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.


Bob Lafond said...

Thank you for this post. I've always shied away from using black, though the few occasions that I have used it, the results were encouraging. I read recently that Monet even used photographs when finishing his "Londons" so rules are meant to bend as needed.

Claudia Finn said...

Thank you for planting this seed for me sometimes rules such as the one you are dispelling stay put and keep me from exploring; your words and painting are inspiration.

Nancy said...

That painting is awesome! No dull spots in it at all! I will have to revisit the color myself! Thank you so much!

billspaintingmn said...

Too many years ago an art "Know it all" told me,"real artists don't use black!"
An intimidation tactick I never agreed with.
Yes, I found other ways to make black,however I always had ivory,
and other blacks at hand.
Black is beautiful, always has been, always will be!
The limited Zorn palette uses
Thank you for your post!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Hey, thanks for all the comments, everyone! "Say it loud: I use black and I'm proud!"

John D. Wooldridge said...

I've recently added Mars Black onto my palette options after trying to avoid blacks for quite a long time. I use it very sparingly for that little extra oomph to push my complimentary mixes into a deeper realm of shadow. I'm very pleased so far and perhaps I'll experiment with some other forms of black.

Ed Terpening said...

I'm with you! I use the same brand of black, and love it as a means to easily nuetralize color.

I have a story about black. I think Ovanes Berberian is one of our greatest artists today. I've studied with him, and can tell you that he ads black to his lightest, brightest lights. Isn't that amazing? I've seen him do it, and I've tried it, but not to the effect he achieves.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Interesting, Ed! I suppose that also would be a way of adding a subtle harmony to the painting.