Monday, December 30, 2013

Questions about Black, Part 4 of 4

The last question is deceptively simple.

Is black a color?
The answer is no and yes, depending on how you mean the question, and what you mean by "color."

The "No" answer:
If you're talking about how the abstract concept of black fits into the infinite range of hues and chromas within the three-dimensional color universe, you might argue that it doesn't really belong with the others at all, because by definition it has no hue and no chroma. Black is not only the absence of color; it's even the absence of light.

Munsell Color Solid from
The "Yes" answer:
Looking at the question another way, the answer is yes. Black does have its place at the base of the 3-D chart of the color universe, where hues are arrayed around the outside, chroma (saturation) decreases toward the vertical center line, and value goes up or down with height.

Black has its own color swatch just like all the others. It sits at the zero point of value, the extreme pole beneath all dark colors. It's like the lowest note on the piano, one that you can include in a composition if you want to. In yesterday's post, we explored the arguments for and against using pure black in a painting, and just how pure that black pigment can be.

Just as black is a color, white and all the gray tones are colors, too, since each has its own location within the 3D color universe. They are like other keys on the piano, each a legitimate option that an artist may wish to include.

The surprising thing is that black, white, and the gray notes can function in a color scheme in such a way that they don't seem neutral at all. If you choose a gamut with two bright colors plus neutral black (and tints of black), the black suddenly becomes a very distinct subjective color. In the case of the color scheme at right, it would appear blue.

And this is where the "yes" answer becomes more than academic. Black really is a color that can be a core component of a luminous color scheme.

I demonstrate how this principle works in this video, which perhaps a lot of you have already seen. (Direct link to video)

In the end, it's good for beginning painters to be aware of the hazards of black. Many teachers rightly warn against using black carelessly, because it can deaden mixtures or kill the mood or the illusion of light in a painting. It's good to know how and when to mix your own black from other colors. But if you use black consciously, it deserves to be a valued part of any painter's toolkit.

"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.


Jessica Deering said...

I have never heard this explained better. Thank you!

tekopp said...

Really good series, I enjoyed it very much. There where so many thoughts I didn't know before, and it has been and is an intriguing topic.

Martha said...

Fascinating. . . thank you!

Willow's Quiet Corner said...

Excellent information and I absolutely loved the video. I have to echo Jessica's comment . . . I have never heard this explained better! I have bookmarked these pages in my art folder! :)

S. Stipick said...

I had mentioned earlier today that I would create a post on neutralizers and darkeners, and I will get to that, but first I must talk a bit about black because black is, for me, a huge part of that process. You will see why shortly.

Discalimer #1:
I would say that what I am about to post, or rather have posted already, is merely a method of thinking, a tool, that works for me and a few others. It might not work for anyone else or it might be the holy grail, I don't know. However, the information seems relevant to Mr. Gurneys posts and I thought it might be helpful to somebody.

Disclaimer #2:
Because I am not the one that developed all of this information, rather it was taught to me by artists who were taught by others in kind, I feel it is necessary to credit them. Will all due respec,t I do not mean to detract or “spam” Mr. Gurney's blog. However, I just can't post this information and not give the appropriate people credit. .

S. Stipick said...

With Respect to Black

For my purposes and to help me understand the colors I work with, it helps that I consider black, mostly bone, ivory, and lamp blacks as existing within the PB-B (PB refering to Munsell 5 Purple Blue and B referring to Munsell 5 Blue) hue range, most often PB. It doesn't really matter what color wheel, I use Munsell predominantly, but the callsification of these blacks as PB works on the basic color wheel and the YURMBY wheel as well (in YURMBY's case the PB can be considered just blue). Because of a black out of the tube's value, the hue can often be difficult to tell, but for the sake of how black pigments work with other pigments, black for the most part takes on the properties of a PB-B hue. We can see this when it used on the “Zorn Palette”, something I believe Mr. Gurney himself mentions in several Zorn palette specific posts; by the way those posts were absolutely fantastic and wonderful reads for which I am very grateful for. We can also see this blue bias when mixing foliage colors from a Y hue and a tube black or mixing a tube black with any of the R-RP hues. Frank Reilly's foliage green and control strings used Lamp Black, one of the bluer blacks, for the landscape palette. This “cooler” black is particular helpful for maintaining a bluish hue shift when working with the foliage and fill light outdoors. So when I think of black, I don't think of “black”, rather I try to give it a hue designation, most often I think PB in a low chroma low value state. For me I find this helps, tremendously.

