In the Dark About Black?

St-JeromeI consider black to be an indispensable and versitile color which I utilize wherever and whenever I deem it most appropriate. Obviously I’m in the minority, because conventional thinking seems to be leaning in the opposite direction. Black is apparently not too beautiful when it comes to it’s usage as a pigment. I think there are a lot of associated misunderstandings and misconceptions, so I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Consider it my post-Christmas pre-new year’s gift to you!

If you’ve read my past posts, you know my biggest peeve (one of them anyway) is with regards to rules, and specifically, those that pertain to art making. I tell my students all the time: rules are for fools…the truth shall set ye free! The point of rules is to snatch decision making from the huddled masses incapable of formulating intelligent choices on their own behalf. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s a subject better suited as a theme for a thesis on psychological deficiencies rather than a blog post by some random artist, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on to the subject at hand: that poor little misunderstood pigment, black!

Every artist is a creator. Being strapped with rules does nothing to enhance this capability. Rules are tremendously limiting. Making art is about being in the moment – in the now. Thinking what did so and so say about this situation takes us back into the past. Many teachers strap their students with a myriad of rules, as opposed to the conveyance of understanding. It’s easy to spot. When the work of students bears an uncanny resemblance to that of their teacher, rote non-thinking is in the air. It means the ability to make choices has been uncermoniously supplanted by dictatorial rhetoric.

As a result, options get buried under the banner of: never do this; always do that. The use, or more specifically, the non-use of black is the poster child of all art rules. After all, the almighty impressionists never used black!! They also demeaned the training they received at the French Academy. Many artists would rather have their eyes gouged out (I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect) than put a dab of black on their precious palettes.

We’ve all heard the justifications. Black muddies your colors. Black kills the picture. Black in a landscape sucks away atmospheric effects. Black doesn’t exist in nature. Black isn’t a real color. It’s always better to mix your own black. Only amateur artists use black. Never use black, use blue instead.

Well, that’s all nice to hear, but the truth is: denying yourself the use of black would be like writing a novel using a truncated alphabet.

To put black in historical perspective:

  • Rembrandt used black.
  • Rubens used black.
  • Van Dyke used black.
  • Vermeer used black.
  • Lawrence used black.
  • Raeburn used black.
  • Bouguereau used black.
  • Gerome used black.
  • Paxton used black.
  • Sargent used black.
  • Zorn used black

Exactly what artist, of equivalent merit, eschews(ed) the use of black? Anders Zorn used four colors, one of which was black! So why did black get such a bad rap? Very simple, due to misuse through ignorance, the rule fairy came out, cast her wicked spell, and the masses bowed down. But lets not be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The question here, is how was it misused and what can be done about it? To the best of my knowledge, there are just two problematic issues. The first deals with inappropriate color mixing. In the past, certain artists, like El Greco (see the painting, above) used black to darken their colors – as evidenced in the painting of St. Jerome’s hands. The muddy lifeless color perfectly exemplifies the shortcomings of this approach. The second problem is related to cracking on the surface of paintings. If you go to a museum, you can see this phenomena is more prevalent in the darks. Ivory black is very, very…wait for it…very slow drying. Oil paint dries from the outside in. If you attempt to paint over a slow drying color – which hasn’t thoroughly dried – it will eventually crack.

But black can also be a very potent and powerful tool. Black is the lowest valued pigment and gives us the ability to indicate the darkest accents. It’s also very useful if you want to darken an already dark color. Now, it may lower the chroma a bit, but how much chroma is actually evident in the deep shadows of nature. The hue shifts that may occur when adding black to lower the value of dark colors are inconsequential in my experience – since, in a low value range, the chroma is fairly subdued to begin with. Sometimes you need to make a choice: value vs chroma. Give up black and you no longer have that option.

Using black to darken light colors is another story. That’s a fools errand for two reasons. It grays everything down – whether you want to or not – and can cause unwanted and disharmonious hue shifts, the technical term for muddy colors. These shifts result from black always manifesting some evidence of an underlying hue. Ivory black is, in reality, a very dark low chroma blue. If you add white to it, you can easily see this. That’s the reason why, when you darken yellow with black, you get green.  (When people say they use blue in place of black, it makes me laugh. They’re essentially saying, instead of blue, I use blue.)

As far as cracking goes, make sure your under layers are thoroughly dry before over painting. When using ivory black, that may mean up to, or greater than, a six month wait. The other option: don’t use pure black in your under layers! If you add raw umber (the fastest drying of all pigments) to your black, it will speed up the drying considerably. Save the pure black touches for your final layer. Even in my darkest accents I add raw umber. (To be safe, make sure you wait a sufficient amount of time before varnishing.)

