice!)

Master of alkmaarDetail from the Adoration of the Magi triptych by the Master of Alkmaar. There are numerous medieval and Renaissance paintings that depict one of the Magi as African in origin.

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17th Century

Merlin 168835980 1052b8aa 6f2b 4c41 9665 50792015e5cb superJumboBust of a Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Cornelis van Dalen II. 

50090727681 7482684525 bPortrait of a Young Black Man by Gerrit Dou, also known as Gerard Dow. He was a student of Rembrandt’s and painted several beautiful portraits of black people.

Four studies rubensFour Studies of a Head of a Moor by Peter Paul Rubens. Here are some terrific close-up photos (click to enlarge) that let you get a look at the brushwork.

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18th Century

By andrea brustolonCarved ebony from Italy c. 1715. Artist: Andrea Brustolon

Dido belleDetail from Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. A Stitch in Time has an episode recreating Belle’s dress, and which includes a discussion of the depiction of black people in art of the time. Fake or Fortune had an episode on this painting, but it does not seem to be available on YouTube currently. You can see a clip. There has been a movie dramatization of Belle’s story.

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19th Century

Alexandre Dumas par Achille Devéria 1829Portrait of Alexander Dumas (Sr) by by Achille Deveria. Dumas Sr. was the author of The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. His mother was an enslaved African. His son, Alexander Dumas Jr. wrote Camille (La Dame aux Camelias), which was adapted into the opera La Traviata, and the movie Camille starring Greta Garbo.

Black victoria 11The rise of photography made portraiture much more accessible. If you’re looking for steampunk inspiration or are as obsessed with The Gilded Age HBO show as I am, check out these photos (which span the range of the Victorian Era, not just the Gilded Age period.) This photo gallery includes photos of men and children.

Simon Maris 001Just as today, the rise of photography did not supplant traditional art. This is Young Girl Holding a Fan by Simon Maris.

How to Paint Baran Blacktree – Extended Edition

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Throughout 2018 Reaper released a special Dungeon Dwellers figure each month, and these continue to be available. The figures were sculpted and painted by a variety of talented people. Each is accompanied by a free painting guide PDF, and there is also a fun role-playing adventure you can download. All these documents are available on the Dungeon Dwellers page at Reaper Miniatures.

Baran front full

I painted the February figure, Baran Blacktree, and wrote the accompanying PDF painting guide, which includes information on painting black fabric, non-metallic metal, and scratches. Since I knew I would be writing a painting guide for him, I took a lot of work-in-progress pictures as I painted him. I ended up with more pictures (and more tips) than could reasonably be included in the painting guide. So I thought I’d dig up some of the ‘deleted scenes’ and share them with you now.

Members of my Patreon will be getting additional bonus content some time soon, as I will be sending them a copy of my draft for the PDF that includes my full resolution photos.

Preparing to Paint

In the PDF I discuss how I used a mix of primer colours to block in the major value areas on the figure. (If you’re unclear on terms like value and saturation used in this article, here is a handy guide to colour terms.) This gave me a chance to consider the composition of values across the figure. It also gave me the chance to create my own lighting reference photos. I positioned a small LED desk lamp where I wanted to have the light appear to fall on the figure, and took pictures.

If you struggle to figure out where to put your shadows and highlights, this is something you might try. You can do this with the base coats of your major colours, not just in black and white. Here you can see the lighting reference photo of my primed figure next to the final version of the figure. There are areas where I added some nuances to the lighting (the reference photo lighting is pretty blown out), and the NMM is handled a little differently to try to evoke the appearance of metal. But you can also see that I followed the reference photo pretty closely, and it was very helpful to me to have.

Baran light comp

My article on painting Caerindra Thistlemoor has another reference lighting example, and so does my article on painting Ziba the Efreeti. It’s an effective tool to help you push the level of contrast on your figures.

Weathering Metal Areas

In the non-metallic metal section of the PDF I talk about general principles of painting NMM, and painting the scratches. I also share the colours and materials used for the general weathering. Unfortunately there wasn’t really space to talk about the process of the weathering apart from the scratches.

The way I paint NMM and my general blending approach can result in a sterile or boring appearance for NMM. A little too ‘factory fresh’, if you will, especially for a battled-wearied character like Baran, who has damage sculpted into his equipment. In addition to painting on scratches and damage as appropriate, I also like to use glazes to add wear and tear and visual complexity to NMM. (I use pretty much the same techniques to add interest to true metallics, too, this idea is definitely not limited to NMM.) 

I often apply a dull dark brown like Reaper’s Woodstain Brown or Blackened Brown to areas that are more recessed and less likely to be cleaned thoroughly, like the bottom quarter or so of the sword where it meets the hilt and crevices in armour. I also added hints of rust to areas of scratches and damage on Baran. Applying thin glazes of colours used elsewhere on the figure is a simple way to create the impression of surrounding items reflecting on the metal areas. Baran’s colour scheme was fairly subdued, so I didn’t really do that here, but it’s a trick to keep in mind. 

Baran front fullYou can see light rust in the sword cracks, dirt on the armour, and dust on the floor stones.

Sometimes I use paint glazes alone for this kind of wear and tear and colour interest. In this instance I also used pigment powders. These are finely ground powders that you rub on to areas of a figure with a dry old brush. They can be applied with a damp brush, as well, but this gives a different appearance. You may need to use fixative on them for gaming figures that will be handled frequently. Several companies produce these products. I bought my set years ago at my local HobbyTown, and I’m not finding the producing company online to link to. You should be able to find recommendations for pigment powders from other miniature hobbyists in your favourite discussion venue.