Black as a Control:

So how would one effectively incorporate black into a palette, use it effectively, yet maintain high chroma hues for things such as foliage, flowers, light phenomena, and etc.?

For my purposes black becomes a control (neutralizer) or a darkener (when appropriate.) To neutralize black out of the tube, I will often mix in a color of similar value, of a low or equal chroma, and opposite hue. In most cases this is either Burnt Umber or Raw Umber (personal preference goes to Burnt Umber). If ivory black is a PB then Umbers work well because they exist in the YR range. This extra bit of orange effectively neutralizes the PB and creates a reasonable decent neutral black. From here I would mix out my neutrals (grays for values 0-10, black as 0 and white as 10) with white for my values. If you have the time, use a Munsell book and tube them. If you just want to get painting I will link to a couple of recipes for some quick neutrals, just keep in mind there will be a slight hue shift from top to bottom, but it is minimal. Use these to lower the chroma at a colors respective value. While you can always expect some hue shift, the shift while using this method will be quite minimal. Here are the other ways you can neutralize a color, there are 5:

1) Use a control (neutral grays)
2) Use a complimentary color
3) Use white
4) Use black
5) Use another color

Guess which one I prefer? That said, I do use all 5, they just have their time and place. The 5 methods of neutralization by the way are courtesy of Neilson Carlin.

The argument against using a neutral string is that it can create a flat or boring over neutralized color and in relation a flat or boring painting. Then again using a complimentary can cause an extreme hue shift and\or muddiness, each method has it's negative and positive aspects. So while flat colors and paintings can happen, I like having the control of the hue and its respective shifts while using a control. I can always add what I need to heighten its chroma, shift its hue, or change its value. Its a lot like using the HSV sliders in photoshop. The color and value relationships are entirely in my hands.

To sum up this section, black or rather neutral black, could have a place on the palette as just a neutralizer.

S. Stipick said...

Black as a Darkener:

When I was much younger for years I was told, don't use black as a darkener, my college years were unfortunately particularly rife with this sort of abstract and empty pedagogy. What I never received was instruction on what to use to darken colors. It was a frustrating ordeal, I was told it was improper to use black but then when I asked for clarification the “professor” could not provide any.

Finally I found the right people, read the right books (Mr. Gurney's books would have easily been in that mix if they only came out 15 years earlier), experimented, and my eyes were opened. This new insight came much later in my life than I would have preferred but at least I finally had a road map. Black as a darkener can be disastrous, but it has its place, most often at the lowest values. To illustrate this, I feel it is necessary to include a “basic” road map to darkeners, because this will help the artist better understand the use of black as a whole. I have included at the bottom of this list, a link to a series of documents I put together with the help of the two artists listed below. The documents briefly describe and illustrate basic recipes for mixing a high chroma string of color (using appropriate darkeners) from values 0-10 for all of the basic Munsell 5 hues. Black has it's place, its just knowing when and where and the recipes might help in this regard.

Now please keep in mind that these are basic recipes and they are merely tool, nothing more. With a color resource such as the Munsell book, the artist could get very specific and complex with a particular tube of paint and its relative hue, and create a whole string of a specific hue with minimal or no hue shift. For example:

Rembrandt Cad Red Deep:
A great darkening recipe for this particular tube of paint is 5 parts Alizarin Cimson to 1 part Burnt Sienna. Place this mixture at the 2nd value, place the Cad Red Deep and the 4th value, mix the 2nd value and the 4th values together for value 3. Add white to value 4 for values 6,7,8, and 9. Add a little black to value 2 for value 1.

The artist would be hard pressed to wring out a more chromatic string of colors that maintains the integrity of the hue. It could be done, but there is probably no need and the results would be marginal. Also note that black is in there, but it is used sparingly at the lowest value before, or the 0 value.

