Friday, December 27, 2013

Questions about Black, Part 1 of 4

Nikolai Yaroshenko (1846-1898) The Student
Blog reader Kostas Kiriakakis asks:
“Is black part of your palette when mixing colors? Many artists state that they never use black but I don't understand if they mean that they don't like using it straight out of the tube on to the canvas or if they banned it even as a mixing component from their palette altogether.”

Hi, Kostas,
Good question and comment. Let me try answering them, and I'll ask a few more questions. I will do this as a three-part series.

Can you use black to darken a color?
Black is a very useful color. However many artists will tell you that if it is used to darken all the colors, it can "muddy" a color scheme. They are right. That's because black pigment will reduce chroma too quickly as it darkens or "tones" a color. Rather than looking like a darker version of the color, a color mixed with black will be both darker and a lot grayer, which can give the picture an unpleasant dullness. Another problem with black in mixtures is that it will often shift a hue toward another hue. For example, yellow turns green when mixed with black. 

David Briggs explains these phenomena on his excellent website HueValueChroma. In this diagram from his page on mixing with black, he compares how a mixture of permanent alizarin and white (A) changes as it is darkened by black, compared to a line of uniform saturation (B). The pigment mixtures are plotted using software from the website

How do you darken a color without using black?
To avoid that problem, painters use a variety of colors to darken or tone other colors. Usually these toning colors are pigments that appear dark right out of the tube, often because they are transparent. Ultramarine, the phthalo blues and greens, burnt umber, and permanent alizarin crimson can all be useful for toning other colors. By using these colors to darken your mixtures, you can control the chroma and, if you need to, pull it away from dullness, or just give it more interesting variations of chroma as the colors get darker, so that the dark realms of your colors aren't all monochromatic.

What are the uses for black?
Despite its tendency to be a color-mixing crutch for beginners, black has its uses. I love black pigment. I have a tube of black in all the media I paint with: oil, casein, gouache, and watercolor. I use black pigment most often when I'm painting in grisaille with just black and white, or in a super-limited palette of black, white, and another color. I also use it if I want an accent of the darkest possible value (more about that on Sunday).

Are all black pigments the same?
No. In watercolor, it's fun to experiment with different kinds of black: bone black, lamp black, Mars black. The pigment called "ivory black" used to be made from elephant ivory. Since that is now unavailable, some paint makers create ivory black by burning and grinding up fragments of mammoth ivory from Russia, which is legal to use. Each kind of black has different qualities of texture and chroma. If you get a couple of different blacks, you can play with them and compare them by painting them in a thin glaze, tinting them with white, and mixing them with other colors. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this one, Mr. Gurney! As a relatively new artist playing with core concepts, this is a great subject.

Recently my go-to "black" has been Walnut Brown (a very dark, almost black-brown) mixed with a dash of Sapphire Blue, I call it "Corporea Black" after the username of the person I stole it from. Please excuse the hobby paint names, I paint with Reaper Master Series acrylics. Here is a study in moonlight (after much study of your study of moonlight in Color & Light):

(Scale is about an inch tall)

bill said...

Will you also be addressing the difference in blacks according to manufacturer? There are some great discoveries to be made. And of course, medium to medium blacks can do very different things.

pierangelo boog said...

I remember that Vincent Van Gogh speaks of six ore seven diferent blacks that he has found on paintings of Velazquez (in letters to his Brother Theo ?) !

SE said...

A teacher of mine once worked under another artist for an outside mural. The artist never used straight out-of-the can black, he always mixed his own dark colors. Even when my teacher thought the artist got the dark colors right, the artist would find some way to change the pigment, and make it better. Apparently the mural was too realistic, because a car drove right into it (probably a good time to say the subject was a one point perspective of a road).

Juan Carlos Barquet said...

I've heard before from teachers or fellow artists that 'pure black doesn't exist in nature' and therefore it should be avoided. I wonder how much truth (or relevance) is in this statement, because I believe there's definitely a place for black in a picture if it's understood and done right. Thanks James, I look forward to reading the next two posts.

Connie Nobbe said...

Gamblin has a new black oil color called "Chromatic black" which is a mixture of quinacridone red and thalo emerald. I've bought a tube, but I have yet to try it out.

jeff jordan said...

I never use tube black oils--they're neutral dead. Sometimes I want a bluish black, sometimes greenish, sometimes purplish. It depends on the needs of the painting.

One time I was working on a local movie set for a film that's better left unnamed, and hanging out with guys painting signs for the movie. They went to a local paint store and ordered Black, and were really surprised. "I never knew black could be a custom color," said the main guy.

More to black than meets the eye......

Jason Peck said...

Hey James,

Wonderful topic. I always have black on my palette and use it often. I like mixing white, red, and Ivory Black for low chroma violets. I also use it for mixing beautiful low chroma greens. Here is a link to one of my paintings, where all of the greens are mixtures of white, yellow ochre pale, and ivory black.

Joel Wetzel said...

Greetings, Mr. Gurney, and thank you for your inspirational postings. Would you share ideas about when to use what brushes? I noticed a flat made short work of geometric shapes and that was a revelation. Now I'm hungry for more. Again, thank you.

David Briggs said...

I agree with Juan Carlos Barquet that there's definitely a place for black paint, it's just a matter of understanding its behaviour and knowing how to adjust for it. In particular, there's nothing wrong with using black as a darkener, as long as you know how to correct for its unwanted effects, as I explain in the passage on my website that James linked to. It's generally a matter of adding some extra colourant to restore the excess loss of chroma, and perhaps a trace of a corrective colourant to reverse any shift in hue caused by the black paint. It sometimes releases quite a mix of emotions when students see their "don't use black as a darkener" rule demolished in front of their eyes!

An actual problem however is that, in a manner of speaking, 'pure black doesn't exist on the palette', in the sense that all our black paints reflect a few percent of the white light that falls on them. You can demonstrate this for yourself by painting the inside of a small box black, and then closing the box and cutting a narrow slit in it; the slit will be distinctly darker than any black paint you paint beside it. This is why, in that diagram of mine that James posted, black paint lies above the point of zero light energy, which where the theoretical shading series of any colour (B, the line of uniform saturation in the diagram) is headed. This means that the desired shading series for coloured objects misses black paint by a margin, which is quite large for strongly coloured objects. For the latter you may need to make the darkest values as strongly coloured as you can make them; pure black paint by itself just isn't right. James has already said something similar to this in his post on the separateness of black:

K_tigress said...

Thanks for posting this. Very interesting. Eventually the mammoth tusk will run out. Its inevitable. So could you basically have another alternative? Something more common like tusks from other living animals like a boar or is it just not the same quality?

Jerry Boucher said...

There's also perylene black, which is greenish.

S. Stipick said...

If the use of ivory black is an issue due to the sourcing of the pigment, I would suggest considering Bone Black from Vasari. I have a tube that sits along side of my other blacks and I enjoy using it to the chagrin of my other tubes (if tubes had feelings).

S. Stipick said...

Bone Black is not an exact and perfect replacement but it does have similar transparent properties.

In my case this does not effect me too much as I rarely (almost never) use black unadulterated. In most cases I will neutralize the black to a munsell neutral (or very close) and mix a string of grays out of that to use as my control.

Which brings up the topic of darkeners and neutralizers. I'll probably create small post regarding that later today.

With Mr. Gurney's permission of course

James Gurney said...

Shaun, permission granted, of course. Send a link when you put up the post.