Renoir declared, “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours is black!” What he meant was that black works as a darkener because its near chromal neutrality does not sully the colour it grays. While scorned on a few snooty palettes, black is the loyal friend that helps make other colours look more brilliant than they are. Wise artists do not say derogatory things about black. Black rules.
The essential blacks are lamp black, ivory black and Mars black. Lamp black is a pure carbon pigment made by burning oils and collecting the soot from flues. It’s one of the oldest manufactured pigments. Ivory black, originally made from burning real ivory, is now a bone byproduct of the slaughterhouse. Mars black, one of a pantheon of Mars colours, is an iron-oxide product that in many ways is more stable than the other blacks. It does not effloresce, maintains total integrity in oil and water-based media, and, to my knowledge, is the only paint that’s magnetic.
Black inks, Indian, Chinese, etc., are carbon derived and go back to the dawn of writing and drawing. Cuttlefish ink, used by the early Romans, is an impermanent anomaly. Japanese “Sumi” ink has a tradition of nuance and refinement. Ralph Mayer says, “The connoisseurship of sumi amounts to a cult.”
Give black a chance. A challenge is to work with only black and white for a day. After a week one begins to feel the brilliance of black. As seasoned artists have found out, if it works in black and white, it works.
Try the method of grisaille — a monochrome painting executed in shades of gray. Used as an under-painting, grisaille was first popularized by the Northern Renaissance artists. These days, using bright white grounds and a range of grays, full value can be had by glazing with acrylics or other media. In painting, black is mother of learning.
PS: “Black and white are absolute. They express the most delicate vibration, the most profound tranquility, and unlimited profundity.” (Shiko Munakata)
Esoterica: Payne’s gray, a composite pigment, endures, well-loved on many palettes. Depending on the brand, it’s made from varying combinations of blue, black, red and white permanent pigments. Payne’s gray is the black of preference for the timid soul.
Follow your instincts
by Mickie Acierno, BC, Canada
Just a couple of days ago my partner and I were discussing the use of black in painting. I have heard that black should never be used straight from the tube. I just finished 3 years of college with teachers that didn’t allow it. I am not amazed that this wonderful letter tells me “Black rules.” What I am amazed at is that at this point in my life I still have the tendency to listen to the “rules” of others, and not follow my own instincts. As I rush off to squeeze a bit of black onto my palette, I thank you for reminding me to do that.
by Mervin H. First, Amityville, NY, USA
Although I’ve only been painting for a year, I decided to do a painting in shades of black only. The subject was an old building, decayed and leaning, on an island in the Amityville River. It seemed that shades of black were the only colors to properly capture the scene, and my palette consisted of black, white and Payne’s gray. The results were very satisfying and justified my choice… your comments struck home.
by Suzy Olsen
I do not think Payne’s Gray is for the timid soul. This color is better than black in many ways when you are creating shadows or nuances of shades with other colors. Nature abhors anything absolute… including black and white, which are not seen in nature very much. Everything is a matter of degree, of many colors. White is never absolute and the same for black… so grays are the champions. Deep grays are wonderful for the palette, neutralizing colors and creating deep beautiful shadows. I am lost without my deep neutral blacks or grays. Black only hides, as it is not a true copy of nature. The night sky is not black, but blue so deep it looks black and the white snow is so white it cannot avoid reflecting any other color. Yes, I love black and white, and also love to observe these elements, but I know that this is an illusion. We do not really see black or white in nature but it is our limited use of language or observation that tells us what is black or white.
Lost without black
by Russell W. McCrackin, OR, USA
The first time I painted in the Arizona desert I tried to match the greens with many combinations of blues and yellows. (I don’t carry any green tube paints.) After many, many failures to get the green of the Mesquite or Pallo Verde trees or Saguaro Cactus, I finally tried Ivory Black with Lemon Yellow. Beautiful match, and beautiful greens. Now I always lay out black on my pallet. Would be lost without it.
Blacks, whites, cones and rods
by Pat Jaster
If you are using a white to lighten any hue in acrylic or oils, Titanium White is the whitest of all whites, reflecting 100% RGB (red, green, blue) absorbing 0% RGB. One drawback of adding white to any pigment is; it will destroy the brilliance of any hue by slightly dulling or graying it.
