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MChesleyJohnson 11-18-2009 02:33 PM

Black is the New Black

"Sugar Maple Pirouette"

When Monet took black off his palette back in 1886, that pretty much was the final word on black for anyone painting in the Impressionist style. Black, of course, has been used a great deal by the Abstract Expressionists and others since then, but many plein air painters I know follow old Claude.

The idea is that black is a "non-color" and is contrary to the spirit of a style the lifeblood of which is color. Unlike white, which reflects all colors, black reflects none and, in its pure form, appears as dead, empty space on the canvas. If a painter wants a dark color mixture, the rule of thumb is to add the color's complement to first neutralize the chroma and, hopefully, darken it. I've always made a really dark mixture with Sap Green and Alizarin Crimson - a warm green and a cold red. Other artists have other combinations, such as Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. You probably have your own secret recipe.

Gamblin makes a Chromatic Black, which, the text says, is a "neutral, tinting black made from complementary colors rather than the usual carbon or iron oxide blacks." (It's made from PG36 and PV19, a phthalo green and a quinacridone red.) I've added this to my palette, and I now love black. For me, black really is the "new black."

Why? Black lets you lower the intensity and the value without changing the color. So often, when you're trying to darken one color by adding other colors to it, you end up changing the hue itself without meaning to. Black is simple and effective. I still, of course, use complements to make for more interesting darks, but I have the option now of adding the extra color after I've darkened my mixture with black. Color is a lot easier to control. In the example above, I used black in many of the passages - light as well as dark.

jmmur 11-18-2009 04:35 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
So actually you're just saving yourself a step. You can just think of it as a premixed tube of phthalo green and a quinacridone red ... still no black in your palette, just a very neutral flexible dark, very dark ... very very dark.

Does anyone make in in water soluble oils?

marcdalessio 11-18-2009 06:01 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
A lot of great (historic) plein air painters used black, especially to mix greens and the gray for clouds.

Proudhawk 11-18-2009 10:27 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
Michael, first, the painting is a gem. Second, I'm glad you've found Chromatic Black. I've been using it for about a year and a half and I love it.

JD Hannah 11-18-2009 11:13 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
Interesting. Claude Monet refused black and then his friend John Singer Sargent used it in his work. Both impressionistic painters. I looked at JSS self portrait and all the black is cracking. Personally, I mix ultramarine blue (WN) + Transparent Brown Oxide (WN) and that gives me a nice black.

Love your painting by the way. Interesting thread

MChesleyJohnson 11-19-2009 04:50 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
Thanks, everyone! I don't know about the WS oils, John - you may have to mix the black on your own.

boomerbeach 11-19-2009 05:43 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
RE: "Black lets you lower the intensity and the value without changing the color. So often, when you're trying to darken one color by adding other colors to it, you end up changing the hue itself without meaning to. Black is simple and effective." ........ How timely!... You've touched upon a question which I've been thinking about in recent days.
So, what you're saying, is that use of black is much like the use of white in increasing values, just the opposite though.
Also, "The idea is that black is a "non-color" and is contrary to the spirit of a style the lifeblood of which is color".... How can black be a "non-color" if we can make it from other colors? I've noticed more noted artists using "blacks" of late including Ken Auster and others. It seems I've notice more than one producer of "chromatic black", I'll have to try some. Many thanks!

HankB 11-19-2009 06:45 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
I like the aggressive drawing of the tree and some of the grays you got from the black. marcdalessio mentioned a little while ago in another thread that he knew plein air painters who used black so I tried it. I didn't find it indispensable but I didn't hate it either. Since I'm still playing with limiting my palette it's an easy color - or non-color :D - to eliminate.

MChesleyJohnson 11-19-2009 08:05 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
Thanks, Hank and Boomerbeach. Boomerbeach: Well, maybe it is "all color," in a sense!

boomerbeach 11-19-2009 05:08 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
Gee, that Gamblin seems a lil' pricey. Think I'll just mix "on the spot" for the time being ...

