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An Artist's Black

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

I was in a private lesson with one of my students recently and the subject of using black came up.

As we know, black is the sum of all colors of pigment, opposite to the sum all colors of light which creates white. Black comes in many variations. Out of the tube, there are transparent, semi-transparent, opaque, and Lamp (uber opaque) blacks. When mixing from scratch, there are cool blacks, warm blacks, neutral blacks. It's a sliding scale. Then add the nuance of painting the desired black against an adjacent shape that is warm or cool. It can look altogether different from how it appears on your palette.

Some artists do not use black. For instance, the Impressionists typically did not use black for two reasons. They believed it was not a color typically found in nature. And, they tended to address shaded areas of their paintings with color (hue) rather than simply darkening them. Even though I use photographic reference which tends to flatten the subject and create black shadows, I agree with the Impressionists by liberally using hue instead of black to make those shaded areas more interesting.

While I don't even place black on my palette I believe it is an important color that provides the drama in a painting through contrast. Master artist, William Schneider, taught me years ago to place the lightest light adjacent to the darkest dark for that special pop in a work of art. So I choose to mix my own.

There are many formulas. Each artist develops their favorites. The basic premise is to use the three primary colors of red, blue and yellow. I recommend not using yellow because it is too light and opaque. Replace it with a brown. For example, Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna yield a rich, dark black.

Here is a summary of additional formulas researched from Winsor & Newton articles.

1. Primaries (as discussed above)

2. A Primary and Secondary

Yellow + Purple

Blue + Orange

Red + Green

Number 2 is my preferred method to create beautiful greys and neutrals but I do not find it dark enough for black.

3. Blue + Brown

4. Blue + Brown + Red

Number 4 is my favorite way to make black! I use Quinacridone Violet, Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Oxide. Wow, the black is dark and rich and luscious. I can slide the temperature cooler or warmer as dictated by my vision of the final painting. It has staying power long after the paint has dried.

Why is this? Transparency. Opaque pigments reflect light and therefore appear lighter. Transparent pigments trap light deeper, reflect less and therefore appear darker. The lesson here is to own the knowledge in your bag of tricks (AKA art supplies). Each tube of paint has its attribute on the label. And it may vary with different brands of the same color. Like playing scales on a piano, sometimes it is worth just reading the labels of your favorites again as a review.

Getting back to 'black' black, did you know that Leonardo Da Vinci believed that every canvas should begin with a wash of black?

Here is how blacks are generally categorized:

Perylene = Transparent

Ivory = Semi-Transparent

Mars = Opaque

Lamp = Very Opaque

In conclusion, black is a color that has existed for centuries in art. There is much discussion and debate about its importance as well as methods of making it vs. using it from a tube. I am only scratching the surface in this blog article. I hope it sparks an interest for you to do a little rainy day experimenting with black and perhaps further investigating on your own.

Leave a comment about your favorite black tube or formula.

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