Friday, August 24, 2007


"I've been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colors was black." Auguste Renoir

"Black is not a color." Edouard Manet

"Without black, no color has any depth. But if you mix black with everything, suddenly there's shadow - no, not just shadow, but fullness. You've got to be willing to mix black into your palette if you want to create something that's real."
Amy Grant

Do you use black? From time to time, I hear new and experienced painters alike discuss the use (or rejection) of the oldest pigment known to mankind. Its ability to absorb light and affect other pigments determines whether an artist will avoid it completely, limit it to the darkest areas, or add it anytime dark hues are required. Just for fun, I've summarized my recall of various painterly responses to the question:

"I use prussian blue instead," an abstract painter confided rather distractedly, as she worked on a huge piece. A pigment like like ivory black will "muddy" all colors it is mixed with, she explained, and after a minute, added: "Substituting it with another very dark (but true) pigment like prussian blue will darken the mix without giving it a sooty appearance." I asked why did she want to avoid muddy colors in her line of work, but she just shrugged. Her paintings do not look sooty at all.

A portrait painter was much more specific: "Oh, I use it, but only where I want to depict absolute and total darkness. I do not mix it with other colors, I use it pure. You see, for years I "made" black by mixing other pigments, for example cadmium yellow with alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue, then I realized I could achieve a more intense effect by using mars black straight out of the tube and I've never gone back since." True to his word, his portraits did not have muddy colors either.

So far I've been using terms like sooty and muddy, without thinking of our non-artist readers. What do artists mean when they use such words? Without going into a scholarly foray into color theory (if you want it, here is Bruce McEvoy's) they mean that the addition of black will cause a pigment to lose some of its chromaticity, or its ability to stimulate the eye with its original wavelength. Think of the colors in a painting covered in grime from freeway exhaust.

I have a dear friend who paints murals on fabric. He says the public does not really care, for as long as the values contribute to the illusion of volume. He mixes black freely with other colors and this robs them of their brilliance, but at the same time, black brings so much drama to his rendering of tri-dimensional, everyday objects that it is hard to picture his work in say, prussian blue.

My own relationship with black as a pigment has developed by stages. I was forbidden to use it at the Art Students' League and while studying fine arts in college. Towards the end of my B. A. one of my professors said I was "finally ready," but I did not find myself squeezing the tube until a decade later, and only in the limited way of my portrait painter colleague. I still avoid mixing it with other colors, preferring instead to intensify contrasts once my oil or acrylic paintings are almost finished.

I use prussian blue with watercolors. I paint outdoors a lot, and there's someting about the way a carbon-based pigment looks on paper (tremendously sooty) that discourages its use, even in pure form as an accent for the darkest darks. When prussian blue proves too heavy-handed for shade, I resort to cobalt or ultramarine blue layers, seldom mixed with other colors. If I ever use lamp black, it is with a lot of restraint, as a way to highlight the absolute darkness one may ocassionally encounter in nature.

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