The Queen of All Colors

“I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours is black”. – Auguste Renoir


Black. Everybody loves it, I bet you’ve got at least twenty black things in your closet. People wear it to look cool, to look skinny, to be edgy, to be formal, to fit in, to stand out. Judges, priests, goths and punks wear it. Black is the new black because it will never be the old black. It’s the color that sucks everything in; the color black is like it’s own black hole — it wont reflect light in any part of the visible spectrum, it absorbs all frequencies.

Black is pretty terrific, right? But when I was in art school it was somewhat frowned upon to paint with black. To squeeze black out of a tube was considered artistic hackery; we were supposed to *mix* any blacks we wanted. And you can make some gorgeous, subtle darks — a really lovely “black” can be mixed with Prussia Blue and Burnt Umber, also Cobalt Blue and Raw Umber, and even Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green. When you tint those out with white (or other colors), all kinds of interesting things happen. And for most of my painting life I’ve always avoided using black from a tube except for things like cartoonish outlines or blocking in dark areas in an underpainting where I wanted to work up from purest, blackest, blackity black.


But several years ago I sort of threw all that out. Black is possibly (probably) one of the oldest pigments on earth — Lamp Black is prehistoric! It’s made with the carbon from burnt animal bones. Something about that really appeals to me, so I started learning about black.

Things about black: Ivory Black is somewhat transparent, so it’s better for mixing with other colors or thinned for a glaze (it doesn’t muddy up like Lamp Black or Mars Black, the later of which is *really* opaque). Both Lamp Black and Ivory Black are made from “amorphous carbon from burnt animal bones” but Lamp Black is purer and stronger. Mars black is made from synthetic oxides and is the strongest black, with sort of a warm tint. Lamp Black looks cool blue to me, and Ivory starts out looking cool but shifts to a sort of warm brown when it’s mixed with white. Go figure. Mars Black dries a bit faster, so it’s better for underpaintings.

Which reminds me of Big Black, a band I used to like a lot back in the day.

“One must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye or awaken another sense. It is the agent of the mind even more than the beautiful colors of the palette or prism.” – Odilon Redon


4 responses to “The Queen of All Colors

  1. I have been lurking here, since catupuring a glimpse of your paintings, which I adore. Thanks for the insight on black. As a novice to fine art painting, I got the impression that I should not use black. In fact, I was told that to be a good artist, I should only have three colors and mixed the rest.

  2. Thanks Scarlett! Yeah, those “rules” make me crazy and I think it’s worth taking them all with a big, fat grain of salt (or ignoring them completely). Renoir and Redon were no slouches and they *loved* black. It can flat and deadening, or really powerful. It is a little tricky as a mixing color though since it can so easily turn a color to mud. Something fun to try is using the complimentary color to “darken” with — bright reds can get dark green shadows, etc. And forget that “only three color” stuff — what hogwash! There’s so many amazing, delicious, glorious colors that you simply cannot mix. Plus you get such different results from mixing with different reds, blues, and yellows!

  3. Pingback: Where the Hell Did You Get That Banana At?! « i feel it too

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