• Michael Skalka

The Issue of Black:

Updated: Feb 25



Interesting that we should start with the color that Webster's Dictionary describes as “the achromatic color of least lightness.” Straight from the tube, we might agree that black is simply... black. From a technical standpoint it has no color but it is a working color from an artist's point of view. We know that artists use black pigment and it has always been readily available and documented in countless works of art. However, on the scale of an artist’s interest, black's score is very low. Despite the lack of use by contemporary painters, its intrigue is derived from the material used to make the colorant and the undertone it displays.


The raw materials for making black in the past could be from soot collected from burning lamp fuel. It could come from carbonizing common animal bones or exotic ivory. It could be derived from vines or twigs of a specific botanical origin, or could be made from ordinary plant/tree sources like fruit pits or nuts.


The more fascinating and less common historical sources of black come from two classes of materials. Some are derived from raw or processed natural substances like cork, coffee beans, paper and some earth colors calcined to transform them into black pigment. Second, a very odd source of blacks come from well know and used manufactured colors, carbonized like other natural materials. These raw materials for black have come from madder root that was commonly used for alizarin crimson red and from Prussian blue, a deep very powerful pigment.


Each black has a distinct undertone that betrays a warm or cool bias. Some are cool blue-blacks, others display a red or warm brown color bias. So it is not surprising that pigments like Alizarin and Prussian Blue provide distinct undertones. Paint makers marketed blacks with mixtures of blue to enhance the cool characteristics of the carbonized raw materials. In the past, paint makers sold a number of black colors as well as a full range of dark earth pigments. Styles and tastes changed so black colors fell in and out of favor.


Today, few artists who fervently emulate an Impressionistic style will admit to owning a tube of any kind of black let alone applying it on a painting. The notion that black deadens a painting can be easily proven by using it over abundantly or as the principal means of altering a color’s lightness or intensity. Other color mixing strategies achieve desired results with greater control and accuracy without compromising the chroma of a pigment mixture. Low chroma darks with a warm or cool bias are mixed as needed to create interesting black paint. Artists learn what combination of colors creates the best “black” for them without using a traditional single pigment black.


However, some artists embrace black as a stand-alone color, not as a means of adjusting the value of a chromatic pigment. The notion of black having multiple roles as a stand-alone color and as a colorant to augment another color is gaining some popularity. A few new blacks have entered the market that redefine its use on the palette. If used judiciously, they have unique working properties that do not overwhelm other colors to enhance and extend an artist’s vocabulary. Black can be respected not feared or hated if handled properly.


Until the next opportunity to share with you comes again, I hope you have a great painting experience.


The Syntax of Color


Original Grammar of Color Essay

Volume 1, No. 1 Published 02-23-05

(Edited 2020)

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