Sunday, December 29, 2013

Questions about Black, Part 3 of 4

In yesterday's post, we explored the whys and hows of mixing your own black. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about black.

Do some kinds of artists use black more than others?
Yes. Designers, cover artists, comic artists, and poster designers use black a lot because of its simple graphic power. Above is a cover by Coles Phillips (1880-1927), which uses black as a clever design element. 

Portrait painters and still life painters often use black on the palette. Landscape painters are most likely to ban black from the palette. 


Why? So should landscape painters take black off the palette? 
Well, I'm not one to make hard and fast rules, because there are always exceptions. There have been artists who have used black effectively in landscape. Rowland Hilder (1905-1993) did the watercolor above. He often started with black ink, and I think it works well for him here. Andrew Wyeth also used black effectively, because he was after a starkness and melancholy and absoluteness that black was perfectly suited for. 

The reason a lot of landscape painters in oil leave black off the palette is to remind them that there is illuminated atmosphere between them and everything in the scene. Our eyes can trick us into thinking that an open window across the street is pitch black, when really it's shifted up from black quite a bit. You can see this by holding up a lens cap or some other shaded black object next to the thing you think is black in the landscape. I think it's reasonable to say that beginning landscape painters in oil should have a lot of experience painting without black—or for that matter without brown—until they know they can mix any color they see from a set of highly chromatic "primary" pigments.

What are the pros and cons of using a note of pure black in the painting?
The reason you might need black on your palette is that it will give you just a little extra punch. If I'm doing a realistic painting, I work under the philosophy that black should be reserved for rare and special parts of the picture. I mentioned this in a post called "The Separateness of Black." 

I tend to agree with John Ruskin. He said in his book "The Elements of Drawing:" "You must make the black conspicuous. However small a point of black may be, it ought to catch the eye, otherwise your work is too heavy in the shadow. All the ordinary shadows should be of some colour,— never black, nor approaching black, they should be evidently and always of a luminous nature, and the black should look strange among them; never occurring except in a black object, or in small points indicative of intense shade in the very centre of masses of shadow." 


If I might add to that, I would say that pure white or pure black can destroy the subjective color atmosphere of a scheme, like pressing the auto white balance on a camera, or pressing the "Auto Levels" button in Photoshop. Above is a Sanford Gifford landscape with its subjective warm gamut intact. Note that its lights stay clear of pure white and its darks stay clear of black. Below is the same painting given the auto levels treatment, which harms the poetic effect. Perhaps that's one reason why Rubens said, "It is very dangerous to use white and black."

How can one get the purest black?
Pure, absolute black is beyond the reach of any single pigment. The darkest value you can get with a surface is probably black velvet.


Any black pigment reflects a certain amount of light, depending on how it's painted, how it's varnished and how it's lit. The black passages in my painting of Moche prisoners for National Geographic, above, reflect a fair amount of light, even though they're painted with pure ivory black. That's just because of the brushstroke textures are giving off a lot of diffuse reflection.

Some artists achieve very dark blackish colors by glazing, sometimes by glazes of different colors laid over each other in a single passage. If it's varnished and lit correctly, this method for achieving dark colors can yield very rich and mysterious darks.


What is meant by “crushing blacks?”
Crushing black is a technique of digital color adjustment in photography, film, and video where you clip off the low end of the histogram to add contrast, simplicity, or a "comic book" look (300, above). It's very popular in modern movies. National Geographic has done this with its photos for decades, so much so that photographers from other magazines joke derisively about "National Geographic Black."  


But you can also crush the blacks and then raise them into a color range to add a faded film, or "Instagram" look, which is also stylish right now. The still above is from a demo reel by Sunday Studio. This effect can easily be achieved in a painting as well.

Is black a color?
Whew, I'm too tired to answer that right now. Let me extend one more day and answer it tomorrow. If you have another question about black, ask in the comments, and I'll try to get to it tomorrow.

"Questions about Black" Series
Part 2: Mixing your own black
Part 3: Using black in a painting
Part 4: Is Black a color?
Get my book "Color and Light" signed from my website or from Amazon.

12 comments:

Enzie Shahmiri said...

Based on your experience have you found that certain blacks created by certain manufacturers sink in less than others? When I use black in my portraits, I tend to oil out a lot to avoid the sinking in, but I am interested to find out if quality of manufacturing plays a large role on how black behaves on canvas.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

I like your confession about being to tired to answer the question about whether black is a colour :-)

My take on it (right now, at least) is that black and black are two different things. We can talk about black as a concept, where it means the absolute absence of any kind of reflected light and thus of any kind of colour. In that sense, I'd say that no, black isn't a colour, it's the absence of colour. But any black used in a picture wouldn't be that. It would always be something visible and thus a colour - a very low value, low chroma version of some colour - blue, red, violet or simply a very dark neutral grey, which would probably be the closest thing to a colour named 'black'.

