If you haven’t noticed, there are a LOT of nativity sets where the people are portrayed as having white skin, some even having blonde hair and blue eyes. It might continue to take a while to undo years of ignorant, unthinking, or even hateful representations of people in art and design. However, here are some tips on painting over existing sets in case anyone feels too unfamiliar with painting mediums to feel comfortable painting over their set.
If you’re interested in learning more about the processes that go into what actually ends out on store shelves as well as how to change what is sold in stores, skip past the painting tutorial notes for more on that.
PAINT AND STAIN TECHNIQUES
A lot of how you can best change the flesh tones on your nativity pieces depends on what the material(s) and construction are. Are the pieces wood, ceramic, resin, metal, MDF, or something else? If the materials are more porous, you might be able to use an antiquing solution, dye, or wash of paint. If the material is pretty solid or has a coating over top, you’re going to likely need a full-strength paint.
Some basics, first—Paint is usually more solid, whereas stain is something you rub on, let set, and rub off after it (as the name suggests) leaves a stain. Finishes usually come in matte (not shiny), semi-gloss (some shine), and gloss (high shine). Decide what finish will match your set. Buy brushes that suit what you’re using. Disposable brushes and rags are often used for oil-based stains and paints, but you’ll need a well-ventilated area, solvents, and possibly gloves to use products like that. There are far more water-based stains and paints than there used to be. Don’t be afraid to ask a store clerk for information, and always read the instructions for use.
- STAIN: Antiquing solution is something like a stain finish. (You might also be able to use wood stain. Oftentimes it’s oil-based, but it’s getting easier to find water-based options.) You can get antiquing solution at arts and craft stores, whereas stain is usually at hardware stores. Do a test swatch of this somewhere discreet first so you can see how it takes to the material before you apply it someplace noticeable. Paint it on, let it set, wipe it off with an old rag that doesn’t have a defined textured pattern (think t-shirt material because if the fabric has a texture the resulting stain might also). Repeat as necessary to build up color for desired finish. (You could theoretically use tea or coffee to do this, but there are a lot of finishes that this might rub off or end out in an uneven tone.)
- PAINT: Paint is about matching the right hue. It’s hard because skin tones can look too pink, too orange, too dull, too shiny. Fact is, that might be how your existing set already looks. Paint thin layers and build up color if you can. Use a soft brush to minimize brush strokes so it’s easier to get a smooth finish. Choose paints that are the same sheen as the set you’re painting if you want it to match. If there’s a chance the paint color underneath could still show through a bit, you might want to do a base coat to act as a primer (or even use primer depending the project). For most painting, it’s easier to use water-based paints because you won’t have to deal with oil-based fumes or paint thinner. Acrylic craft paints are available in a wide variety colors and finishes and are an economical choice for a lot of projects.
- MASKING OPTIONS: If you’re trying to keep some areas free of paint, you can use something called frisket. This probably isn’t applicable for most projects, but think of it like a specially formulated rubber cement meant for masking where you don’t want paint to be, after which you peel off when you’re done. You might also be able to get away with using painters tape or something. Either way, test it in a discreet location to make sure it doesn’t peel up existing paint when you remove it. You could even run the tape over your hands or jeans to make it less sticky before applying to figurines.
- DETAILS: For painting eyes and other details, you can either use a fine point round brush with paint or possibly even a fine point permanent artist marker. Keep a rag handy in case something doesn’t look right. Sometimes there’s a small window of time you can wipe mistakes and start over without having to repaint, but it depends the material. If you’re located near a fan, for instance, that window of time gets even smaller.
- OUTDOOR FINISHES: For outdoor sets, you’re going to want weather-resistant outdoor paint. Depending your set, you could opt for a paint or stain in whatever finish will match. Read the label to see recommendations for use. The paint will likely be called something like “all-weather,” “patio paint,” “outdoor,” “exterior,” etc.
- CLEAR COAT: This part is optional depending on what you’re painting, but after your newly color-corrected finish is dry and set (as in, the paint is fully cured), you can use a clear coat spray over it to make the overall finish the same sheen or just to keep the paint or stain from being damaged. Clear coat usually comes in matte, semi-gloss, and high gloss. These are most often something you’ll need to do in a ventilated space and require the temperate to be within a certain range for best application. For this reason, if you live in a cold climate you might want to wait till spring unless you have a workshop set up for this. As always, read the labels on your paints, stains, and sprays. It’s better to build up a sprayed finish vs. risking that too much will cause drips. If you’re painting in layers (e.g. base coat, then fine details like faces and/or using antiquing), you might want to protect your layers with clear coat as you go. The new base coat is susceptible to rubbing off if you’re trying to paint the face, or adding antiquing, or if you smudge what you’re working on. Letting everything dry and using a clear coat will protect the layers of paint so you’re not undoing your work before it’s finished.
*Notes on Safety: It goes without saying, but don’t use potentially flammable products like paints or stains on things that are exposed to flames or electricity. If it comes at the risk of safety, buy new instead of doing a DIY project. Additionally, since products meant for children (often defined as anyone under the age of 13-14) have different regulations and paint standards, I’m not apt to recommend repainting a toy that could be handled or even chewed.
