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I’ve said pre­vi­ously that the belief by some artists that the color black is some­how harm­ful to pic­tures is silly. There are many pig­ments that I don’t hap­pen to use, but I don’t think that you’ll harm your paint­ings if you use them.

The anti-black bias seems par­tic­u­larly odd when you con­sider artists like Leonardo, Velázquez, Rem­brandt, or Car­avag­gio. All of them used lots and lots of black. Although they had more lim­ited palettes than we do, they cer­tainly could have mixed darks with­out black. In other words, their exten­sive use of black was their choice. I don’t see any­one paint­ing today who could rea­son­ably say to Rem­brandt, “if you would only skip the black, your paint­ings could be as good as mine.” But there are plenty of art teach­ers today who tell their stu­dents that they should never, ever, use black. If you have a teacher who tells you that, you should con­sider whether their other advice is equally nonsensical.

Blacks in oil paint

In oil paint, we have sev­eral black pig­ments to choose from. The one that is usu­ally called “ivory black” is mis­la­beled. There used to be an ivory black pig­ment, made from burnt ele­phant tusks. For very good rea­sons, it is no longer avail­able. Mod­ern “ivory black” is more cor­rectly called “bone black,” as it is made from burnt ani­mal bones. Bone black is a clean, rel­a­tively trans­par­ent cool black. It’s the most com­monly avail­able black pig­ment; if a line of oil paints has just one black, it’s prob­a­bly that one (and it’s almost cer­tainly called “ivory black”). There are a num­ber of other blacks. Vine black is made from burnt twigs; it is slightly cooler than bone black. Lamp black is soot from burnt oil. These are all car­bon blacks. Car­bon blacks in oil paint are very “fat.” That means they con­tain a lot of oil. They dry quite slowly, and it’s a bad idea to paint over a large sec­tion of a fat color with leaner col­ors that con­tain a more nor­mal amount of oil (you can get cracks or other prob­lems with dry­ing). So car­bon blacks are best avoided in the ini­tial layer or lay­ers of a multi-layer paint­ing. They are excel­lent mix­ing and glaz­ing col­ors in upper paint­ing layers.

Mars black is warmer, more opaque, mud­dier, and leaner than the car­bon blacks. It is a black iron oxide. You can also get earth blacks, such as Williams­burg Ger­man earth and black Roman earth, which are basi­cally nat­ural Mars blacks. (Either that, or Mars black is arti­fi­cial black earth. But I digress…) These iron oxide blacks are not quite so good for mix­ing or glaz­ing, but they are excel­lent for the ini­tial layer or lay­ers of an oil paint­ing. A mix­ture of iron oxide black and burnt umber, for exam­ple, makes an excel­lent, lean, fast-drying neu­tral dark. Light­ened with flake white (another lean, flex­i­ble, fast-drying color) it makes a fine ini­tial mono­chrome paint layer.

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4 Responses

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  1. angel says

    While I agree that there’s a black-phobia going on in the art world, it does pay off to make your blacks either warm or cold, and pre-tubed blacks are usu­ally neu­tral or cold lean­ing. When you mix, say, Ultra­ma­rine with Bt Sienna, or Bt.Umber, or use any other recipes, you get more intense, and more har­mo­nious blacks, espe­cially for shad­ows. Of course, we are just try­ing to see the magic in a mar­riage of colours, oth­er­wise the colours would look flat and life­less. While there are so many black objects that could stay well, just black, when an artist tries and depicts the envi­ron­ment in which it occurs, account­ing for its light/temperature, that is what makes a paint­ing so real­is­tic and so much more inter­est­ing. And then there’s a lean fac­tor. So I guess the fear comes from a mis­use of the colour, that’s all.

  2. David says


    It’s cer­tainly the case that com­pletely neu­tral shad­ows would be pretty bor­ing. But Rembrandt’s darks are hardly bor­ing, and he used a lot of black.

    I often use mix­tures of other col­ors for my darks. But ivory black, for exam­ple, is sim­ply a very dark, low-chroma, blue-purple. It’s just a color like any other, with poten­tial uses and mis­uses. It is a half value step darker than almost any mix­ture, which is use­ful in obtain­ing a full value range in chiaroscuro painting.

  3. Sam Sanford says

    My first paint­ing teacher told me that “black does not exist in nature,” and I believed him, in spite of the fact that I had seen black paint and other black things with my own eyes. He con­vinced us that if we thought we saw black, we just weren’t look­ing cor­rectly. I was twelve years old. It took me a decade to unlearn that ridicu­lous lesson.

  4. David says


    I heard the same thing from an art teacher when I was a kid. It’s amaz­ing how much bad infor­ma­tion you can get from pro­fes­sional instructors.

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