Greg Manchess

Nearly every new painter has been told to avoid the color black.

Some instructors insist that students not use it at all, and to eradicate it from their palette. To forbid students from using black is as damaging as telling them to avoid using white. And this really cannot be done. It reminds me of fanatics that seek to avoid what they fear most. The fear built up around black pigment is as serious as the Salem witch trials.

You’re headed to Hell if you use black.

Black is necessary. Black is dramatic. Black is essential. Black is natural. But the key to using black is in learning to use it. It’s a matter of how much the practitioner wants to master it.

I went straight for the black once I got away from that kind of stilted thinking. I never trusted someone telling me to avoid something as benign as pigment. The paint does what you tell it to do. It responds to your every move, twist, stroke, and scumble. One doesn’t learn to handle something by avoiding it. Push through, not around.

I rejected the fear of black. You can learn to use it. The sooner, the better.

Black made from black.
Black is made up of natural elements. As you might expect, burned elements like wood, vine, or even bones. Ivory black is made of burned ivory. (Don’t even ask about brown and black made from Egyptian mummies in the 18th c. No, not kidding.)

Nearly every idea starts with darkness. To bring it into the light, we use black to draw it, shade it, model it into the base layer of nearly everything. The plain, dull, muddy colors give us the platform, the stage to express bright color against.

Black is the absence of light that we breathe life, breathe light, into.

Black lives.
Black occurs everywhere in nature. Crows. Cows. Charcoal. Caverns. Pine forests. Soil. Rocks. Cracks. Sand. Reflections. Deep water. Hair. Fur. Silver. Jewels. Pupils. Lakes. Oceans. Skies. And yeah, shadows.

Look around you. Look for the range of blacks around you. The idea that black ‘doesn’t occur in nature’ is absurd. Paint a nocturne and notice how dark the ground objects are against the sky. Incredibly dark.

Black, actually.

Study black.
Instructors generally don’t want students using black because at first the student can’t see anything else but black. They see a shadow and think that they must use black to capture it. So they put black into a color (often any color) to paint a shadow. The ensuing mud looks nothing like that shadow. 

That’s because the new student doesn’t know how to observe what’s IN the shadow yet, let alone mix it. They think shadow, so they paint shadow. Shadows are dark to us as students. So we use a little black to grey a color. And that’s when the trouble starts.

In a darkened room, turn on a flashlight and point it at a subject. The shadows will be fairly black. Now turn on a second flashlight pointed away from the subject. Notice how the shadows fill with light. (the light bounces into the shadows from the surrounding walls.) You remember that trick when shooting a subject against a setting sun? Called “fill flash.” The flash fills the shadows with light…so you can see what’s in the shadows.

Study shadows and identify the color that lives there. One must observe and mix what is actually there. The first part of learning to paint, and learning to use black, is identifying what you are looking at.

Color killer.
Mix black with flesh colors and watch the figure die on the canvas. Notice how it deadens the luminosity of skin. It’s like the opposite: mixing white with one other color. The result is a pasty, ugly color.

This is why instructors don’t want students near that tube of black. The student can’t resist. But you should resist, at least until you know what it does. Instructors would do better to tell students to avoid ultramarine blue. It’s just blue, right? How can you not use blue properly?

Ever watch a student try to mix colors with ultramarine? Disastrous results. Nothing but mud.

Tinting with black.
This is a high form of working with black. One learns from experience what colors they’ll get when mixing black to tint or grey a color. I generally do that for inanimate objects, but it takes accurate observation to get that to work, and should only be used sparingly.

Want to capture the color for a gold ring in shadow? Mix ivory black into yellow ochre, or yellow cadmium. You’ll get close to capturing that slightly green gold reflection. Experiment with mixtures and see where they can be used before you throw them into a painting.

Mastering black will eventually allow one to use it in skin! But it’s a beast to learn and takes time. 

Avoiding black.
An artist can avoid using black all of their career. No problem. Some people paint in pastel colors, or bright primary colors. Love it. But that’s not exactly avoiding black. That’s using and expressing a different sensation of color, for a graphic or abstract effect. Painting natural things demands the use of very dark colors. Most dark colors take on the contrasting effect that black has.

Avoid it all you want, but painting nature, including people, will benefit from a masterful use of black.

Mixing black is still using black.
Some have said that they don’t use black paint. That they have thrown out their tubes of black. Then they proceed to say that they mix their blacks from other deep colors.

Mixing black or getting it from a tube is still using black. (insert break here.)

Add color for a better black.
Yes, mix a rich black from other deep colors. It’s a good practice. But I also don’t use black without mixing transparent colors into it to achieve magnificent depth to the black. Alizarin crimson, ultramarine, dioxazine purple, permanent green, earth reds, burnt umber. Depends on the effect one wants to achieve. As with other colors, you can have warm blacks, or ice-cold chilly blacks. Depends.

Learn when to use it.
When a painting has lost it’s pop, and many times, it’s definition, it suffers from a lack of contrast in the focus of the painting. Deep, rich values can enliven a flat piece of pasty painting. Sometimes, a nice black can bring it back from the brink, but a little goes a long way. Pick and choose where to place it. No, not straight from the tube. Work with me.

Building excitement.
Big, bold passages of dark colors, even straight black, can be exciting to encounter. When someone can use black to it’s ultimate strength, give it character and meaning, drive depth into a scene with it’s contrast power, the viewer feels the emotion very quickly.

Use it poorly, or overwhelm the piece, and a painting can just as easily shove a viewer away. Currently, many digital paintings suffer from too much black in the shadows.

Asian painters a thousand years ago preferred to paint scenes, landscapes, nature, in black and white. The painting was a suggestion of nature. The observer was expected to see the color in their minds. They felt this allowed them to get closer to the essence of color.

Paintings are not reality. They are representations, interpretations of things that are real. They are illusions to illicit a response in the viewer. You have only to get the observer to feel reality, not duplicate vision or photography.

A painter learns to use black by studying and practicing black and white painting. Or brush and ink. Pen and ink. Line work. Calligraphy. Charcoal drawings. It’s all related.

Using black as focus.
Control where the viewer looks in a painting by using contrast built from values. Contrasting values. Our eyes go to the sharpest lines, the sharpest edges, the sharpest contrasts, first. Use that to rhythmically move the viewer around the canvas. A few strategic (repeat: strategic) strokes or passages of black can add life to a painting.

Study how well an artist uses black in their work. Use the best examples as training for your future mastery of this amazing color.

Don’t avoid it. Embrace it and learn.