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Really light lights, really dark darks

Some­times, you need the high­est value high­light that it is pos­si­ble to get in paint. Other times, you need a dark accent that is as low in value as you can get. Beecause paint doesn’t have any­thing like the dynamic range of human vision, it’s good in real­is­tic paint­ing to have as wide as range as you can. Small dif­fer­ences can some­times be important.

The whitest white I’ve been able to find is “radi­ant white” by Gam­blin. It’s tita­nium white in poppy oil. Most of the time I pre­fer paints ground in lin­seed or wal­nut, but for this pur­pose it makes sense to use the whitest pos­si­ble pig­ment and the most col­or­less binder avail­able. I’m still paint­ing out test strips on a neu­tral gray back­ground, but I’d guess it’s a quar­ter Mun­sell value step than the next bright­est tita­nium white I’ve played with. I’ll use it only when I need a very light highlight.

The dark­est black I have is Williams­burg intense black. The pig­ment is listed as “car­bon from gas flame.” The back label says: “warn­ing: very slow dry­ing.” It is just notice­ably darker than bone (“ivory”) black. The slow dry­ing can be com­pen­sated for some­what with a drier such as lead napthen­ate. I will use it only for dark accents at the very last stage of paint­ing, so dry­ing time for this par­tic­u­lar paint is not that impor­tant for me.


2 May 2009:_ There’s a small high­light that I had pre­vi­ously painted in Old Hol­land tita­nium white. It’s light reflected from the shiny metal part of a clothes hangar. In real life this high­light is very notice­able, but on the paint­ing, sur­rounded by rel­a­tively light tones, it did not stand out at all. I recently painted it in using pure Gam­blin radi­ant white. It is notice­ably brighter than before—giving an effect that is much more like what I was try­ing to depict.

Posted in art materials, art technique, oil painting.

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7 Responses

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  1. Gregory Becker says

    Are all blacks a blue-black like I am told? I don’t mind it but I am curi­ous to know every­one I ask doesn’t know.
    By the way I love your blog. I’ve learned quite a bit so far.
    Thank you

    • David Rourke says


      Thanks for the kind words.

      All of the blacks I know of mix toward blue or purple-blue. Unmixed with other col­ors, how­ever, that hardly mat­ters as the hue is not notice­able at val­ues that low. For a neu­tral dark in mix­tures, I use a blend of black (either bone black or black iron oxide, depend­ing on whether I want the mix­ture to be more fat or more lean) and raw umber.

  2. Sharon says

    David I love your web site. I have learned quite a bit. I paint in acrylics and do mostly real­is­tic ani­mals as you will see if you go to my web site.

    I like to mix my blacks instead of using the tube blacks. I think they give the dark areas a richer look and not that flat dead look of blacks out of the tube.

    Have a Happy, Pros­per­ous New Year!

    • David says


      Glad you like the site.

      I often mix darks as well, but I also use black. Three points about that:

      • A dark enough black has no chroma, just like tube black. So the dark­est mixed darks look just as dull as true black. It’s the near-blacks that are richer, which is what I use them for.
      • No mixed black is quite as dark as a real black. When I need a truly dark accent, that’s what I use. Some­times I use black as a dark accent on top of larger areas of mixed dark.
      • If black was good enough for Leonardo, Velazquez, Car­avag­gio, and Rem­brandt (all of whom knew how to mix a dark when they wanted to) then it’s good enough for me. Their paint­ings don’t look dead or dull.
  3. Sharon says

    Cor­rected web site address thanks

  4. Steve says

    • David says


      Light­ing cer­tainly plays a sig­nif­i­cant role, but even with the best light­ing the dark­est black still reflects more light than a dark shadow. In the lights, there is no way to get any­thing like as bright as the sky or a bright spec­u­lar highlight.

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