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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Black is the New Black

"Sugar Maple Pirouette"

When Monet took black off his palette back in 1886, that pretty much was the final word on black for anyone painting in the Impressionist style. Black, of course, has been used a great deal by the Abstract Expressionists and others since then, but many plein air painters I know follow old Claude.

The idea is that black is a "non-color" and is contrary to the spirit of a style the lifeblood of which is color. Unlike white, which reflects all colors, black reflects none and, in its pure form, appears as dead, empty space on the canvas. If a painter wants a dark color mixture, the rule of thumb is to add the color's complement to first neutralize the chroma and, hopefully, darken it. I've always made a really dark mixture with Sap Green and Alizarin Crimson - a warm green and a cold red. Other artists have other combinations, such as Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. You probably have your own secret recipe.

Gamblin makes a Chromatic Black, which, the text says, is a "neutral, tinting black made from complementary colors rather than the usual carbon or iron oxide blacks." (It's made from PG36 and PV19, a phthalo green and a quinacridone red.) I've added this to my palette, and I now love black. For me, black really is the "new black."

Why? Black lets you lower the intensity and the value without changing the color. So often, when you're trying to darken one color by adding other colors to it, you end up changing the hue itself without meaning to. Black is simple and effective. I still, of course, use complements to make for more interesting darks, but I have the option now of adding the extra color after I've darkened my mixture with black. Color is a lot easier to control. In the example above, I used black in many of the passages - light as well as dark.