- Black and White are absent in Rainbows
- And also in Isaac Newton’s 17th-century colour wheel because they aren’t colours, so what are they?
- Black and white are achromatic colours. Colour without colour. Black is a total absence of colour, but we can see it, and we often refer to the colour ‘black’. So it remains indisputable that black and white are present in our visual perception of the world, and they deserve their rightful place on the artist’s palette.
- Mix black and white and you get shades of grey, add either of the two to a hue or ‘chromatic’ colour and it becomes tonal colour.
- Artists exercise caution when using black because it absorbs light and can easily dull a painting. The colour black is visible because colours surrounding it reflect light and make it stand out.
- Some say that we can see black paint because it isn’t pure black but rather a combination of colours, yet most of us agree that the colour black exists. The primary pigment in the colour ‘Carbon black’ or ‘Ivory black‘ is a charred organic material such as wood and bones. Traditionally finely ground elephant tusks were used to produce an extra-fine pigment. Thankfully it is no longer an ethical choice and iron oxide and animal bones that we would have otherwise discarded are now used to get this dark pigment.
A Royal Colour
Artists have used black for centuries. Vincent Van Gogh used it and so did the celebrated 19th-century French painters; Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Eduard Manet.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir famously said, “What makes you think that black is not a colour? It is the queen of colours.”
‘Bar at the Folies-Bergere’ by Edouard Manet
Black is classic, fashionable and very chic.The film ’Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ would not have been the same if Audrey Hepburn had worn a pink dress, the ‘Little Black Dress’ became famous.
Black remains neutral; it crosses genders and generations with ease.
‘The Countess of Carpio’ Francisco de Goya
I prefer not to use black from the tube in my paintings because of the dulling effect. To achieve my deepest darks, I add Cadmium Red and Ultramarine blue (warm) into the mix and Pthalo Blue and Alizarin Crimson onto my palette of cooler colours. Prussian Blue joins them because this dark almost blackish blue colour maintains lovely hues even when it’s tinted to its palest. Viridian Green is similar. Adding a touch of Paynes’ grey which has a blue base also helps to intensify my darks. But do not discard your carbon black, masterpieces have been painted with and without the use of tube- black paint. The choice is yours.
White as Sunlight
Today Titanium dioxide is used in titanium white paint but for centuries, lead was used to produce a dense and opaque pigment until its ban in the early 20th century for its toxicity. The ’achromatic’ colour white is luminous because it reflects all the frequencies of light in our visible spectrum. White is the colour of pure sunlight.
White and not gold is what you would find in the ‘Pot at the end of the rainbow’ because white (polychromatic) light is made up of all the colours of the spectrum. Unlike black, an extra large tube of white paint is a staple in many artists’ boxes with the exception, of course, the watercolour- purist. The danger there being the opacity of white contradicts with the transparent nature of watercolour paint. The watercolourist will only rarely use Chinese-white or Zinc White, both being slightly less opaque than titanium white. By adding white to gouache, acrylics and oils, the rest of us can tint (or lighten or brighten) colours to our hearts’ delight. A touch of pure white should be at the very centre of the focal point in every painting. It will draw the viewer in and capture attention – without fail.
Painting a collection of white objects bathed in bright light can be a challenge but it is a valuable lesson in understanding the colour value and the relationship between dark and light. When painting a white object, you will need to use pure titanium white from the tube only sparingly. White doesn’t stand on its own easily and to make a statement it needs the support of other colours around it and the light reflected by them. However, rules are there to be broken and it remains the artist’s prerogative to continually question and to challenge existing boundaries.
The artist Robert Rauschenberg painted his famous ‘White painting’ in 1951. It is a triptych of blank white canvases painted with white acrylic paint. Today it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. The painting has had a myriad of responses over the decades, a lot of head shaking and deeply furrowed brows. I have a few canvases in my studio just like Robert’s – Lucky me
There are no reasons paintings done with black and white paint straight from the tube cannot turn into masterpieces
Ebony and ivory can live together in perfect harmony. They do on Paul McCartney’s piano.