So use black appropriately and you won’t have any problems. And then you can reap the rewards of using it for, what I believe to be, it’s greatest property: as a component in the mixing of neutrals. Ivory black will make a very useful and practical neutral gray when mixed with the aforementioned raw umber, plus white. I prefer to use grays and not complements to knock down the intensity of my color mixtures, when need be. Since both raw umber and ivory black have weak tinting strength, their resulting neutrals do not cause any significant hue shifts when mixed with other pigments. These grays exhibit no evidence of color bias, even when mixing into delicate pastel yellows. As a portrait artist I need the ability to control the myriad of subtle hue, value and chroma shifts evidenced in the human complexion. These grays, which include ivory black, are for me, the answer to a lifetime of prayers.

As far as mixing blacks go, they’re fine to use as is, but if you use them to create chroma controlling neutrals, the end result would be unpredictable and erratic shifts. Just because two colors appear to look the same it doesn’t mean they will mix the same. Mixing colors is akin to playing with a chemistry set. The wrong mixture – say cadmium and sulfur – and… BOOM!!! One thing that is often overlooked when setting a palette is whether there are potentially volatile pigments in the mix.

In the end, the addition of black paint on your palette will give you the widest possible dynamic range available and a powerful mixing ingredient utilized by arguably the greatest realist painters in history. Remember, black is beautiful.

Until next time…


  1. Another thing to remember is that, like whites, different black pigments have different characteristics. Vine and lamp black are even bluer than ivory, and make lovely cool grays with white. Mars black isn’t as dark as the carbon blacks, but is more opaque and dries much more quickly. If I had a large flat black area to paint, I might underpaint in mars and finish with ivory.

    • There are many ways to skin a cat. Dare I say a black cat? I try to keep my colors at a minimally effective number. So I prefer to use just one black, ivory.

      • Marvin- with all due respect-sometimes color limitations may work for you- but others may find more freedom in a wider pallette. In painting a large solid black area you are courting disaster with ivory black as in time it is more prone to cracking. It is best used thinly. I find that an underlayment of Vasari’s Mars black ( a fast drying black) is useful. It is dense and covers very well in one layer, mitigating the many layers you would need if you were to use only the ivory. After it dries I find that a thin layer of the ivory black Micheal Harding- the best imo) gives it that deep richness. The Mars black is not as deep and rich.

        • Hi Sharon. Long time since we last communicated. I hope all is well. As far as limited color choices go, that’s not what I was addressing at all. People should be free to make any choices they desire. I personally feel less is better but when needed, I will gladly add whatever pigment the painting calls for. If you recall my colors are the same used by my hero William McGregor Paxton, who I feel was the finest colorist of all. It didn’t seem to limit him. I rarely find the need to step outside the gamut, but if needed I will joyfully expand. The point of my post was to awaken those who summarily dismiss black, a color I find most useful. With regards to the cracking issue I addressed it specifically by stating:

          as far as cracking goes, make sure your under layers are thoroughly dry before over painting. When using ivory black, that may mean up to, or greater than, a six month wait. The other option: don’t use pure black in your under layers! If you add raw umber (the fastest drying of all pigments) to your black, it will speed up the drying considerably. Save the pure black touches for your final layer. Even in my darkest accents I add raw umber. (To be safe, make sure you wait a sufficient amount of time before varnishing.)

          I’ve never tried your method. It sounds quite workable. Personally, due to the potential for cracking, I would never use Ivory black straight from the tube, especially in the under layers. Sir Winston Churchill said:

          At one side of the palette there is white, at the other black; and neither is ever used neat.

          I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Thanks, Marvin. This dovetails nicely with James Gurney’s blog. For the last few days, he has also been talking/defining black. Are you two guys secret allies? What I’d really like to see is another post from you that delves into the making of neutrals. I believe that the “standard” for making neutrals is ivory black and raw umber. But many places, I read where other artists use ivory black and yellow ocher; ivory black and burnt sienna, or ivory black and burnt umber. I suspect that in each case, the idea is to “kill” the blue component. I’ve tried them all and they all seem to work. But I continue to use the ib/ru combo as my go-to mix.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.

    • Seeing Gurney’s post prompted me to write my own. He didn’t touch upon the slow drying and the neutral component so I decided to cover it here. He does a great job. I experimented with various neutral making combinations back in the day. I like the ivory black/raw umber combo the best, due to the low tinting strength factor and the fact that they are both present on my palette. So is yellow ochre, but it’s too high in value and wouldn’t result in as dark a dark. I also am not a huge fan of YO’s gritty texture. I like that the umber in the neutrals speeds up the drying rate of all admixtures it’s a component of. Interestingly, umber (yellow) and black (blue-purple) are true compliments on the munsell color wheel. Burnt umber and burnt sienna shift more towards (yellow-red). I don’t like burnt umber, not on my palette. I (like Paxton) don’t use burnt sienna in flesh tones. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Salvador YOung says

    When I was still young student trying to learn how to paint, a more advanced students told me not to use black, specially on skin colors. They say it is the ugliest color. It ruins the portrait. But years on on, learning and reading about the masters color palettes , other colors may differ but there is always black, ivory. And they create stunning portraits. And now again reading this article, it is not a mistake that I use ivory black in my paintings, very useful indeed when used correctly. Thanks Marvin, your teachings and knowledge is very precious to us students.

