Australian Fine Artist

Understanding Black

Blacks in Oil Paints

When I first began painting I was told to avoid using black. It was a colour (or tone) that was to be avoided in preference for colours. It was never really explained to me, I just accepted that it was the case.

Without really examining paintings from the past, and how blacks have been used by master artists like Rembrandt, it could be easy t take the word for a well-meaning teacher or colleague about the use of black, but it is there in the paints, for a reason.

Blacks and Blacks

What may not be explained to many is the fact that blacks come in a variety. There are blacks and blacks, just as you can get different versions of whites.

Knowing which black to use to use for what purpose is another skill of a good painter. For example, black is a great addition to portraits, which a lot of academically trained painters will tell you.

Blacks typically come in five varieties, although the names may change a bit from one manufacturer to another. You can always check on the tube to see if the principles I am discussing here apply to the paint you wish to use.

  1. Ivory Black (a carbon black) is a semi-transparent black. It mixes very well and is a black that I use a lot. This is the black theat Rembrandt used. It is a more neutral black so sill not taint the colour you mix with it.
  2. Lamp Black (a carbon black) is slow drying, has a blue undertone and also mixes well. It is an opaque black so when thinned out will still cover painted underneath it more than Ivory Black.
  3. Mars Black is a neutral black, and has a slightly brownish undertone. It dries to a matt finish and is fast drying in case you want ot paint over it without tainting the colout on top.
  4. Perylene Black has a strong greenish undertone and is also slow drying. It is a transparent black so should mix well and allow colours underneath to show through.
  5. Blue Black is a mix of Ultramarine Blue and Ivory Black. As such it should be semi-transparent but may take longer to dry than the faster drying blacks.

To check the undertones of your blacks mix a dab of them with zinc white, this will quickly reveal the colour undertone as well as how warm or cool that particular black is.

There are colour alternatives to using black when painting if you want to keep to coloured pigments. One is to mix Viridian with Alizarin Crimson, the proportion of one colur to the other will determine how warm or cool the mix is. You can always try using a black and this dark mix on the same painting to see what you like for your particualr style of painting.

If you want to try out using black however, the use of the right black for the right purpose will help to ensure that you don’t end up with a ‘dead’ colour. Blacks can be cool or warm, opaque or trannsparent allowing colour and light to ‘shine’ through them. Used carefully they can add to the tonal range of your paintings and add a sense of drama. Don’t be afraid to experiment with them, and don’t leave them out of your paints.


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