Post 517  by Gautam Shah


Black soot covered walls Almeida Júnior – Country Kitchen – oil on canvas 1895

Black is one of the prime colours, used by humans. Red, though is very vivid and fascinating colour in the history. Red and Black have ethereal connection, and both seem almost indistinguishable in monotone perception. This was one of the reasons that in the black-white cinema era, heroines avoided red dresses and lipsticks. The infamous Psycho shower scene of blood, was shot with not red liquid but most palatable chocolate syrup. The BW movie Jezebel (1938 with cast Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent), based on Brilliant scarlet dress (outrageous) the heroine wore, was actually Brown in colour. It was a well-deliberated move. Was this the story of red colour in dark dimly lit cave paintings of Paleolithic age? Could they have perceived black from the red, when both of which were extensively used. Paleolithic painters had several sources of black, such as wood charcoal, bone charcoal, manganese oxide, in addition to the tonal variations caused by the surface binding mediums like water, tallow, fish oil, eggs, wax etc. The hue variations were caused by the direction, and intensity of the lighting torch or fire used to see the paintings.


Black is the ‘strongest colour’ (or in scientific language the most remarkable absence of all colours of the spectrum). It was used as draft line of the figure, for highlighting the silhouette of the figure, in few instances for defining the colours’ edges, for containing and bounding the running colours of low viscosity. Paleolithic painters used black (and also other colours such as ochres and red oxides) to shade the artwork for tonal effects. The tonal variations served the purpose adding a depth dimension, for emphasizing the important segments of the composition, and only in later periods for light shading. Light shading with subtle use black was to indicate the direction of the source and often to the root of the magical power.


Carbon Black with high ash content

Carbon Black Pure

Black has been a great additive to tone up (or down) other colours. It, however, is a very strong shade tinter, even better than the whites available in early periods. Black, true to its nature, would reduce the brightness (visual impact) of the colour, compared with the addition of the white. Black added colours contribute depth to the colour. By the time of Iron age, the technique of adding black to vary the tones became much less popular. This was mainly due to the availability of multiple shades of ochres, oxides, etc. Blacks of different origins were added to whites of various types (such as calcium carbonate, barytes, gypsum) to achieve vast range of greys for use in mural paintings.

Red Black combination in Cave Art > Reproduction of a bison of the cave of Altamira Wikipedia image by Author Rameessos

The most difficult part was how to reduce or alter the tonal quality of black? Addition of white reduced it to grey shade, a completely alienated entity of black. In painting, the lightness of a shade was adjusted through mixture with white or black, but now by adding a colour. This was done first by using black of different origin, than by mixing very dark colours such as red oxide, black iron oxide, dark amber, and by adding low opacity ‘white minerals’. When yellows, reds and oranges are mixed with small amounts of black, it can cause a change to very a different shade.

Greys by avoiding the Black >> Gare Saint Lazare, 1877 Claude Monet (1840–1926)

Blacks, greys and other shades shift with the addition of black, often to a level that scared many seasoned artists and crafts-persons. The scare was more forbidding due to the metaphoric association with Gods, human behaviour and varied perceptual interpretations. Blacks of all origins, however, had one positive advantage that this was non fading or non destructible colours. Their tinting strength was fairly good and the perceptible shade was just ‘black’ with very few sub-variants. But its effect on other colours after mixing or through sheer proximity was extremely profound.

Impressionists avoided use of Black > Auguste Renoir – Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette

Art teachers, have been telling their apprentices, juniors and students to keep away from black. The same advise still holds true even today. If you are an interior designer, architect or builder, do not play around with black, unless you have the capacity for course correction or complete redo. Blacks are very opaque, and have a very high tinting strength, so a small amount can cause devastating effect. The small amount is very ill-defined and difficult to measure a term, and thoroughly mixing it into a larger mass without industrial equipment, an impossible task.

Charles Meryon Sketches, Studies

rosa-1911660_640Artists can mix few darker colours and get away with a ‘black’ like effect such as ultramarine blue and burnt umber can do it. The impressionists remained away from black, and preferred to devise the ‘black effect’.


Picasso Art

‘Claiming that colour weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art. His repeated minimal palette correlates to his obsessive interest in line and form, drawing, and monochromatic and tonal values, while developing a complex language of pictorial and sculptural signs. The recurrent motif of black, white, and gray is evident in his Blue and Rose periods, pioneering investigations into Cubism, neoclassical figurative paintings, and retorts to Surrealism. Even in his later works that depict the atrocities of war, allegorical still life, vivid interpretations of art-historical masterpieces, and his sensual canvases created during his twilight years, he continued to apply a reduction of colour’.