Through Concentrated Breath

making images from memory

Black, A Triptych of Thoughts

30 November 2017 by Rey Armenteros

A student in a color theory class once insinuated that you can make a perfectly good black by mixing brown and blue, which raised the question of why I included a tube of Mars Black in my materials list. My argument was that you can certainly get some profound grays and dark browns but you will never get a true black like the color you see when you wake up in a room full of darkness. So, if you ever have to paint a room full of darkness (or just about any night scene), you can’t get away with merely blue and brown.

The reality is that if you want a true black to paint black objects like a TV set or dress shoes, you would need to buy black at the store, like you would for red, blue, yellow, or any other color. Certain painters frown on black. It is a superfluous color that only serves to shift colors and dominate mixes. The going argument is that the use of complementary colors is better for shades. But complementary colors can only go so far into darkness. Historically, the use of black is in evidence in the cave paintings of thirty thousand years ago, and it was likely in use well before that since it was one of our original four colors, or so the experts say. Leonardo Da Vinci considered it one of the primary colors. It has always been an essential color until about a hundred and fifty years ago when the Impressionists dictated black was not a color to be used. (The Impressionists, alas, never painted night scenes; their thing was outdoor daylight, which might have very little use for black.) Since then, a majority of painters have precluded black from their shopping list. Like everybody else, I used to shun black. Now, not only do I use black, I use three types of black.

Mars Black comes from an iron oxide, and I use it for general mixtures with other colors that I then store in containers to use later. It is not a very special color, but it is a good all around color for such mixtures. For example, if you mix Yellow Oxide with Mars Black, you get a lush olive green.

Bone Black (often mislabeled Ivory Black) is my drawing black. Sometimes I either mix it with other colors or glaze thin coats over an image in order to place shadows after the fact. It is a warm black that can have the curious look of pencil work if used in hatching. The name comes from the bones from birds and other little animals that they burn to extract the particles for this pigment.

Carbon Black is a deep black that has a cool undertone. I use it for inky effects or when I need an absolute black. For contrast, it has the most impact. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one color with me of the thirty or so I use, it would be this one. I have to confess, the greatest joy I have in painting and drawing is when I make lines with this color.

In my work, black has become the color that puts my pictorial elements together. When I am ready to wrap up an image, I use black. On certain days, I only want to use black. I own multiple containers of the three blacks in my repertoire. All in all, I don’t believe I do that many night scenes, but when I do make one, I know I am well-prepared.

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