Introducing Our New Lady

We’ve been working for awhile behind the scenes to incorporate more Ladies of Color among the Ladies with the glasses who adorn the site. And here she is!

The original group of Ladies, and the new ones that debuted with the new design, were originally advertisements for American Optical, a company founded in the 1800s. (Their history is some neat reading.)

But there were no women of color included in their ad illustrations that I could find. And finding similar images was equally difficult. To find a Lady of Color presented a challenge for the design team at Waxcreative, and when I saw the before and after of the new Lady, I was stunned. I wanted to show the process of developing the newest illustration because the transformation was so interesting. So here’s Emily Cotler of Waxcreative, mastermind of our new Lady.


We tried to find a suitable image to simply purchase, maybe make a few Photoshop adjustments and that would be that. Alas…


What’s out there is…limited.  This is pretty much the only ad featuring women of color with sassy cat glasses from the fifties (above), and that would have been nearly impossible to have tried to bring aligned into the style of the other Ladies. We found nothing along the lines of the very specific feel that has become the Smart Bitches style. In desperation we tried the pretty c1950s lady below:


We tried putting glasses on her (right), at least to try some studies, since we were looking for glasses, too. The level of the halftone (I think it might be an image for 3D glasses, actually) and the overall quality of the image fairly quickly ruled this image out as a possibility. But we were getting kind of desperate.

Then, after some fairly extensive searching, we found this sassy lady (below), and she already had the glasses (bonus). This is the stock image with nothing done to it except to crop her square.


Clearly the image needed work to bring this contemporary stock image back to the 1950s, and aligned with the expressions and contextual tone of the current gallery.

Oddly enough, we started at the end. To see how far we had to go, we tried the final step: applying various textures. We had to see all that was needed (a lot), and how painting her lips a flatter color would work after texturing.


This (above) is an example of one of our many initial texture matching attempts. The SBTB Ladies are images from actual 1950s advertisements, and the way images were processed back then is very different from the digital processing of modern images. Simply applying some filters could not duplicate the painting and halftone processing of the 1950s imagery.

We ascertained we’d need to first paint the image to transport our lady back in time, changing the lighting and adding a lot of other smoothing, highlighting, color overlaying, etc., then figure out how to texture her. We also knew we’d have to take the painting too far if we were going to have options in terms of making the gazillion adjustment layers work with each other.  Our goal was to have her seamlessly fit in with all the other fabulous ladies. Below left is the original image, below right is full opacity on nearly every painted layer (yikes!), and a single color in the background (to match the current Smart Bitch style).


Once we had overpainting on many layers, we could essentially recreate and match the end-result style of the 1950s. Starting with a base of full-opacity digital paint, we adjusted the opacity (differently on nearly every layer) to more closely mimic the effect of actual paint, tone down the lighting, and retain some of the life of the original image. This required patience and a lot of coffee.


Left: Original
Right: Fully Painted
Middle: Adjusted Opacity on no fewer than eight hair-related layers.

But it wasn’t just the colorization of the image that needed adjustment. Our modern lady had a different kind of sass than the ladies we were matching her to. The Smart Bitch Ladies smile knowingly, and even when showing teeth,  their lipstick is in a heart shape. We needed to reshape our new lady’s lips and they had to be red. All while respecting the fullness and shape of her lips as they were photographed. This was a many-stepped journey during which several roads were traveled down, only to be abandoned.


1. Original
2. Fully Painted, no color change
3. Color change (1950s lipstick was almost universally red — not this red, though!)
4. Shaping (and adding darker bits around the edges so she didn’t look like a cartoon) Softening her expression to a knowing smile vs. pursed sass.
5. Opacity Adjustments
6. Almost final

In the end a compromise had to be made. 1950s lipstick was matte and opaque across the board (I know this, I asked my mother). But in all my lipstick research (which included a thinly-justified trip to Sephora), flat matte is not the same as no depth. In order to have some depth and not look like a cartoon, we had to have some of her original high-gloss lighting show through.

Her eyes needed attention, too.

Top: Original
Middle: Painting and lighting adjustment
Bottom: Close-to-final Opacity and Expression.

We couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t as serene as the other ladies (even the ones showing teeth). After much staring at the lot of them, it became apparent — her eyes. (Aside: I am sure if I hadn’t been working on her for as long as I had, this may have been obvious earlier. Don’t judge.) Her contemporary sassiness had her eyes open wide, but all the other ladies had the tops and bottoms of their irises tucking under their lids. Back to the drawing tablet we went. When done, she looked much, much closer to the expression of the others.

The next step was to change her modern crew neck into a 1950s crisp collar. We tried out a few images, searching on retro collar, retro clothing, 1950s, etc. Results were really thin; this (below) yellow-shirted modern girl pretending to be a 1950s woman smiling-while-doing-the-housework advertisement being one of the only possible long shots. It didn’t work.

I really didn’t want to draw it freehand.


