View Full Version : Black and Earth Colours - Just Musing
07-24-2009, 07:37 AM
I haven't had black or indeed any "earth" colours, such as burnt umber, raw sienna, etc, on my palette for over twenty years, usually using Viridian Green and Alizarin Crimson, though conscious of permanency issues with the latter, have been lately using Viridian + Cad Red + Winsor Violet.
The two advantages I see in mixing my own " blacks" are:-
- it allows me to tint the "black" towards whatever colour I want, and
- it eliminates the risk of mis-using black, i.e. getting that dirty green or "muddy" look into everything which one often sees in beginners' paintings.
I know that quite a lot of plein air painters work with a limited palette and that often includes black. I was just wondering how those of you who do use it, avoid getting it into everything, e.g. do you just use it to darken your darkest darks.
The reason I'm interested is that I'm considering some late evening scenes and feel that I may need the slightly darker values which are possible with black.
07-24-2009, 08:17 AM
Thanks for bringing this up Micheal, I'll be eager to see what others think. I haven't used black in years myself, even indoors (I'll go for a deep purple or green instead if necessary), but I'm surprised you don't use burnt umber or raw sienna which are staple colours for me! Just for the fun of it, I'm going to take them out of my box next time, just to see what happens... it does explain the brightness and intense chroma of your palette. Do you mix your own browns (by browns I mean earthy colours) using complimentaries then? or do you pretty well avoid using browns in your paintings?
07-24-2009, 08:46 AM
Michael, the black thing is at the top of the controversy list. I understand some teachers outlaw using it. I like breaking the law. Earths and black are my favorite colors. You say you make mix your own "blacks" then you said it eliminates the risk getting things dirty. How does it do that? Also, can't you tint ivory black any way you want? I do. If it is black then it should act like a black. Gamblin makes a premixed chromatic black and that sucker is black, fully capable of muddying mixes. Isn't it the artist that controls mixes and keeps things from getting muddy? as for me, I can get things muddy without ever opening a tube of black. You see if you are mixing a black then you are already using black. A green mixed from yellow and blue is not a "green" in quotes, it is a green. Artists who eshcew using black will tell you that they can mix a perfectly acceptable black, just as dark and rich as a black in a tube and then say that they never use black! Now something doesn't add up here :confused:
07-24-2009, 08:56 AM
I've been pretty much in your camp, Michael the past 14 years or so. I haven't touched black...except the past year or so I started playing with Zorn's palette instudio...for fun. The Red, yellow-ocre, black and white...but, as I learned...the black of Zorn's day had more blue in it than black does of today...so after some reading, I would apply 1/3rd ultramarine blue by volume into the black. Here are a few studies I did in experimenting...yes, not plein air...but the studies were to help me see what it could do and in time perhaps play with it plein air-
The Zorn route allowed for subtle beauty I think...offered much control, which my own leeriness after so many years of black required in a sense to console myself into trying it.
My concerns with black are very similar to yours...that of being myself an art educator seeing what over dependence on black has done to make potential champions of color unintended tonalists. Myself included there. If you look at one of my earlier wildlife works, from the 80's...you'll see what I mean...
Not saying it isn't a good work, certainly more in touch with the earlier Renaissance...tonal, dependence on black for shadows...classic chiaroscuro in a sense. However...works like this are one reason I eventually came to admit I needed to get outdoors and paint from life. Dependency on photos without schooling in painting from life is likely to naturally cause one to become tonalist. You begin to copy what you see in photographs.
The owl painted as it is, is not what one would experience, see...nor feel to stand there in real time outdoors seeing it upon the ground. Its classic...traditional, and while some would say depicts realism...is not realistic as we know it, because it does not represent true light, color as seen under nature's light.
Now...I think when one comes to realize one's own abuse of black, and of photographs...one legitimately comes to fear black. Many of the top plein air painters do not have it on their palette...and I challenged myself in the early years of plein air...to learn to mix my own.
A good painting has a combination of factors utilizing "compare and contrast" and I hope folks reading will understand then this most important point.
For those trapped in the use of black to render depth illusion, they miss the importance of the other options to stretch and tweak out contrast. For example...a warm color next to a cool color becomes a contrast. Textured area next to smooth. Sharp next to obscure...on and on.
