Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I figured out what was missing in that step-by-step portrait I did a bit ago: black. I let the piece sit, since I wasn't sure what was quite wrong with it (because I did it in a different approach from usual). Well it was simple! I had decided not to use black in the piece and that is what it needed!

I almost always use black in a piece, especially a portrait, but I know from teaching, that students can overuse black and muddy their colors, so I had opted to leave it completely out.... which was a mistake.

with black added:
without black:
To be fair I also did darken the crease on the right eye and lightened the highlight right below the left eye. BUT look at the difference! I added black to the background and blended out over the dark brown and dark red on the face. I also added black here and there... especially in the eyes and eyelashes.
Adding black enlarges your value scale. Your eye sees thousands of values... so many that the painter (or drawer?) can not create as many values as the eye can see using pigment. If you take away one of your precious values from the scale, the depiction of light in a piece will suffer. The darker the value you can get on the dark end of the scale, the lighter the highlights will look on the other end and more the sense of light in the painting (usually something most realists are after). The same is of course true for a really white white. (My favorite dark dark black is Derwent Coloursoft black and my favorite white white is Caran d'Ache Luminance white.)

I know its subtle but the top value bar (below) is a cross section of the girl's forehead: one with black and one before I added it. Which one do you think has more depth?

Why else is black important? Well for one - just like a complementary color does - black can really make a color pop against it or stand out (if used in a background), but if you use black, it is a bit less jarring. Take a look at the squares below. The green and red seem to actually vibrate while the red on black is less jarring, but the red still stands out. You can of course get the same effect by using a darker green for the background... by adding a bit of black to your green. ;-)

Don't worry about using black. What I do, and have my students do, is save black for the last step of layering. First build up your color, then add complements to darken the dark areas, and lastly black for the very darkest of darks: usually right under an object in a still-life or the pupils of the eye in a portrait (for starters). :)
& hey you've probably been using black all along and didn't know it... I mean what do you think they add to black grape... or black cherry?
I remember hearing one of my professors say that the exclusion of black from the pallette started with the impressionists and it has stuck... if anyone finds a really good article about that - let me know!


adebanji said...

Thanks for this post about black.

I have really benefited!

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Nice post Nicole - and a good topic! I have recently overcome my complete aversion to black!

Michael Finley said...

I believe it was a superstitious/religious thing. Prior to the merchant class paying taxes the wealth came from the church and it was believed that man could not create, that any art had to be divine. To attempt to create was a sin if not done by the church.

One could buy works of art for the church, from the church, as a way to lessen the time in purgatory and fund the church/government. As the merchant class emerged as a power by creating wealth they could buy time out of purgatory and have the art in their homes. Now that is a hot art market.

The white and black being a good and evil thing, something to be left for god. Similar to some cultures that put or leave an observable flaw in anything that is manmade, as perfection is for the gods.

The pigments and paint used by the church were secret formulas. A as I remember it one color was said to be made with dragon blood when in fact it was from a plant.

I always wonder what people will look back on that we do now and say “how unenlightened.” I hope its war and dream its greed.

I believe superstitious/religious things die a slow death. The wedding ring is worn on the left hand as that is the side the devil was believed to enter. The ring is supposed to protect one from the devil.

Casey Klahn said...

Very great post on black, sensei.

It is good to think about why we construct/limit our palettes the way we do. I know that I follow the impressionist/modernist palette memes, and I know the whys.

I do, however, depend on black more than browns - which are usually forbidden for me. Your excellent post gives the reasons.

However, I recently added browns back into my palette, because experiment is more important than dogma. I don't have any wisdom to report, yet.

It reminds me of telemark skiing -the telemark technique is fine, but dogmatists have less fun! Mix it up, I say!

Nicole Caulfield said...

I'm glad you found it helpful Adebanji!

Say it isn't so Katherine! ;)

Michael your posts are always so informative! Thanks!

"because experiment is more important than dogma." I so agree Casey! Hmmm maybe I should counter your experiment and not use any browns on one....