Sunday, October 28, 2012

Separateness of Black

One of the notable qualities of this 1921 painting "The Breakfast Table" by Solomon J. Solomon is its use of black. In particular, the black dress of the woman is presented as a distinct note quite separate from the other dark passages in the painting. The areas under the table and chairs, and around the feet of the nearer figure retain some color and stay well away from pure blackness.

Solomon was a Royal Academy painter who also trained in France. In his book "The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing," he lists black as one of the colors on his palette. But he also quotes a maxim of Rubens: "It is very dangerous to use white and black."

There's nothing wrong with black as a color—Sargent used it, too, and so have painters all through the ages. The danger comes from using black to tone all the dark mixtures, and from infusing the painting with too many heavy, colorless passages in the deep tones of the picture. This can rob the dark passages of luminosity, and can take away the specialness that a black note should have. Contemporary painters who use photos as reference tools should be especially aware of this problem, since photos usually present a lot of areas of pure black.

You can order Solomon Solomon's book on painting from my website store. I wrote the introduction, and have some copies that I've signed. The book is also available through Amazon.


Tometheus said...

Because he is so deliberate with his use of pure black, it makes one wonder what the black object is behind her shoulder. Is it the head of a cat peaking out from under a throw-cover? Is it some strange hat? Is it a ninja behind the chair?

Erik Bongers said...

I feel the black dress doesn't quite balance with the rest of the painting. As if the rest of the shadows are subject to atmospheric blur, and thus never pitch black, while the black dress is free from this haze.
The black 'cat' in the back indeed illustrates my point.

Perhaps the black from the dress was made with different pigments, that discolored to darker black over time.

Scorchfield said...

Back in Black

Anonymous said...

I think that black punch works spectacularly well. Love that painting.
I may have to get that book, soon. - mp

Tyler Vance said...

I've seen some beautiful paintings where black was mixed with every color to unify the palette. I found the "dead" look quite charming. Wouldn't you agree there's a time and a place?

David Briggs said...

As James says, there's nothing wrong with using black; it's a matter of knowing how to use it. A common problem comes from using black too extensively or even alone in the deepest shades, which is especially wrong for strongly coloured objects. To quote myself:

"Strongly coloured objects remain at high saturation even at their lowest values, which may need to be painted using a very high proportion of colourant; pure black paint, being a very low value neutral (grey), is totally unsuited to represent the lowest values of such objects."