As you say, Michael...and as I have harped upon for years mixing your own darks you are cognizant of your choice to lean it toward a particular color, or additional options to add pop and effect.
To answer Sid...its not that people using black cannot add color to the black in a significant amount, but...will tend NOT to. They will tend to believe perhaps almost unconsciously that black had achieved their aim. Sufficient in itself. Looking right to their eye, because their enculturation to the photograph image appears right to their eye. Painting outdoors on location is a re-education of the eye. Its like capturing someone in a cult and deprogramming them...to get out of the studio after so many years, and then begin the habit of painting outdoors.
Now note...I'm not saying paintings using black are not art. I'm not saying paintings made in a studio are not art. I'm talking about what looks right to the eye of those that paint outdoors, those seeing something in the works of those that paint outdoors as a habit.
By making one's own dark, one then can lean it toward a warm or cool variant to add additional contrast next to another color or area. One can cause it to take on a complement to an area it will contrast. And, using only Utrecht French Ultramarine Blue, my W&N Bright Red, my lemon cad yellow, and sometimes viridian...I was able to produce the darks in these two studies painted from life...
You can see the pure black from the photoshop paintbucket of the background to compare...and surely the black or dark I mixed works! Those that say it can't be done, I've spent the past 14 years showing it can.
Now...some would ask why all the effort? Again...its because it is very easy to misuse black and in one's dependency short circuit one's cognizance or awareness of additional possibilities that in the end add more power to one's results.
The advantage of using black...is to hasten, make a lot of pigment for a bigger job quickly, to use less of one's precious other pigments...on and on.
There is truth to that, and if one can be responsible enough to keep their black under control and not let it darken your other considerations of what makes paintings work...I believe it is worth exploring.
Because of my playing with the Zorn palette...I have gained some confidence in myself NOT to allow black to bully its way back onto my palette. I think I could use it sparingly and with intelligence. I used a touch of black in my painting of the courthouse...but someone did pick up on how dark the truck was. Though...I had aimed to make it so anyway, with or without a touch of black. I have used it perhaps 3 or 4 times in a plein air situation...and though I am losing my fear of it... I have not yet gained a sense for my need of it.
It does not occur in nature that we see such void dark darks, blacks...that do not yet show the presence of reflected and indirect light. A camera has little ability to pick up on that, and in pushing for light over compensates and makes the darks darker. Thus a painting using black risks appearing to be copied from a photograph. It has the "ahhh...must have used a photo as a reference" look to it...
The "look" of a plein air...is that it appears as though a photo was NOT the source, and ultimately...it is the use of black and dependence on it that makes that critical observation.
07-24-2009, 09:33 AM
I rarely use black, but if I do, it's as a substitute for blue. YOu can get really nice greens when mixing your yellows with the black. I would never use black non-tinted with anything else for dark objects, it just looks flat. Also mixed with white, it produces a nice quiet blue.
For sake of interest, I did some studies some time ago using just black, white, yellow and red. As you can see, I got nice greens and even blue for the sky without using any blue, but black for my mixtures.
I think black has some use, but just never use it straight from the tube.
My 2 cents
07-24-2009, 11:30 AM
I don't consciously make "browns" Chantal - I just try to get the right colour down by comparing it to what I have painted already. For example if I'm looking at deep shadows in foreground foliage on a sunny day, I might sense some warmth in the dark green colour. Almost intuitively, I'll make a reasonable guess at what colour mix will give me what I want, but when I put it down, I invariably adjust it a little by aplying some other colour wet-in-wet on the canvas. The final colour might be described as a brown and I could probably achieve the same effect with an earth colour mixed with other colours, but I just find I have better control doing what I do.
Apart from perhaps some of my initial block-in, which may be partly done with pure hue + white, all my other brushstrokes involve a combination of colours, usually resulting in reduced chroma. I usually try to avoid using a complimentary colour for neutralise a hue, preferring to use at least three colours + white, e.g. I might mix cadmium orange, permanent green light and winsor violet to give me a dark olive green - I can get a range of "neutral" greens from this mix by varying the amount of orange/violet. The alternative of using a complimentary red, such as perhaps permanent rose, offers less options.