This isn’t a perfect solution—far from it; I know that. It’s not like there’s a Pantone swatch for Jesus’ correct skin color, and even then. There’s more to this than paint color. (If it helped though, you could try referencing artist renderings based on forensic anthropology or even read discussions online about it.) Past paint, in general the sculpted facial elements of many products often reflect one culture’s features. Until manufactured products more often reflect a full spectrum of people, painting over top of those features in any product design is a temporary solution. (That’s not even getting into smaller details like the style of creche, that the magi shouldn’t technically be there yet, that the angels invariably look like cupids or damsels in distress in a lot of representations, but I digress.) Additionally, if you want a thorough discussion on correct, achievable fabric dyes for clothing within that timeframe, you’d be better off looking up references by historians than holiday cards.
Less-than-accurate depictions of nativity designs could be the result of several factors, but here are a few. (Note: I’m a designer, not a product buyer, so I’ve never sourced or created a nativity; this is purely an educated guess from the kind of work I do.) First understand that, like many products, a lot of the nativities on the store shelves are sourced from the open market. That means product buyers go to markets and purchase already-made items to resell under their brand. When that’s not the case, they’re either a new product designed by the company that sells it, or they’re made by an artist who licenses it to a company to then produce and sell to retailers. If it’s the latter two options, that means they’re sculpted by a sculptor onsite at a manufacturer (oftentimes overseas) via creative direction given by a company—or they’re sculpted by an artist whose work is cast by the manufacturer and then reproduced. These processes can take a lot of time. (Anytime you read “time,” read “money.”)
The difference in production costs between buying on the open market and creating something new can be SIGNIFICANT, which can make the first option the only remaining option especially if it means that product or no product. Because of that, a lot of the white nativity sets you see in stores are often likely the result of product managers having to fill “X” number of SKUs in a category with pre-determined “Y” budget with only “Z” items from available options that fit their budget. They might (or might not) be able to request a paint change, but that’s money and time which translates to money again. Breaking this down further, if existing nativity molds that are reused over and over all have a very similar look about them, it could also be because that imagery is so prevalent as to be considered the standard (e.g. the manufacturer doesn’t change it because there isn’t high enough demand to change.) This isn’t to say racism could never or would never be a factor, it’s just to say that changing products that already exist doesn’t happen overnight.
However, here’s what you CAN do to make change in the overall market for nativities (or really any product).
- If you are a CUSTOMER in a retail shop, ask the owner if you can see products that reflect a more accurate and diverse representation of people. If there are none, let them know you enjoy their store and request that they stock products like that in the future. Alternately, buy handmade from artisans directly.
- If you are a SHOP OWNER selling retail goods, ask your reps to show you products that reflect a more accurate and diverse representation of people. If there are none, request that they speak with the companies they represent to stock products like that in the future. If they like their commissions, they will. (You can also contact companies directly with this request, too.)
- If you are a COMPANY who designs or buys products to be sold to retailers who serve customers, find ways to purchase and/or budget ways to create products that represent accurate depictions of people. Also, hire people of color.
- If you are an ARTIST specializing in handmade goods or licensable art, be mindful about creating artwork that reflects what the world actually looks like vs. whatever the bubble you’ve found yourself constructed inside happens to look like.
Wholesale manufacturers WANT to create products that you actually want. It comes down to budget and how “saleable” a product is. If there’s a demand, a product will get made, but you have to back it up with your dollar.
Overall across all product design categories though, here’s where this is more complicated than simple requests. Imagine that “Company A” makes a product. Then, reps for “Company A” pitch that product to “Business B,” who then buys it to resell. If then there aren’t enough customers buying that product, “Business B” won’t buy it again. If that happens enough times, “Company A” might have to discontinue it—even if it’s an amazing product that they really want to keep making. Think about that as it relates to more products than just Christmas nativities. If (for example) the nice little shop in the very white suburban area can’t sell enough of a general product that features people who don’t look like the majority of the shoppers in that area…it’s not because of “Company A” or “Business B.” It’s because income inequality, disparities in generational wealth, and the remains of a segregated society that are still shaping many parts of our cities whether we recognize that or not. The cycle perpetuates itself. Maybe that sounds too heavy— like, “Whoa now, home decor sales get effected by systemic injustice.” Think about it though. Do you notice anything missing when you walk past store shelves? Among other things, it’s also a problem with toys. Take this set for instance. Maybe the cartoon kids portrayed are putting on a play, but heck, even the families included in other non-holiday toy sets all have mostly a very homogenized look.
WHY CHANGE YOUR HOLIDAY DECOR?
If when people are looking for hope this Christmas they see it in the face of someone who doesn’t look like them, perhaps it will make it all the more real that hope can also be found in the refugee, the advocate raising awareness against unequal treatment by the legal systems, as well even people practicing different faiths and different lifestyles. The miracle of Christmas isn’t supposed to be that the baby in the manger grows up to be a white guy, but if that’s how that narrative is depicted so often, it’s no wonder it’s so subliminally ingrained. Representation matters.
Maybe small changes like this over time could open perspectives to consider how one-sided and similarly whitewashed a lot more than just nativities are.
If you’re having trouble finding a nativity that doesn’t require additional painting, either look for commercial options that are a solid color or look for handmade options. If you have recommendations for favorites, leave a comment.
Holiday Note: This holiday season, if you donate to non-profits for your end of year giving, consider donating instead to organizations that make a point to engage the culture and economies around them, instead of missing those opportunities in favor of what could be considered more sentiment than substance.