For Baran, I applied dirt and rust coloured pigments in various areas of the figure, with a concentration on the NMM to add interest to it. Some lighter dirt coloured powders were also used on the base. In the picture below you can see a comparison of some of the NMM areas before and after weathering glazes and powders. Although the effect is subtle, it’s quick to do and I think adds a lot of visual interest to the figure, even if the viewer isn’t always consciously aware of it. You can also use these powders on areas depicted as cloth and lots of other materials.

Nmm glaze comp

Contrast of Hue and Temperature

One of the biggest challenges in painting Baran is that the overall colour scheme was dark and the colours used were fairly low in saturation. Strong differences in value and hue are very effective tools for creating contrast. Most miniature painters rely heavily on one, if not both of those tools. 

I think Baran is an interesting example of how colour elements always need to be considered in the context of the overall figure. A strong colour like bright blue or vivid red would stand out too much and look weird on this figure. In this kind of somber colour scheme, even subtle differences in colour saturation and temperature can create some contrast.

Color v bw

As an example, look at the lighter brown leather accessories of Baran’s bags, pouches, and straps in the photo above left. These stand out pretty well against the metal armour plates and the darker leather armour and boots. Looking at the colour picture you may feel this is because the colours are lighter in value than the surrounding colours. But if you look at the picture converted to greyscale on the right, you can see that the value of the leather accessories and even the face is close to or even darker than the value of the metal areas. Those areas do not stand out much at all in the black and white photo, so they definitely do not have much value contrast with the surrounding areas. (Differences in temperature and saturation are only apparent in full colour. Looking at something in black and white is a great way to assess its level of value contrast.)

Instead, those areas stand out due to contrasts in temperature and colour. In isolation, I would classify the colours I used on the NMM as warm greys – they are grey paints with a little bit of brown in them, not true neutral greys. There is some dull blue (Blue Liner) and neutral grey (Grey Liner) in the shadows that makes them cooler there, but this is a much warmer NMM colour than one painted with neutral or blued greys. However, in the context of this figure, if you compare the armour colours to the leather and skin colours, the armour colours by comparison are both cooler and less intense in colour saturation.

This is an example of what we mean when we say colour is relative, and why it can understandably feel a little frustrating to try to figure out sometimes! Below is a photograph with some additional figures that show more colour relativity. These are all NMM figures, but you can get similar contrasts of temperature on true metallics depending on the colours you use in the shadows.

There’s no one right answer as to which way to go with your colour use. But one other thing you can see in comparing the figures as a group is that stronger contrast makes it easier to delineate a smaller scale figure and make it more readable to the viewer. The hue contrasts on the left figure make it pretty readable. The centre figure has strong value and texture contrasts that would help it stand out on a tabletop or shelf. Keeping Baran dark and moody and limiting both the colour contrast and the value contrast means he doesn’t quite have the same visual oomph when you look at him in a group of figures, nor when you look at him at the smaller size he would appear on a table or shelf rather than larger photos online. I should have pushed the saturation and value contrasts just a little bit more than I did. (The white/black contrast on his shield definitely makes that area stand out though!)

Nmm contrast

The metal colour of the figure on the left is quite cool. The blues in the shadows are not strongly saturated, but they’re obviously blue. It is also cool in the context of the figure, since the skin and leather colours all incorporate warm yellows and oranges, even though they are likewise fairly low saturation versions of those colours. (Speaking of weathering, the dried mud on the bottom of her skirt was applied with paint glazes, but you could also use weathering powders for this kind of effect. You can also see some light glazes of dark brown in the crevices of her swords and armour plates, similar to what I described painting on Baran above.)

The figure in the centre has fairly neutral colour metal. The paints are true greys with touches of weathering and reflected colour added through glazes. The colour looks pretty neutral in the context of the figure, as well, since she has warm colours in her skin and leather and a cool colour on the pants, so it keeps the steel metal colour between the two and feeling neutral. However, if you transplanted that same metal colour NMM to either of the other figures, it would look cool in contrast to their colour schemes. Neither of the other figures has cool blues or greens or even purples used in their overall colour scheme. All of their colours other than their metal areas are warm. In colour schemes with warm colours and no cool colours, neutral greys would look cool by contrast. The reverse is also true – if you placed that same NMM colour scheme on a figure painted completely in cool blues and greens, it would look a little warm in contrast.

Then we have Baran on the right. His overall colour scheme is warm, though dull in saturation. But the skin and leather areas are a little warmer in colour than the armour, so in the context of the figure’s overall colour scheme, the armour is a cool colour.

Additional Photos

Here are some additional angles and uncropped photos. I’ll have one more behind the scenes article on Baran coming up, with step-by-step photos and tips for painting freehand like that on his shield.

Baran s face 500

Baran s shield 500

Baran s back2 500

Baran back right 500

Paints Used

Please see the PDF Paint Guide available from the Reaper site for a complete list of all paints used on the Baran Blacktree figure, as well as additional information on how I painted him!

Figures in this Article

The Female Dual Wield Fighter is based on a Larry Elmore drawing.
The Female Demonkin Warrior with Sword is also available from Dark Sword Miniatures.
Baran Blacktree is available in metal from Reaper Miniatures.