While the above seems a little confusing initially, if you do this a couple of times, the artist will find there is little need to always mix out these strings. Depending on the project, I often like to, but I don't have to mix this out. I can work from an open palette or a prepared palette. The artist will know that certain combinations will give them a specific hue at a specific chroma at a specific value, and this knowledge is quite liberating

S. Stipick said...

The above color should be Winsor and Newton Cad Red Deep

S. Stipick said...

The Links:

This post is already way too long and I fear I may be stepping on Mr. Gurney's toes. This is certainly not my intention, I only wish to get this information out there and help as many people as I can. While these string formulas will not be perfect Munsell matches, they can get you close and get any artist up and running using a high chroma palette, which is particularly handy for those vibrant floral paintings and as said before light effects. Ultimately, most of what we do as artists comes down to value and color relationships, so these string recipes will not solve all of an artists problems, but I feel they will certainly help put a struggling artist on a positive path for success.

Finally I must give credit to two artists for working with me to put these documents together.

Neilson Carlin

John Ennis

Download the links here:

Munsell Overview and Specific Brand Color Hue Designations:

Thread and\or String Mixing Recipes (darkeners):

Color Wheel Terms:

I wish to sincerely thank Mr. Gurney for this most wonderful resource and an incredibly open minded place to post what I hope to be a helpful bit, albeit poorly written, material. I hope this helps and wish you all the very best.

Happy New Year!

Unknown said...

From an interview of John Elderfield with Phong Bui in the Brooklyn Rail.

I came across the account of Matisse’s visit to Renoir at the end of December 1917. Renoir at the time was 76 years old and Matisse was 48. It was remarkable; Matisse brought a bunch of paintings to show to the great Renoir and Renoir looked at them and said that Matisse was not a good painter, or even that he was nearly a very bad painter. But what prevented Renoir from saying it was Matisse’s unique use of black. All his life, Renoir said he couldn’t think of the possibility of using black without breaking the chromatic unity of a surface, but Matisse knew how to do it, and when he does it, it holds on the painting surface. And from that, he said surely, Matisse is a painter.
The argument continues.

David Briggs said...

A third view is that black and grey are colours, but white alone is not, or at least refers to other aspects of appearance besides colour. Objects that absorb little of any part of the spectrum and are transparent are considered "colourless" (e.g. clear glass), but objects that similarly absorb little of the spectrum but are diffuse reflectors are called "white". Grey and black on the other hand, like other colour names such as red and brown, can apply to both opaque (diffusing) and transparent (non-diffusing) objects.


Someone might be interested in this link, which lists the palettes of many Renaissance to 19th century painters, and shows how nearly ubiquitous black paint was among them:

Happy New Year to all.

Unknown said...

Some of Charles Burchfield's watercolors of springtime have areas of pitch black charcoal that fit perfectly with the spirit o0f the paintings and are perfectly balanced....

S. Stipick said...

Mr. Briggs,

That is an incredible link. Thank you for sharing!

James Gurney said...

David, thanks for adding those interesting ways of looking at gray, white, and black. Another colorless surface is a mirror, or "silver," which gives only a reflection of its surroundings. Nevertheless one can get a silver crayon and it's a lot like gray, only because its leans more toward diffuse reflection, rather than specular reflection.

David Briggs said...

Very good point, James, silver would have to be in the same category as white of being at least not purely a colour term, the silver of a mirror meaning colourless and metallic, as opposed to colourless and diffusing. The "silver" of a crayon might be a little different; perhaps the perception of greyness comes from it being less reflective as well as more 'diffusely reflective' compared to actual silver.

Roberto said...

Hi James, great topic and good insights!
I rarely use black in my landscapes (I tend to make a muddy mess, I prefer mixing down my colors w earth-tones and cross mixing complements) and I am very careful about using it in portraits (usually mixing it with an earth-tone or other strong, dark, transparent pigment). But as a foil to light it can be very effective in creating luminous effects (as in your grisaille still-life w milk container). As a design element it can add structure and elegance to a design/picture (as in Eyvand Earles’ backdrops for Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’), and it can be very powerful as a graphic element in sign painting, billboards, posters, graffiti and abstract paintings.
One very effective way to use black (and not make mud) is as a black gesso ground or under-painting… building your form from dark to light, using a combination of opaque and translucent pigments and glazing (similar to the ‘crushing black’ examples?) The effect can be very much like Rowland Hilder’s painting (either that or Elvis on black-velvet! Depending on one’s skill-set.)
I enjoy your blog… thanx to the other commentators, and to you for the Journey. -RQ

John VanHouten said...

I still love that video!