  4. Cynthia Brewster says

    Thank you for another great post, which justifies and reinforces your teachings. Each component is so logical, and allows me to review in my mind as I am reading. You always have something new to add, as well, from an historical or technical perspective. What I like best is that you have done the research from which I benefit! You do not create rules, but give a clearer path for making decisions. As Buddha said, ” There are no rules. It’s up to you.” Happy New Year!

    • Cynthia, What a great quote. I can’t believe I’ve never come across this before. I’m so stealing this. I might even get a tattoo. 😉
      It’s unfortunate that such an inordinate amount of my teaching time must be spent clearing out the garbage in order to make room for some truths. The really sad thing is, those who are spreading the rules actually believe they’re true. Happy New Year to you too.

      • Cynthia Brewster says

        It is a quote I believe in so much that I wear it; the words stamped into a piece of silver, and made for me by an artist and friend. It would work as a tattoo, for sure, also.
        As exasperating as the chore may be, (since not everyone desires the truth), I think that is what teaching is about…clearing minds (of old rules). Rules prevent us from making our own decisions and creating. I know your students appreciate having sparkling minds!

        • It’s an awesome quote. Do you have a source for it? When I did a Google search the only thing I could find was this quote from the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, from his song Off the Wall:

          There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you (ain’t no rules, all up to you)

          That works too!

          • Cynthia Brewster says

            Hmm? Now I am curious. I will ask my friend where she found this quote and get back to you. Maybe Buddha didn’t use those exact words but Michael reworked the quote to fit the music? I think it was also used in a movie, but can’t remember.

          • Thanks.

  5. I loved everything about this post!!!. It is amazing how some people(teachers) can brainwash a student into believing things that later in their lives, they have that “aha” moment that they ask themselves ” why did I think he/she was right ??” Thank you. This is my first time reading your posts and now look forward to your next 🙂

    Warm Regards ,
    Debb Ferris Bates

  6. Aloha,

    Thank you for the multi faceted education on pigment use for neutral colors. Variety of grays is what I’m using to soften cloudscapes, so this info is well timed for me. Other aspects of paint behavior are useful to know, too.
    Thanks to all for such an informative discussion.

  7. I am so glad this topic has come up. The underlying excuse I believe that takes much of the reason to this responce to this magnificent colour can be found in the very definition of our English dictionary. It is full of negative notations thus not a favorite colour to add to the pallet. But I argue that it is very much needed in the scheme of things. Because of how it emphasis the brilliance of the colours in the pallet that alone is enough to say we need it in our creating diet. And that’s just one of the many reasons. Change your thinking about the English dictionary’s very negative annotations, and you will witness a very free and beautiful way of creating on canvas.

  8. As a portrait artist, I spent some very valuable time over 20 years ago at an atelier in Florence learning how to draw and paint portraits. One of the many, many things we learned was how to paint with a limited palette – Flake White; Yellow Ochre; Vermillion; Indian Red and Ivory Black. It was incredible the richness of the palette that you could mix from these 5 colours. All the subtle nuances within the infinite variety of flesh colours were made from these 5 colours. I, too, had always been told to steer clear of black. But here, in Florence we learned that black, mixed with Vermillion made a superb warm translucent dark. Black with Yellow Ochre, Flake white a wonderful olive green. Used with great care in the lighter colour mixes it took the heat out of the colour. It is invaluable for flesh tints. (Obviously if used heavy-handedly it muddies and kills).

    Now, some 20 plus years later, whilst I have a few more colours on my palette, Ivory Black still has it’s very valuable place and is used every bit as much, if not more than, the blues.

  9. Janette O'Neil says

    I agree with the theory of the use of neutral greys in figure painting and portraiture. I haven’t yet used any lead whites such as cremnitz that seem to have growing popularity now. Do you think the Bouguereau flesh tones are achievable without it? A post would be great reviewing whites.

    • I think they are achievable but not necessary every brand and type of white. I think that if one has a deep understanding of how something was achieved its possible to arrive at the same results. That said, certain materials will prove to ease the task considerably. On the other hand having the exact materials is no guarantee that success is insured. Far from it. Many devote themselves to the task of finding the ‘secret’ materials foolishly assuming the answer lies there. For me personally, as an example, the thought of trying to achieve the subtlety in Bouguereau’s flesh mixtures, using cadmium colors, is a fools errand.

  10. Badger McBadger says

    This is a useful discussion on what might be called the rules of using black.


  1. […] Fun blog post by artist Marvin Mattelson about black […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.