I really find it difficult to describe what I do without my paints in front of me, but in summary, I constantly ask myself when comparing one colour to another " Is it warmer/cooler (to decide on a hue), brighter/duller (chroma) and lighter darker (value)?", and then just mix accordingly.
I'm not trying to start an argument here. I'm actually considering adding black to my palette and wanted to know how others use it. There is nothing wrong with it IMHO unless mis-used (Larry has described this much better than I could). I just found that when I dropped it from my palette, it forced me to look for the colour in shadows rather than just wade in with black.
As usual you managed to cut to the chase in terms of raising the pertinent issues about black so well and in a fraction of the time that it would have taken anyone else to do so, certainly me!
I think that point about using it to cover large areas is worth thinking about, maybe not for plein air, but certainly for dimly lit interiors (I've been doing some life drawing for about six months now to sharpen my drawing skills, mainly charcoal, and am considering trying paint soon - so that may be useful for backgrounds). I can also think of landscape situations in late evening where cliffs in shadow might be painted in one flat colour, possibly using black to get a really dark value.
It certainly doesn't show in your paintings, Ruth, so you obviously know how to handle it. I know that some blacks, particularly Ivory, contain a blue tint - that's probably why it tends to result in unwanted olive greens everywhere, if mis-used.
Thanks again for the feed-back, guys. Certainly a lot to reflect on already.
07-24-2009, 11:50 AM
I understand Michael, I sensed a genuine concern in your questions and it is your trepidation that I was attempting to assuage.
07-24-2009, 12:58 PM
I guess I am less stringent on the requirements I place on myself than many are. My palette is somewhat middle of the road and does include Yellow ochre and Burnt Sienna with the occasional Burnt Umber if the subject lends itself to it. Those along with Paynes Gray and Cerulean Blue are about my only breaks from the traditional warm/cool primary palette. I see Plein Aire painting as quite the challenge and will begrudge anyone additions to thier palette to get them out there painting from life.
I have read where several PA artists premix colors before going out so they are better prepared to address the issues of quickly changing light and color. I feel this another option although similar to additional colors on the palette. There is a small tube of black in my box but it does not have a spot on the palette at this time but I would use it if I felt a situaiton demanded it.
Things change for us all and that is part of the journey we call art. When I did a lot of very tight warter color I used a lot of Sap green because it was a good green you could take in either direction and by starting with it over a mixed green I avoiced a mud situation that is always haunting water colorists. However in oil it is not in the box as I much prefer to mix my greens and do not feel I have the same risk of Mud as I do when working in water color. Paint and enjoy the journey!
07-24-2009, 02:22 PM
Michael, just a couple more thoughts since reading Larry's post, wanting only to be musing. I agree that if one does have a problem with it then there is reason for caution. Though I haven't had a problem with black, I realize what he is talking about because I have had similar problems with intense colors like the pthalos, etc. and I avoid them. I fully defer to Larry's experience in plein air and in teaching that he has seen this often happen. I am not an accomplished plein airist so maybe I should not have commented. regards and good luck with the night scenes will look forward to seeing them.
07-24-2009, 02:23 PM
Thanks for the info on how you get your greens Micheal... very interesting. I just cannot imagine painting without burnt umber and raw sienna which I use a lot, though never straight out of the tube. I just like the way the raw sienna warms everything up and use burnt umber mixed with ultramarine blue or olive green for darks. Which is exactly why I'm going to take them out of my box next time :) Nothing like a new challenge to force a painter to grow out of his/her comfort zone and discover something new!
07-24-2009, 09:09 PM
Burnt umber + ultramarine blue is an excellent recipe for 'black'- you can cool it or warm it up according to taste. I also occasionally mix burnt umber + prussian blue + alizarin crimson. I find that these mixes (particularly the latter) can be darker than black. When mixed toward the cool with blue, the colour recedes much more than black. Of course, too, different blacks have different qualities; lamp black (from carbon) is bluish, iron oxide black is warmer. I urge you to put just burnt umber and ultramarine blue on your palette and try different mixes. You'll be amazed by the luscious 'blacks' attainable. Jerry
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