When to Use Black Pigment in Painting

Many objects are perceived to be black around us, such as shadows, the night sky and pupils in eyes. This may tempt the artist to reach for premixed black pigment to express these things. But like other pigments, black is not simply black but has a color bias. With this in mind, what is the best way to use black in art?

What Color is Black?

Black Colors in Painting

The color black is not as straightforward as it seems. Black in isolation would appear to be just that: black. But place another black next to it, and both blacks will appear different. One might be a little bluer or redder than the other. So in this regard, is anything really black? Colors in Black Pigment

Although blacks are not made by color blends, black inherently comprises of the primary colors magenta, yellow and cyan. This might be hard to believe until you spread a very dilute layer of black onto a white surface, and subtle colors will be perceived, which might be violet, green or blue. Black in fact can also tilt towards a particular color. A warm black might have a slight bias for red; a cool black will have a slight bias for blue.

Types of Black

An assortment of black pigments on offer can leave the artist wondering which to go for. I personally use black sparingly in my paintings as I think they can deaden color mixes, but for information purposes, the following blacks offer these characteristics.

Ivory black and lamp black are opaque and are produced from ground amorphous carbon from charred animal bones. Both blacks have a cool color temperature, slightly biased towards blue. Mars black is produced from synthetic iron oxide and again is opaque and cool in hue.

Perylene black is a little greenish in cast, a derivative of a hydrocarbon.

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Mixing black with another color can enrichen black and add a certain quality. Alizarin crimson and black will result in a hot, sooty black. Mix black with viridian and a greasy, industrial black will come out. Mix ultramarine or pthalo blue with black and a harsh, metallic-black will be the result. Mix black with an earth color such as burnt sienna and a warm, rich black will be produced.

How to Mix Black

Unless used for a particular effect such as stylized silhouettes or graphics, I would rather mix my own blacks from essential pigments. Organic blacks with richness and character can be produced from the following color combinations: burnt umber and pthalo blue; ultramarine and burnt sienna, permanent rose and viridian; cadmium red and pthalo blue; cadmium yellow and Winsor blue (red shade); alizarin crimson and viridian and so forth.

Mixing Black Colors

When trying to capture a black object, I look for a color bias. Pupils in eyes often have a slightly blue cast depending upon the surroundings. Black hair can either have a reddish cast or a blue cast; a stormy sky at night can have a greenish tinge. Place two blacks with opposing color temperatures side by side and their differences will become more obvious. Mixing different types of black, warm and cool can add depth to a monochromatic painting. Characteristics of Black

Black is often not simply black but has various qualities. Place two different blacks side by side and they will appear to have different color temperatures. Dilute a black color and spread it thinly over a white art surface and subtle tints will become apparent. Some blacks have a violet or blue quality; others have a green or brown cast. Mixing your own blacks will add an organic feel to these dark colors. Such an interesting diversity of blacks could not be produced by daubing on premixed black throughout the painting.