The uses of black


Dear Artist,

A sack of email dropped down this chimney after my recent walk with Renoir. If you remember, he was enthusing about black and knocking Pissarro for not using it. The emails made me realize that poor old black is misunderstood and the recipient of unfair discrimination. The widely held point of view was typified by Caren Goodrich: “For me black is an unnecessary colour,” she wrote, “I’m with Pissarro on this one. I don’t own any black paint. When I look at the tip of a dog’s nose or a car tire, I see a variety of blues and purples. With all the colours of paint readily available to us today, maybe even Renoir might not feel the need for black were he painting in this century.”


Caren Goodrich in the Bitterroot National Forest

While many painters agree with Caren, it’s worthwhile to think of black not as a pigment to paint black things black — like tires or dog’s noses — or even to darken shadows. Think of black as a “non-chroma” pigment that handily enriches and sophisticates your lighter areas. Yep, the lighter ones. We’re all familiar with paintings with over-bright colours. Too many colours at full strength fight with one another in acid cacophony. To achieve colour harmony and permit full strength colours to work to full advantage, you need graying. A small or moderate amount of black is the secret to this enrichment. Subtle graying of surround amplifies the power of pure colour centres.

Part of the problem comes from our literary understandings. “The sky is so blue,” we say, and we reach for the full ultra or cobalt. Just try adding a bit of black to your cobalt sky. As Renoir said, “Black adds a certain lightness.”

How can this be? Attentive looking is the foundation of truth, and truth tells us that there is more black in things than we verbalize or imagine. This is just one reason why colour truth is hard won — and not everybody gets it right. Having said that, many don’t feel the need.

And then there’s white. Just as black is necessary for evolved colour mixing, so is white. Fact is, black alone makes things deadly, and white alone makes things chalky. But when black and white are both added to anything, you get the most beautiful tones of all. Don’t believe me? Try it. There are no ugly colours when you take any colour in your box and add a wee bit of both black and white.


“Le Moulin de la Galette”
oil on canvas 175 x 131 cm
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876)

Best regards,


PS: “Good colour really means good taste; and ‘powerful’ colour means a reserve, to give a climax its full force, and not ‘red, white, and blue’ all over.” (John F. Carlson)

“When colour achieves richness, form attains fullness.” (Paul Cezanne)

Esoterica: No point in asking for resolutions to mix appropriate amounts of black and white in the New Year, but I will remind you that on January 1, Andrew will be returning the New Year’s Resolutions that you sent to us one year ago. And if you should feel the need to quietly disclose your plans for 2007, send them along and we’ll hold them in confidence, and return them to you on Jan 1, 2008. At this time I’d like to thank everyone who makes the Painter’s Keys effort so rewarding. I’d also like to thank the thousands who sent e-cards. Happy Holidays to all. 2006 was such a full-chimney year for us — we sincerely hope it was for you, too. Andrew, Carol Ann, Dmitry, Michelle, Shawn — and all of our volunteers, including myself, truly value your friendship.


Trouble with black
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches
by Eleanor Blair

The trouble with black and white, for inexperienced painters, is the terrible temptation to try to lighten colors with white and darken them with black. That’s a sure recipe for destroying luminosity. I suggest that beginning painters get as wide a range of values as possible using everything but black and white. Add white to the painting only after you’ve done as much as you can with color, add black to your palette only as a last resort. Most of the time, for my darkest darks, I mix a blackish color using Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Chrome Green Deep, which makes very opaque color full of warm and cool nuances. I’m always experimenting with new pigments, though. I recently discovered Peach Black, a warm transparent oil pigment that I’ve fallen in love with.


Never say ‘never black’
by Rose-Marie Burke, Glenburnie, ON, Canada

I say BRAVO to Renoir. I could never understand the heated debate about the use of black… or white for that matter. I thought artistic expression was having the freedom to express yourself in your own style — if you want to use black, fine, if not, also fine. Use whatever works wherever appropriate. There is no “right” or “wrong” about it, we all see the world differently. Blessed be variety. Telling an artist to “never use black” is as ridiculous as telling a writer, “You can never use these specific words in your literature.” And isn’t it ironic that the use of black and white is so often criticized in art, and yet black and white is often put on a pedestal in photography!