Ivory Black is a definite favorite, absorbing 100% RGB reflecting 0% RGB. Although, most blacks are lightfast according the ASTM standards (American Standards of Testings & Materials). And, like you say, black does make nearby hues look more brilliant.
Light Primaries are RGB (red, green, blue) which parallels the three colour (RGB) receptors (cones) in the human retina. If we speak in terms of Additive Colour (light), when all three (RGB) are mixed together we perceive WHITE.
Pigment Primaries are CMY (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow). If we speak in terms of Subtractive Colour (pigment), when all three (CMY) colours are mixed together we perceive BLACK.
The other receptors in the human retina are called RODS. These receptors perceive only BLACK, WHITE & GRAYS. These rods function best in low light levels. The cones shut down and cannot function in the dim light levels. Many car accidents take place during the transition of daylight to twilight due to the rods/cones switching functions.
Washouts salvaged with black
by Vicki Easingwood, BC, Canada
While I like to mix my blacks with either an alizarin or blue (so many to choose from — phthalo is my favourite), to give it a great depth of tone, and subject to the rest of the painting, the use of black, judiciously, cannot be questioned. In my preferred medium of watercolour, there are a number of ‘washouts’ that have been salvaged by the use of pen and ink. Why? Is it the technical proficiency I have with drawing? I doubt it. I think it is the mere (yet profound) affect of black line against washes of colour — and my watercolours are rarely insipid affairs but bold, dark, strong uses of pigment. Yet it has saved many a piece from my “try to fix one day” pile. Also, I love the art of writing. It usually is black and white too. Just like art, writing starts with a blank (white) canvas or page. It is what we bring to it that makes for beauty and pleasure.
by Dave Louis, Coventry, UK
If you have used colour throughout most of your artistic life, the thought of using just black and white may seem a bit basic or limited. Think on. This palette will take your painting to another dimension. A place where there is a different rulebook on visual form, dynamics, subtlety, resonance and to a degree, composition. A dimension where tone and form in all its permutations reign supreme. A place where there’s no reaching for colour differences to get out of tonal monotony, dead ends, or the possibility of decorating weak concepts. If you have dismissed a trip to the black and white dimension — try it, you can always get a return ticket.
by Keena Friedrichsmeier Payne
I have recently started using black, after always having been told that it is a “dead colour” and it will bring death to the painting. Not so! I remember back in a high school chemistry class our teacher showed us lampblack. He said it had the curious property of absorbing all the light that hit it. It did, too! It was like nothing else I’d ever seen. To look at it felt like you were somehow being sucked into it — like a cosmic black hole. Makes me curious if lampblack paint has the same property.
(RG note) It does. Essential lampblack (derived from sooty flues) is an extremely light, fluffy powder that absorbs all light. It’s permanent and has been used since the earliest times. Other names for lampblack are oil black and flame black.
by Linda Saccoccio, NY, USA
I have found your statement to be valid, that “if it works in black and white, it works.” It is a great practice. I learned this when I was making the transition from realism to abstract painting in grad school. I came to a point where I was using a lot of color. I felt that I needed to remove the color for a while to see what was left. It proved to be a healthy way to see and create stronger paintings. It helped me see where my intention was and create a structure that said more than I had been expressing before this practice. My thesis paintings were bold and simple, mostly black, white and grays with a hint of color. The blacks were all derived through mixing colors such as ultramarine blue and burnt umber, or cadmium red and viridian green etc. I was a purist when it came to black and I suppose it was partially because I was prohibited in undergrad to use black or any other color from a tube. (That lingered until I studied at another school where I learned about Mars black and Payne’s gray, leading to freedom to use Mars black from time to time or any other color I felt was already perfect from the tube. School… break the rules.) The nice thing about making your own blacks is that they are very rich and sometimes velvety and you can add one of the colors that made the black to accent. It works because the relationship is already established in the essence of the black. I have come full circle now and I am using strong simple color but with more understanding of the structure of placement, mood, space, density and interaction leading to totality.
by Jamie Lavin, Kansas, USA
Black is the most saleable color I work with. In the Midwest, where it helps if the painting matches the couch and the accent colors, the color of black breeds continuity and a powerful sense of formality. Frequently, I’m asked by other artists at shows if the pieces I do with black canvas backgrounds ever have trouble selling; recently, at a local show the question was posed only moments prior to selling one so described!
