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…

The You Can’t Get There From Here School of Color Mixing

Get Lost? Not if a Portrait Artist Knows His Latitude, Longitude and Altitude.

Maybe it’s because I started out as an illustrator, but I think of myself primarily as a problem solver. A problem solving portrait artist! That’s why I love painting portraits so much. To me a portrait painting is a giant conundrum waiting to be unraveled. My approach to coming up with the best answer is hierarchical, going from large to small. I face the biggest issues first, and from there I keep navigating my way down to and through the minutia. The most prevalent question–what color do I want and how do I go about mixing it?–is the problem we painters ask ourselves most often. We precede every stroke with a touch–or many, many, touches–of the brush to the palette.

I don’t really like to use color theory with regards to overall color composition. It can easily become predictable, were every painting looks the same. Boring! I like to play around and find a harmony that sings to me. There are intrinsic limitations with every problem. The best solutions are the ones which turn those into strong points. In a portrait we always start with our sitter, and work backwards from there. I like flattering my subjects while staying honest to their character. I don’t think it’s a matter of one versus the other. I choose clothing and background elements that I feel work the best. When a client wants a particular item of clothing or a specific background included, I need to find the best way to create unity. With regards to solving problems, its necessary to realize that one exists. The more specifically I can clarify it, the greater my chances of succeeding.

Once I’ve worked it all out I can go ahead and paint. Since I have taken great care with my compositional decisions, I feel that being faithful to the colors I’ve chosen makes the most sense. In the detail above, from my portrait of the Hart-Cohen Family, you can see that the seemingly daunting task of painting her hoodie could have been a real deal breaker. However, when mixing a color, the more specificity I can describe it, the better my chances of nailing it. I know a lot of people use warm/cool terminology to specify their intended mixtures, but if you read my post on that subject, you know I feel it’s not specific enough to go on. The reason is, if warm and cool are terms both used to describe shifts in hue as well as intensity–two totally different characteristics of color–confusion can easily result. Furthermore, depending on what you add to cool or warm a color you will invariably make it lighter or darker in the process. It’s the color mixing equal of you can’t get there from here. Most people learn about color in two dimensions: value and temperature. If we break down color into three dimensions: hue, value and chroma, you’ll always know where you are and how to get there from here. Using a GPS tracking device won’t tell you which floor your stolen computer is on. You need to know latitude, longitude and altitude. Being able to specifically describe the hue, value and chroma gave me the kind of control I needed to turn a potential disaster into a big win.

I was very lucky, when I started painting, to discover the theories of Albert Munsell. Munsell developed a system of color identification based on describing hue, value and chroma.

Until next time…