Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Should I use black?

There has been a school of thought that said black should be excluded from the palette. But a lot of great painters have used it. I do have black on my palette but I could live without it and I don't use a lot. Following are my thoughts on the subject.

The most common black is Ivory black but recently there have been a lot of favorable things said about mars black, a relatively new color. Mars colors are oxides of iron made by earthly industry and not actually of extraterrestrial origin. I have tried mars black and thought it was too inky and returned to the ivory black, but I may experiment with it more as it gets high marks for permanence. Ivory black is not an ideal color. It sucks up a lot of oil and can cause some problems in drying. But I like it and am used to it.
There are several arguments against the use of black. Less experienced painters like to make their shadow notes by adding black to the local color of the object they are painting. This is a dreadful practice.The shadow color is not a dark version of the lights, it is its own color and must be either observed or formulated on its own. Also painting your shadows with black precludes controlling the temperature of your shadow, and that's important. Black will make your shadows dead. Black kills luminosity. Teachers got so tired of seeing students do this that they insisted on removing black from the students palettes to force them to mix the colors of the shadows chromatically. If you are not an experienced painter I think this is certainly good advice.

There are a number of ways to make a DARK note. Viridian and alizirin makes squids ink. Burnt sienna and ultramarine makes a nice dark also. Red, yellow and blue, mixed together is the definition of black, it is the presence of all colors, white is the absence of color. (in pigments, light is a different game) so if you are using a three color palette that will make your darkest value.

I use black because it is handy, I think of it as just another pigment on my palette but it has an interesting property, it will drop the value of a color without affecting its temperature much. I also like to use a red hot version of black for my darkest accents. Black can be used to make a lot of grays but I always throw something else in there too so as not to have a dead color and to vary my different grays. I also like to sneak black into skies. The old masters often worked without a blue, they had few of them and they were expensive, If a landscape is warm as so many of the old ones are, by contrast a sky made with black will look blue by contrast. I often sneak black into my skies because it looks just slightly blue. I will "break " it very thinly over a sky I have painted with full color just to tone it down a bit.

Black can also be used to get a pearly look. There is a peculiar effect it has when mixed with white and used in a high key. I think Corot did a lot of that. Greens can also be mixed with black or other greens neutralized with it. It is always handy to have an additional way to make greens, particularly those that are not chartreuse and poisonous. Black tends to make olive colors.

So my advice is, unless you are an experienced painter learn to mix all of your colors from a chromatic palette. If you have built enough expertise to keep it in check and use black judiciously it is a handy pigment to have around.


willek said...

Very useful and informative, Stape. Thanks. You are really hitting your stride lately.

Ivory has a bias toward blue and I think if it as a very dirty blue when mixing it, what of the other blacks?

T Arthur Smith said...

thank you for this advice! If I had a good printer I'd print more of your quotes for the studio. When I get back to school this fall...

Steve Baker said...

I use black and I use raw umber. I use them as colors themselves when mixing and I use them as modifiers to knock down chroma, black for cool and umber for warm colors. I can and do use compliments for this as well, it depends on the situation. I think your right that a lot of the prejudice against black has to do with something someones teacher told them when they over used it and then that became thought of as important to how they work. I think to insist on not using it is to admit not being able to use it wisely, a matter of self control. Like most things it is fine in moderation.

Ct said...

Great advise. Black does have its uses and for me it is when you need just the right shade of grey. Thanks for all your input and advise.
Its good to hear an artist not tear black completely apart.


alotter said...

I use black when my subject is actually black. The very first time I ever used black was when I painted my black tuxedo cat posed next to a snow bank on a "black" street. I used no black on the street or in the bank, but the black portions of the cat were almost flat black. Almost flat, so that the small shadings around the white bib look very important. Still love that painting.

Durinda Cheek, Director said...

If I recall, my teachers told us not to use black because the Impressionists didn't. I wondered how old Manet and Renoir got away with it? ;)
I love using it in a limited palette like you said, Stape, for the blues and mixed with yellow for the greens. Lately, I have been playing with Chromatic Black (Gamblin). If you try it, let us know what you think, please.

Philip Koch said...

I have a theory that black oil paint was invented by the art devil. At least when I try to use it.

Despite years of psychotherapy, the voice of my old first art teacher warning against it rings in my ears. I get off balance and screw up.

It's funny, as I can mix those beautiful pearly light value off whites with it and as long as they stay on my palette I'm fine. It's in the transporting them to the canvas that something goes haywire. More seriously, I think black is fine for other EXPERIENCED painters. Me, I'll stay over in the mixing complements together department.

jeff said...

I love black and use it all the time.
Sometimes I mix permanent crimson into it and sometimes ultramarine blue and on others all three.

I use a lot gray scales when I paint and I mix them from black and white and a little umbra.

I also use Lamp black which is a very nice black. As well Black German earth which is now discontinued from Williamsburg paint

Bill said...

Stapleton, your blog is really a treasure. It's helping my painting, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

On the subject of black, here's something worth trying that I learned from lurking on the Rational Painting group: mix black with a small amount of burnt umber to neutralize its cool characteristic. Then, mix a string of values of this with increasing amounts of white (at first with very small amounts, then gradually with larger amounts to get roughly equal "steps"). This gives you a range of neutral grays. Take another color (ultramarine, cadmium red, whatever) and mix a string of values of that with increasing amounts of white. Then, mix the corresponding value gray with the corresponding value color in varying amounts to knock down the chroma of your color as needed. It's a little tedious, but it seems to work very well. By using the corresponding value gray, you can lower the chroma of a given color without changing its value.

Painting some "scales" of color values and chromas on cheap canvases and paper with this system has taught me a lot about color/value/chroma in the past year. In practice when I'm actually painting I don't tend to work in such a systematic way, but the experience of playing with that system has helped me reach the color, value, and chroma I'm looking for a lot more quickly, even when I'm not using black.

于庭吳 said...

More haste, less speed..................................................................

Stapleton Kearns said...

I like the blue bias in Ivory black.

Stapleton Kearns said...

T. Arthur. You should copy it out longhand!

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds like a good method.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I have a black cat too, but he is actually ultramarine and quinacridone stepped on with a little ocher with some cobalt blue in his highlights.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I notice Gamblin was making that. I guess I should try it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is OK mix compliments. I don't care.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have used lamp black, but Ivory seems to work for me. Have you tried the chromatic black mentioned above?

Stapleton Kearns said...

You are mixing strings of tones. I should write about tints and tones I guess. Maybe I have and forgot.

Stapleton Kearns said...

OK, will do!

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%! I advise my students who are new to painting not to put black on their palette, I don't regularly use it on mine except on rare occasions as you suggest. Ultramarine & burnt umber or sometimes burnt sienna make a wonderful dark, I use that combo frequently.

jeff said...

I suppose I do use a somewhat chromatic black as I mix blues and reds into it. I mostly use Ivory as well. As I said I add Ultramarine and Permanent Crimson to black.

Using black takes a lot of practice and I think all painters should learn to use it with every color on their palette. You can do this by mixing it by different percentages. 10%, 20%, 30% and so on. Do the same with white.

It's a good exercise. The painter Richard Schmid does something like this with all the colors on his palette but he does it with all the colors on the palette not just white and black.

I mix a string of grays as Bill described.

I can see however not needing black in the field, but I like the color myself. Most blacks are in the blue family so it is a color.