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.