The uses of black
December 26, 2006
A sack of email dropped down this chimney after my recent walk
with Renoir. If you remember, he was enthusing about black and
knocking Pissarro for not using it. The emails made me realize
that poor old black is misunderstood and the recipient of
unfair discrimination. The widely held point of view was
typified by Caren Goodrich: "For me black is an unnecessary
colour," she wrote, "I'm with Pissaro on this one. I don't own
any black paint. When I look at the tip of a dog's nose or a
car tire, I see a variety of blues and purples. With all the
colours of paint readily available to us today, maybe even
Renoir might not feel the need for black were he painting in
While many painters agree with Caren, it's worthwhile to think
of black not as a pigment to paint black things black--like
tires or dog's noses--or even to darken shadows. Think of black
as a "non-chroma" pigment that handily enriches and
sophisticates your lighter areas. Yep, the lighter ones. We're
all familiar with paintings with over-bright colours. Too many
colours at full strength fight with one another in acid
cacophony. To achieve colour harmony and permit full strength
colours to work to full advantage, you need graying. A small or
moderate amount of black is the secret to this enrichment.
Subtle graying of surround amplifies the power of pure colour
Part of the problem comes from our literary understandings.
"The sky is so blue," we say, and we reach for the full ultra
or cobalt. Just try adding a bit of black to your cobalt sky.
As Renoir said, "Black adds a certain lightness."
How can this be? Attentive looking is the foundation of truth,
and truth tells us that there is more black in things than we
verbalize or imagine. This is just one reason why colour truth
is hard won--and not everybody gets it right. Having said that,
many don't feel the need.
And then there's white. Just as black is necessary for evolved
colour mixing, so is white. Fact is, black alone makes things
deadly, and white alone makes things chalky. But when black and
white are both added to anything, you get the most beautiful
tones of all. Don't believe me? Try it. There are no ugly
colours when you take any colour in your box and add a wee bit
of both black and white.
PS: "Good colour really means good taste; and 'powerful' colour
means a reserve, to give a climax its full force, and not 'red,
white, and blue' all over." (John F. Carlson) "When colour
achieves richness, form attains fullness." (Paul Cezanne)