Endless ‘play’ of mixing
by Andrea Harris, Chicago, IL, USA


“Taos Trees”
oil & wax on canvas, 40 x 36 inches
by Andrea Harris

Since most of my artwork is either nature or figurative, I do not use black as a stand-alone color. I agree with your comments regarding the valuable assets of adding black and white to other pigments and have been utilizing this technique for all of my painting years. The result is incredible, more natural colors that help explode the surrounding full strength colors — a wonderful vibration that urges the eye to travel throughout the painting. My favorite “mixed” black is alizarin crimson and phthalo blue. Sometimes I add a touch of sap green or another color, depending on the color that is next to the “black” on the canvas. Mixing my own gray is a favorite of mine because the “play” of cool and warm gray tones next to other colors is endless.


Gamblin Torrit Grey
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“No Direction Home”
oil on linen, 8 x 10 inches
by Coulter Watt

There are many black pigments: Mars, Ivory, Bone, Black Spinel (a matte paint), Chromatic black and yes, Van Dyke Brown is in the black group too. Plus the various white pigments: Flake, Zinc and Titanium. They all have very different characteristics, some warm and others cool in tone, opaque and transparent. Every spring Robert Gamblin’s Torrit Grey Painting Competition is a celebration of Earth Day and is an environmental statement that I support. The pigments in Gamblin’s Torrit Grey paint are collected from a Torrit Air Filtration System that protects his employees and the environment from the hazardous airborne pigments. Gamblin gives away 37 ml tubes of Torrit Grey paint at stores that sell his products.

(RG note) Thanks, Coulter. You can find out about Gamblin’s competition — rules and entry form through his Gamblin Artists Colors website. Coulter Watt just happens to be the First Prize Winner in Robert Gamblin’s 2006 Torrit Grey Painting Competition.


Gamblin Chromatic Black
by Laura Higgins Palmer, Baltimore, MD, USA


“Momentos 2”
pen and ink, 11 x 14 inches
by Laura Higgins Palmer

In response to the hundreds of art instructors who do not let their students use black, Robert Gamblin has developed a product called Chromatic Black. Without black, Gamblin believes the work of color mixing is much harder than it needs to be. Many instructors of Impressionist painting do not allow the use of black because they believe the Impressionists did not use black. Contemporary conservation science has recently shown this to be wrong. WhileMonet said, “Black is the death of shadows,” science has shown us that there is a lot of black in the color mixtures of Monet. There is just not much black in the shadows, here you will find colors such as Ultramarine Blue and mixtures of Alizarin and Viridian. According to Gamblin, the overuse of traditional black pigments in color mixing can be a problem. Color mixtures can easily become “dirty” looking. This is not caused by the use of black itself in color mixing but because of the relatively large pigment particle size of both Ivory Black and Mars Black. Chromatic Black solves this problem since it is made from modern organic pigments that are both tiny in size and transparent. Colors are grayed without being made to look “dirty.” This also points to a limitation of Chromatic Black: while it is a fabulous mixing black it is not as good as Ivory or Mars or Black Spinel when a true black is needed in a painting. (RG note) Thanks. You can see Robert Gamblin’s illustrated demo of his Chromatic Black. As a matter of fact, for $5 shipping and handling, he’ll send you a free tube of Chromatic Black.


Use of black as grisaille
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA


colored pencil and acrylic on clay board
24 x 36 inches
by Chantell Van Erbe

In my color pencil and mixed media paintings, the color black is used as a grisaille. When I’m satisfied with a drawing’s final outline, black is filled into the areas of the piece that require added depth. I view black as the faithful cowboy of my composition, corralling the brighter and more wayward hues into place. Without this necessary step, a colored pencil painting would look too severe or unrefined. Variants of gray, brown, indigo blue or violet can be used as well in the grisaille technique. But I prefer black. It goes on evenly with a light or heavy hand and is actually more forgiving with mistakes that need erasing. I guess the issue of black/no black comes down to what an artist is attempting to achieve in their work. I’m not worried. Like rock and roll, black is here to stay… it will never die.


A sense of ‘realness’
by Larry Seiler, Laona, WI, USA

I built my earlier reputation on being a competitive wildlife artist in the ’80s – ’90s… and my focus was detail that would create a hyper realism. I have since learned that there is a difference between realism and bringing a sense of ‘realness’ to the viewer’s eye. Light, color… mood contribute much toward that end. Unfortunately so many artists are attached at the hip to black, they do not learn the various ways of mixing darks, the advantages of thinking in terms of warm and cool lights, and other strategies or ways of graying and mixing. If the real advantage of using black, as you said in this week’s emailing, is graying… then I would believe most artists that do use black that way perhaps then as a habit or rule do not use complements for graying. This would be sad indeed for it leads to an incomplete understanding of color mixing and palette strategies, and I would wager most works come off appearing at best realistic, but lack a convincing realness.