Then, after FaceTiming my mother for whatever reason, I saw the graduation portraits of me and my sisters behind her. One of them included a collar that was sort of what I needed. A quickly adjusted image search yielded this:


I think she’s pre-1950s, but it didn’t matter. I extracted her left collar, shadow at her neck and all, and plunked it into a new layer. Smudging and skewing it into position on the right of my screen, I duplicated part of it to finish it off at the far-most edge.



Flipped, it didn’t fit. We could have fitted to the model’s shoulder, but we wanted a different hold to her shoulders to go with her changed expression. So we changed her shoulder.

Her hand gesture no longer worked with the new expression, and was carefully removed from the image using pieces of the surrounding textures.


The final step was to apply the halftone textures that resulted from the kind of printing that was available in the 1950s. A simple Photoshop filter did the hard work for us.

And the result:



Oh, I hope you like her. I think she’s stunning. And her eyebrows!

What blows my mind is that there are so few images of women of color then and now. No matter what era. The ability to transform a current image into the 50s style and sass level of the Ladies here is no small feat, and took a stunning amount of effort, too. I can’t go back in time and get more photographers to take pictures of women of color, but I also know it’s as much a challenge to find contemporary images of women of color for contemporary use, which baffles me. I hope that will change.

I also hope you like our new Lady. She’ll be on the main pages of the site, up at the top left, so you’ll be seeing her on the site regularly now. We’re also working on finding more images to reflect all the women who read and love romance to include in the gallery of signature Ladies. If you spot a stock image that might work, please do email me!

Comments are Closed

  1. Destiny says:

    I love it!

  2. DL WHITE says:

    She looks fabulous! My search for women of color for a book cover yielded similarly frustrating results. I ended up using a vector illustration,

  3. Lostshadows says:

    Great job.

  4. Ruth says:

    Love it! She looks FAB!!

  5. LML says:

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if the model in the stock photo is a reader of SBTB and see this version?

  6. SB Sarah says:

    @LML :That would be so incredibly excellent (though I hope she likes it!).

  7. BevQB says:

    Emily is one hella Smart Bitch!

  8. Love it! She looks hip and stylish and fab! Well done, ladies.

  9. EmilyV says:

    I love love LOVE that you now have a woman of color on the site! Seriously, this makes me so happy! And I think she looks fantastic 🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing the process as well! It made for fascinating reading, and I love the new lady on the block.

  11. Sarina Bowen says:

    It warms my heart to know there are other people spending hours noodling with photos! J’adore Photoshop. Well done!

  12. Joy says:

    Great job! My only minor question would be her hairstyle. In the fifties stylish women of color would have had hairstyles similar to those in the original Be-Bop glasses ad. Flat and straightened on top with a flip of curls–very common(in fact I wore my hair like that). Hair–natural, curly, kinky, “good hair” was then and still is an issue of much emotion for women of color. AND this is successful, together and confident women.

    What do the rest of you think?

  13. The end result is stunning! I love the sassy glasses and that mischievous hint of a smile that’s playing around her lips.

  14. azteclady says:

    She is beautiful indeed.

    I cannot comment on the hair bit myself. I am very grateful that SBSarah and the other Bitches have always been concerned with diversity, and they put their money where their beliefs are.

    Thank you, ladies.

  15. AdoraBelle says:

    Yeah. Great to see your new addition. I can now justify time wasted reading about dinosaurs in space as a concious act to encourage more images of people like me in the media. Nothing to do with the awesome reviews. Oh no.

  16. Manda Collins says:

    Okay, that is seriously cool! Thanks for sharing the process with us, Sarah and Emily!

  17. Darlynne says:

    I just saw the new Lady on FB and (a) squeed out loud, (b) thought she was b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. Joy is probably right about then-current hairstyles, but I fully admit that I love her hair as it is. She’s amazing and so welcome. Thank you for the effort and energy expended to bring her to life.

  18. chacha1 says:

    I love the new Lady. What a lot of work, yegads.

  19. P. J. DEAN says:

    You did good. Finding decent stock images of women of color for anything dealing with romance, or just real life, is a…bitch! (Couldn’t resist) Lord knows finding one for my latest release was horrendous. Yes, a hot-combed “flip” a la Marilyn Quayle would have been on point but ya gotta start somewhere. Note: Taria Reed’s work is flawless; she is making a long needed dent in romance cover art with PoC for various genres.

  20. Catherine says:

    Love this! And thanks so much for sharing the painting process; it was so neat to follow along and watch the image take shape.

  21. Margarita says:

    Y ahora una latina, por favor! 🙂 Great addition, worth all your efforts!

  22. Coco says:

    @ SB Sarah

    I spent hours on Saturday looking at photos (mostly from the 60’s forward) at my girlfriend’s home. Piles and piles of photos. I know you might be overwhelmed by a veritable deluge of images but have you asked for PoC here to look through their photos at home? I’d think with some work like was done here (and perhaps less if the original were closer to the end you’re going for) you’d have at least a hand full to choose from.