Couples who shop for original works in the contemporary and abstract genre will typically agree on black as a dominant color. Very often, I rely on Golden’s Payne’s Grey as the alternative, but Liquitex’s is more mysterious and deeper. Age defines those who will purchase, but all ages except the really young kids go for black-dominated images. Recently, I re-launched my Reef Series, rendering them as representational as possible now, instead of the abstract versions of my painting past, and the black canvas, liner and frame combine to create a vividness previously unreachable for the “Reef Tiles,” which have so much Ultra Marine and Cobalt Blue. There is an undeniable virtue to a true black; allowing the brain to be mesmerized and pulling the pupils deep into that unfound but sensed abyss. I have sensed for some time now, the allure of black as a decorative statement of power and taste; somewhat satirical and yet timeless; very easy to please the patrons’ palette with.
Bourgeois Sunday painters, etc.
by Janet Warrick, Chicago, USA
I just read Anne Barga’s letter blasting traditional painters as well as Robert Genn and his site. If Anne sees no work in Robert Genn’s letters that stray from the “status quo, the mainstream,” she is not looking. And if, as she puts it, she doesn’t want to paint literal pieces portraying yet another “skillful” take on the local scenery, she doesn’t have to. But nor should she point a finger at those of us who do. Isn’t the point to paint what we love in a way that expresses who we are — in whatever way, shape or form that pleases us? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is art. Who can say which style is good and which isn’t? Which motif should be painted and which shouldn’t?
A Degree in Art doesn’t come with the right to judgment. To call representational artists “bourgeois Sunday painters who impose their limited talents on the art-seeking public” is certainly judgmental. The shame is not on Robert Genn, whose inspirational and insightful letters do a great service to us all; but on Anne, for being so judgmental and closed-minded that she can find no value and meaning in a style of painting that differs from her own.
As far as asking Robert Genn to “depart from what he knows, to a larger world of interpretation that is truly brave and risky” I have this to say: It is the act of painting itself that is brave and risky, for each time we pick up a brush and lay our souls bare, we risk ridicule and rejection; we make ourselves vulnerable to the opinions and prejudices of others. This being so, wouldn’t it be better to support each other as artists instead of pointing fingers at each other and appointing ourselves soul judge and jury as to which style of painting is worthy, and which is valueless? For myself, I am glad to be part of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood and welcome all who want to join, whatever their particular style. If Anne truly sees no work that has “personal emotion” on this site, then perhaps she needs to open not only her eyes, but her heart as well.
(RG note) There was quite a pile of letters disparaging Anne Barga’s letter. Janet Warrick’s letter (above) effectively covers most of the points. Thanks to all who wrote. Anne’s letter can be found at The blessing.
Black and White
Contributed by Lorna Dockstader from Du Fresnoy’s The Art of Painting.
White when it shines with unstain’d lustre clear,
May bear an object back or bring it near:
Aided by black, it to the front aspires;
That aid withdrawn, it instantly retires:
But black unmix’d, of darkest midnight hue,
Still calls each object nearer to the view.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Paul V. Azzopardi who wrote, “When I started painting everyone seemed to be instructing beginners not to use black at all. I thought this strange, and never bothered to comply.”
And also Bob Sheridan who writes, “I have used black extensively in my oils and acrylics, and presently I am working on a series using ink and gouache.”
And Gail Griffiths who wrote, “I have never used black from a tube thinking I was a purist.”
And also Allen Larson who wrote, “No watercolour artist with whom I have discussed the use of black has admitted to using it. I use it all the time in very small quantities. A 5 ml tube lasts me 5 or 6 years. It is safe to say that no one knows from looking at my paintings that I use it or where it is used in my paintings.”
And also Olinda Everett of Sao Paulo, Brazil who writes, “I have recently been severely taken to task by an art professor for not using black. I was suitably chastened and hurried home with three tubes of it.”