Avoiding the potential pitfalls
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“In The Light”
oil on canvas, 20 x 21 inches
by Mary Moquin

Many less experienced painters use black and white as their only way to achieve any value depth in their paintings (and many who’ve sworn off black still use a fair share of burnt umber). The lights become chalky and the darks become dull and muddy. I believe that artists will understand color more fully if they initially refrain from using black and rely on complementary color to achieve the same result. Van Gogh once waxed on and on about a painting comprised of blue and orange. It was full of the most beautiful grays with subtle splashes of more pure blue and orange that vibrated against the grays. The whole painting was alive because of the relationships between the grays and the purer color. As I paint with this in mind, black has not taken up residence on my palette. Neither has any other earth tone, but that’s not to say I think they shouldn’t on any one else’s or even that they never will on mine. My advice is always to experiment, never take anyone’s word for whether or not to use a pigment on your palette. The world would be a dull and boring place if we all painted the same. If one understands the potential pitfalls, then they can be avoided.


Beginner palette
by Jennifer Young, Richmond, VA, USA


oil on canvas, 9 x 12 inches
by Jennifer Young

I have no real problem with black except that, for the novice painter, I agree that it can be over-used. The same with umbers and browns. You can learn a lot about color-mixing if you first remove blacks, grays, and most earth-tones from your palette for a while. Many beginners tend to reach for these hues repeatedly to inform their shadow areas, giving their paintings a rather dead, dull appearance. I have advised my students to first learn about what the primaries can do for them before expanding their palette to include other mixtures. I do agree, though, that no color is a “bad” color. Not only does ivory black assist in making wonderful colored grays, but mix it with cadmium lemon and you get a surprisingly naturalistic green.


The interaction of colour
by Jeanne Fosnot, Monterey, CA, USA

I have learned to think of black as a color: try painting a still life in black and include black satin, velvet, coal, crow feather, licorice, rocks — any thing you can find that is black. When you paint it, match the blacks exactly and you will find: red black, blue black, green black, purple black. Have you ever tried to find a black color that matches something you already have that’s black? Or try the same with white: snow, china, different materials, sand and it’s really amazing how much color each of these two (white and black) is in the black. I also found that grey changes color according to which hue you place on it: the same grey with an orange object turns bluish, while a red object makes the grey appear green. I loved doing all the exercises in Josef Alber’s The Interaction of Color — priceless for anyone wanting to be discriminating in cool or warm colors.


Three primaries and white
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel


oil on canvas, 120 x 80 cm
by Ron Gang

I stopped darkening colours with black at the prompting of a teacher (who was no doubt influenced by Pissarro ‘s legacy) and I used dark browns instead. The rationale was that black muddied the colours, and with brown it occurred less. Over the years, getting more and more into plein air work, my palette reduced more and more and I found that, by judicious mixing, any colour I wanted could be achieved from the three primaries and white. Transparent hues, underpainting, scumbling, etc., gave control and optical interaction. The test for your primaries interacting well is the ability to achieve black by mixing them. It takes practice for all this, and with time the proportions become second nature. Another big plus of working with only the primaries, is getting out of the mud. Earth colours or black mixed in become a “dirtying” element that cannot be removed from the mixture. Yet any earth colour or black that I want can be achieved at by combining. So you can keep mixing the same paints on your palette not having to discard them for having become irreversible mud. So, this is a very convenient technique. Yet, having said this, I still realize that black out of the tube will still be much more intense than the black I mix the primaries to achieve. The last while, I’ve been contemplating getting back into the black, thinking that the added contrast it can add may well get the colours up to a higher key as it were. It seems to me that the black has to be used carefully and sparingly if it is to aid and not be detrimental. Indeed Cezanne, who was tutored by Pissarro, never gave up the black, and wow, what an incredible colourist Cezanne was. I’ve got a couple of tubes of black that I bought 20 years ago when I was in art school and have hardly used. I guess it’s time to get up my gumption, break a habit, and see what can be done with them.


