Putting Black on Palette

Back in Black

Who has not rocked out to the rock n’ roll anthem, “Back in Black” by the group AC/DC? Perhaps you were in your car while stuck in traffic and you turned it up while it was on the radio.  You may have been in your studio, playing air guitar in front of blank canvas. 

If you were painting outdoors it is not likely that the song was running through your head.  However, it would be very possible that black was certainly not on your palette!

Black is often considered to be a forbidden color for outdoor painting.  Technically, black is not even considered a color!  Since black is the absence of color, it is defined as neutral. 

Without getting too technical, black is either the absence of color or the accumulation of all colors at once.  That is a discussion that will be saved for later regarding additive and subtractive color mixing.  For now, let us get back to the use (or non-use) of black as a pigment for painting.

Not All Black and White

Black was in primary use in the early days of painting.  In fact, it may have even been one of the first to be used.  Like ochres and oxides or clays, black would be considered an “earth color”.  It is easy to imagine the carbon ashes of burnt wood or bones being crushed into a paste to make marks on the walls of caves.  Black was included in Aristotle’s theory of color, believing that color is a gift from God given to us by rays of light to represent fire, water, earth, air.  His theory included white, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, and black.  Notice that with black, red, and yellow are also included in Aristotle’s color theory. Today, we are taught about yellow, red, and blue as being the “primary” colors.  They are labeled primary because it is not possible to create these three colors.

Nice Assortment

When I go to a museum, I like to look at the self portraits of the older painters.  They often show themselves holding their palettes.  In these paintings, I can see for myself the colors they probably were using. More often than not, only a small arrangement of colors is ever represented.  Usually they are a yellow, a red, a green, a white and a black.   Nice to know!  The older painters are often regarded as having “certain qualities” lost to modern painters.  Their work can be described as having a harmonious and even tonal quality throughout the painting, with certain accentual notes of color boldness here and there. 

Judith Leyster
Judith Leyster, Self Portrait c. 1630

Into the blue? 

As the Impressionists broke away from the academic studio tradition, black was eventually removed from their palettes.  The old style of black and brown paintings became tiresome to these modern radicals who took to making “bright pictures”. For them, black would serve no purpose.  Blue was in the shadows of the trees and under the chins of sitters lit by the direct sunlight.  The bright mixtures of green were possible by taking black off the palette.

This desire for brightness may not be the only reason for black to come off the palette.  There were other historical reasons that may have contributed to the shift from black to blue.  One reason may be the rise of industry where the by-products of manufacturing produced chemical composites that allowed for synthetic replicas of hues that were formerly cost prohibitive.  Certain blues of the historical period of the “masters” were allowed only for royalty (thus “royal blue”), making black the economical choice for creating softer blues.  The development of cheaper blues from the waste of industry meant blue would become an exciting new instrument with which to launch the modern painter into a whole new direction of making pictures.

“Mayonnaise” Pallet

One of my favorite books about painting is “Oil Painting Techniques and Materials” by Harold Speed.  In the chapter on color, he suggests that the Impressionists emphasis of color purity may lend a risk towards a “fruit salad sort of coloring” that can turn up in the worst of some Impressionist painting.   He also suggests that a certain “dignity of the earth colors” could be missed if black is entirely removed from the palette. 

chez-le-pere-lathuille painting by Manet
Édouard Manet, “Chez Le pere Lathuille” c. 1879

I will say that the tonal harmony of the older painters was achieved because of their judicious handling of black.  Manet, often considered an Impressionist as well as not one, used black on his palette masterfully.  Manet studied in the academic tradition.  It appears that Manet used a palette that was a mixture of academic and modern colors.  Cadmiums and ochres for the hues were used with both blue and black on his palette. 

The obvious use of using black masterfully is probably Whistler and his painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother).

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother) c. 1871

Into the Black?

In my own ventures in learning to paint, I found that by initially using black instead of blue, forced me to learn more about the instinct of color mixing.  In varying hue intensity with shades before attempting to do it with complements, I was able to dismiss the overwhelming confusion of having too many colors on my palette right away. 

Maybe that is why, when I am once again at the museum and looking at the self portrait of a painter with her palette from centuries ago, I feel like I nearly see a little knowing nod or wink.  Like a kinship across time, we’re sharing notes and a little black secret to what is in the the recipe. Therefore I find that many times, I have put black back on my palette, and just rocked with it.

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