    I imagine you’d need the actual, original photo, in very good shape but a scanned image of an available donor image would give you some idea if it would work. Graduation and school photos would likely have the right configuration.

    Anyway, it’s something I’d thought of while reading some comments on other threads where this has come up and again this weekend while looking at thousands! of photos (my eyes!).

    Regardless, this new sassy lady is gorgeous and a wonderful addition to the team.

  23. Brianne says:

    I love it! My first thought was, “And she’s natural!” The hair may not be fitting for the time period the images are attempting to capture, but I think a black woman with natural, kinky hair is a better representation in terms of what black women in contemporary times need. So, I love her and the hair!

    Now I just need more images of women of color featured as well as books with characters of color reviewed on the site.

  24. SB Sarah says:

    @Joy: You’re absolutely right – the style of hair from that time would have been ironed with big curls and curves at the top of her head and the ends. But I loved that this particular photo had the glasses and the saucy expression – and I confess, I love her hair as it is.

    I’m so glad you like her. We’ll be adding more Ladies of Color, absolutely! Stay tuned!

  25. azteclady says:

    Coco, great minds and all that–I was thinking for Latinas that I would ask my mother for pictures, since I do remember seeing some with her wearing the sassy cat glasses. I would be ecstatic if one of those turned out to be of use!

  26. Thank you everyone for all the love. It wasn’t me alone, however—three of us here worked extensively on her (whom we affectionately dubbed Our Lady of Color during the process), and two more were significantly involved in the stock research.

    If I could respond in threaded comments, this might be smoother, but bear with me…

    @BevQB (comment #9): Thank you! I have always loved being “hella” (I am from Oakland, you know—home of “hella”)

    @Margarita (comment #24): We are looking. This is not easy to find, either. We’ve been hunting for both a workable latina model as well as a workable asian model… We aren’t having much luck. The process is so extensive to create a seamless fit with the existing cadre of ladies. Finding an image with the most flexibility and potential involves a ridiculously small window of opportune starting points.

    @Joy (comment #15, and the commenters that acknowledged the concern in following comments): The hair. Yes, we know. But the alternative was to simply not have a Lady of Color without funding a whole photoshoot with models and makeup artists, and then spend a lot of time inside Photoshop anyway. We dithered and stressed over her hair, her expression, her lips, etc. Modern photography and sixty-year-old photography is simply different, and while I could spend untold hours making adjustments to her eyes, lips, shoulder stance, and such, putting a new head of hair on her was impractical, and we were walking such a fine line during the whole production as was with not straying into cartoon-land.

    But even beyond the technical impossibility that creating era-authentic hair posed, we liked the idea of her being her. 1950s African-American women had to try to conform their hair to societal expectations. But similarly to sassy and independent heroines in the historical romances that I so love, a certain allowance of suspended disbelief applied to the ladies of yesterday in order to spark affinity on the part of today’s readers is, IMO, not just helpful for the brand experience, but perhaps necessary to the success of the genre. I don’t think I would much respect a Regency heroine who defers all the time to a hero who is a silly pre-Brummel fop in a wig. So our heroes are all sort of modern looking, and our heroines have modern strength (or at least find it).

    That in mind, I am with @Brianne (comment #26)—I am okay with Our Lady of Color having anachronistic hair. I think she would not be as embraceable were she more conformed as the 1950s would have required.

    So it is with respect that I both acknowledge the artistic license I allowed (perhaps egregiously?) with Our Lady of Color’s hair… and I celebrate it, too!

  27. Alessandra says:

    I think she is fabulous and I love her! And I love that you’re all doing this.

  28. Maite says:

    I love her, I love the detailed explanation, but now I NEED those glasses.

  29. laj says:

    She’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous!

  30. leftcoaster says:

    LOVE!! YAY!!

    Also, for resources, you might start trolling facebook groups devoted to vintage/pinup/retro dress? I belong to some dress groups on FB and there are many women of color rocking the vintage clothes and hairstyles. And posting photos! Just an idea. You might be able to get some usable photos to go from for very little up front cost just from some willing selfie takers.

  31. lisa says:

    She looks amazing. The time-consuming search and matchup process was well worth it. Eagerly awaiting more ladies of color!

  32. Celia Marsh says:

    Just for fun, I tried to see if Google image search could find me the model.

  33. Heather S says:

    She’s smart, sassy, and gorgeous (just like all the residents of the Pink Palace here!).

  34. Susan says:

    Sassy schoolmarm vibe going on.

  35. Anna says:

    I LOVE this new lady. Thank you so much for working so hard to bring us diversity.

  36. Coco says:

    The problem with the black and white images is that they’re black and white? Or is it something else, size, orientation, quality?

  37. SB Sarah says:

    @Celia! THAT IS SO COOL! Thank you!

    Many cheers for Ms. Chelsea Harris for being a terrific model!

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