A different dimension of black
by Kassahun Kebede, Jimma, Ethiopia

I appreciate your use of black, not because of I am from Black Africa but because of getting recognition of my engraving on ‘burnt’ photo paper by scrapping and creating that ‘dullness’ into life by orchestrating the two colors like piano keys. This work seems very simple but is so difficult the blade has no excuse to re ‘paint’ if you lost a pattern of line when you scraping, you will lose all structure. First, you have to sketch by pencil and cutting all the lay out and peeling to get the underneath white then the image will appear steadily. Sometime I use various lines to create grayscale and shadow. Because getting professional paints and materials is so difficult in my country am I suppose to stop my art career? I won the problem by using printed black damaged photo papers by scraping. I will give them image that they failed to be real photograph. So Genn my dimension regarding Black is different. Merry Christmas. We Ethiopians have different calendar than you. We are in 1999. Next year we will celebrate our millennium colorfully. (RG note) Thanks, Kassahun. And thanks to everyone who wished us a Merry Christmas or drew our attention to other midwinter festivals or occasions. Within the dimensions of our electronic windows, our friends seem very close indeed.


Perfection out of imperfection
by Lisa Schaus, Flathead Valley, MT, USA


“Hot Poppies”
by Lisa Schaus

To quote a favorite philosopher of mine from the Victorian era, John Edgar Park, “What is that at which all true artists are aiming? It is life, it is reality. The painter tries to catch the magic of the lights and shadows and passing graces of the human face he paints, but he never wholly succeeds in overtaking the reality… All great art is an imperfect, halting attempt to catch up upon life. Life is the greatest art of all, and the master-artist is the man who is living the beautiful life!” Grays can be called the imperfection that creates the perfect work of art.





Side by side

oil painting
by Julie Houck, Paia, HI, USA,


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, 2013.

That includes Susan Avishai of Ottawa, ON, Canada who wrote, “Robert Henri said, ‘The only sensible way to regard the art life is that it is a privilege you are willing to pay for.’ ”

And also Rick McClung of Atlanta, GA, USA who wrote, “My master told me to compare the work of those masters who used black with those who didn’t. I would rather my work fit in the line of those who mastered their craft.”

And also Tom Albano of Alsip, IL, USA who wrote, “In watercolour classes black and white was a no-no because the teacher was dealing with first-timers in his class who would over-do the urge from childhood to darken with black or lighten with white.”

And also Eleanor Steffen of Woodstock, NY, USA who wrote, “My early art education forbade the use of pure black. When I married Bernard Steffen, a respected lithographer, he released me from the endless mixing of getting cool or warm blacks. A gallery owner recently called me and asked, ‘Are you the artist who uses black so effectively?’ ”

And also Linda Blondheim of Evinston, FL, USA who wrote, “I use black on my palette and it is a useful mixer for wonderful olive greens, and subtle grays. I don’t use it as a black, but as a mixer for other colors. The ‘no black’ fad that has been going around for a few years means missing the possibilities.”

And also Paul V Azzopardi who wrote, “Respectfully, this Pissarro thing about not using black is pure humbug. Even if black did not exist in what we see of nature, why can’t we use it in our painting? Who said colours and pictures must be restricted to what we see?”

And also Sandra Bos of Cookeville, TN, USA who wrote, “I always thought that I would get better grays by using the compliment color, so I’ve never felt that I needed to use black. Also, I’m a teacher and I feel that beginners have a tendency to mis-use black, the same way they want to mis-use white. But, after saying that, in the New Year I will give black a try.”

And also Bob Abrahams of Australia who wrote, “For the last few months I have been eliminating excessive use of white pigment from my paintings, especially in the early stages. It has greatly improved my work. Now I have introduced black into a few studies, mainly as modifier. Much richer painting but their use must be carefully controlled to prevent ‘muddy grey-outs.’ ”

And also Raffaele Ciccaleni of Monte Urano, Italy who wrote, “I’m taking part in a group exhibition here in Italy (Il Bianco, i.e. White) in which the painters are asked to submit works done with white only. As for black, I love a painter who strongly advocated a ponderated but sumptuous use of blacks, and he was mainly a watercolourist — the late Rowland Hilder.

And also Gene Black of Anniston, AL, USA who wrote, “My name is Black and I can’t imagine removing the Black (or the black) from my studio on a permanent basis.”

And also Elizabeth Pusztai who wrote, “Your clickbacks are my art school — always at my fingertips.”



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