Looking forward to your take on this when you are ready for it!

adam said...

I always wondered if the black rule had to do with how reflective it can get in certain lighting conditions.

Kappa K. said...

Great post(s)and extremely educational!

You mentioned that the "crushing blacks" look can be easily recreated in a painting. If it's not to much hassle, it would be really interesting if you could mention some key principles on how it's achieved since this kind of grouping of blacks is not present when painting a real life subject. Although I do understand the mechanics behind it as a digital manipulation I can't really put my finger on what needs to be done in the case of a painting.

Rich said...

Another interesting and educational entry, thanks for your efforts.

Pitch? Soot? What would be the blackest thing nature can offer to our eye? I was just wondering.
The dark side of the moon might be another option...

Annie said...

I agree -- these are great posts!
Since black in nature doesn't always result in black dye, how do white elephant tusks create a black pigment I wonder?
A little friend of mine wants to know how many black things we can eat! So far she's got olives, raisins, licorice, and seaweed.

--J-- said...

Interesting use of blacks: Just after the destruction of the twin towers, the Sept. 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker published a cover by Art Spiegleman featuring the ghostly black silhouette of the towers against a black background. The image is practically invisible except in the best light, the only clue being that the antenna of the north tower juts into the "W" of the word "New" in the logo.

In his own words describing the cover, Spiegleman mentions 'turn[ing] to Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black painting for a solution." Later, he explains, "Those silhouetted towers were printed in a fifth, black ink, on a field of black made up of the standard four color printing inks. An overprinted clear varnish helps create the ghost images that linger, insisting on their presence through the blackness."

Computer versions of the cover don't really do justice to the actual image, as Spiegleman himself attests. (I own one of the limited edition offset lithograph prints made from the original, which is itself a printing.) I highly suggest you visit the New Yorker offices, or get in touch with the artist, and have a look at either the original or one of the prints and see for yourself. I have enjoyed your blog daily for several years!

--J-- said...

Interesting use of blacks: Just after the destruction of the twin towers, the Sept. 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker published a cover by Art Spiegleman featuring the ghostly black silhouette of the towers against a black background. The image is practically invisible except in the best light, the only clue being that the antenna of the north tower juts into the "W" of the word "New" in the logo.

In his own words describing the cover, Spiegleman mentions 'turn[ing] to Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black painting for a solution." Later, he explains, "Those silhouetted towers were printed in a fifth, black ink, on a field of black made up of the standard four color printing inks. An overprinted clear varnish helps create the ghost images that linger, insisting on their presence through the blackness."

Computer versions of the cover don't really do justice to the actual image, as Spiegleman himself attests. (I own one of the limited edition offset lithograph prints made from the original, which is itself a printing.) I highly suggest you visit the New Yorker offices, or get in touch with the artist, and have a look at either the original or one of the prints and see for yourself. I have enjoyed your blog daily for several years!

lynnwood hage said...

Great topic,James!In a book about Ogden Pleissner I read ,he mentions that he used black all the time to modify other colors,
I found myself that if I add the TINIEST amount of ivory black to blue and a cool green in watercolor the color seems even more rich and brilliant than without it[..good for water...].
Happy New Year and thanks for another year of great stuff!

Lester Yocum said...

Excellent post, as always.

A bit off topic: Your Moche prisoners painting is an illustration masterpiece. Talk about storytelling! I remember seeing that painting in National Geographic as a much younger person and being immersed, horrified, and fascinated by it all at once.

I've always had a fascination for Mesoamerican culture. Your image captures my imagining of it perfectly. Brought back the chills I felt many years ago. I had no idea that you were the artist, although from what I know now it makes sense. Thanks for posting it and for the good you do.

Simone said...

I rarely use black preferring to mix my blacks from dark, mostly transparent complements. In practice I think of my blacks as "dark accents". Or as another well known blogger calls them, "Puffo-Puffs".

When I do use a tubed black I think of it as a blue and use it in mixtures as such....very enjoyable and thorough posts. Thank you!

David J Teter said...

Yeah, I wondered the same as Annie on the elephant tusks. Is it because they turn to black carbon easier when burned?

@ Annie, I think caviar is black. Also don't forget black beans.