Color Mixing Class: How to Mix Chromatic Black
Why mixing and using chromatic black is preferable to using black from a tube.
From Jim Meaders, About.com Guest
See More about:color mixingcolor theoryprussian blue

"Shadow Rides", oil on canvas, 24x30". This painting was done using chromatic black and the resulting grays.

© Jim Meaders
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The list of colors my painting students take to the art supply store does not include black. Instead, they learn to make a rich, deep color that appears to be black, known as chromatic black. It’s one of the first things I teach in my Painting 1 course after introducing the ‘split-primary’ color wheel.

How to Mix Chromatic Black

The more common way of creating a chromatic black is by mixingultramarine blue with an earth color, but I teach my students a different mixture that gives an even richer, deeper ‘black’. It’s done by by mixing equal parts of Prussian blue, alizarin crimson, and an earth color (my favorite is burnt sienna, but burnt umber, raw sienna, and raw umber work as well).
When this chromatic black is added to white you get some of the most beautiful grays imaginable. If these grays are too blue for you, simply add a little more of the earth color to the original mixture, which will make the grays look more gray.

Create a Color Chart

I have a chart I made that shows what each chromatic black and the resulting grays looks like. For example:
Prussian + Alizarin + Burnt Sienna = Chromatic Black (+ white = gray)
Prussian + Alizarin + Burnt Umber = Chromatic Black (+ white = gray)
Prussian + Alizarin + Raw Umber = Chromatic Black (+ white = gray)
Varying the amount of white added to these mixes creates several values of gray.

An expanded version of my chart includes mixtures using Indian red, Venetian red, and Van Dyke brown. You get a different set of grays depending on which 'brown' you mix in with the Prussian and Alizarin.

Use Chromatic Black to Darken Other Colors

Mixing small amounts of your chromatic black into your colors will darken them without ‘killing’ the color like regular black would do. I tell my students that Prussian blue and alizarin crimson are ‘magic colors’. In my experience, most painting teachers don't include these colors on their lists of required colors, but once students discover all the possibilities of using these colors they never go back.
About the Artist: Jim Meaders has taught a variety of art courses and workshops for more than 25 years. Jim says his own work is an effort to draw the viewer into the subject matter of the painting through a different viewpoint and to leave them with a new sense of perceptiveness.

sidbledsoe 11-19-2009 10:30 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
I agree with that, prussian blue is like no other color and dries quick.

FlakeWhite 11-19-2009 11:20 PM

Re: Black is the New Black
I use black(s) It can be a gorgeous color in its own right, if used appropriately. I also use it as others here have said, mixed with yellow to get certain greens and to quickly get a neutral dark in certain situations. I agree black should be used intelligently and sparingly most times.

I mainly rely on mixing complements to get good color in the darker values and use black when that is the best choice. It is good to experiment with various different blacks too - vine black is quite different from ivory black.

Williamsburg makes a Van Dyke Brown that is almost a black and very low tinting strength which makes it interesting in subtle mixtures.

MChesleyJohnson 11-20-2009 04:21 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
I wonder if Phthalo Blue would work in a pinch if one didn't have the Prussian Blue? It's a different pigment, but similar.

NorWestPainter 11-20-2009 09:38 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
There seems to be a lot of derision at Monet for the "throw out your black".
First off, I personally think it's all nonsense, and people should study Monet's work a little bit more. They seem to just think of things like his haystacks. Those certainly were doing something with color that black would only inhibit.

Here are some of his paintings from 1886+. Either he was using black, or he could vary his chroma without it.


He's in my top three painters of all time. Worth a good look, browse through, and be humbled:

MChesleyJohnson 11-20-2009 10:32 AM

Re: Black is the New Black
I don't know what authority About.com has, but from that site:


it says he stopped using black by 1886. So, my guess is he was just good at mixing pretty darn dark colors!

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