Are these 3 black paint myths holding you back?

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting,colour theory

warm and cool black velazquez

Diego Velázquez, portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650

Are you scared of using black in your paintings?

Or secretly feel they are the missing ingredient to your work?

If you don’t use black whilst mixing colours you could be missing a trick.

A tale from two masters:

John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet used to go out and paint together.

One day, Sargent is said to have left his paints behind and asked Monet to lend him his to work with. “Where’s the black?” asked Sargent.
“I don’t allow myself to use black.” replied Monet.
“It’s against the impressionist theory. In nature all colours are made by mixing.”
Sargent refused to understand how anyone could paint without black.

It’s a matter of taste…

Different artists have different requirements, the impressionists steered well clear of black preferring to use complementary colours to tone down a hue.

However, many portrait painters can’t survive without it.

Colour is a very personal part of painting and using black is an even more heated debate. The myth of black ruining your painting has long been held by many an art teacher and is one of the first things students are keen to keep away when mixing paints.

However, black can become indispensable in your work..

Myth #1 : Black will make my paintings muddy

Black will tone down your colours, it won’t make them muddy. But is does have a very high tinting strengh, so only a small amount will make a big difference.

The majority of premixed tubed blacks have a blue bias to them (mixed with white to create a ‘tint’ they will go towards blue) so they will go towards blue rather than brown. Due to this colour bias black will effect the primary colours in different ways, most noticeably with yellow.

Yellow + black
Yellow might cause you slight disarm as the blue undertone will make the yellow go green. This can throw off your colour mixing if you are unaware of it. However, you can use this green to your advantage to make some lovely subtle shades. (See: Is Green ruining your painting?-  carbon black & cadmium yellow light)

Blue + black
You will achieve a toned down hue, blue won’t change much. Prussian blue is basically a mix between phthalo blue and black.

Red + black
Only a tiny amount of black will take the punch out of red. Useful for balancing red skin tones in portraiture.

Myth #2 : Black will make my paintings dark and gloomy

Contrast is king.

You need a varied tonal range to create a sense of drama in your paintings.

Students beginning watercolours often do not go dark enough. Because watercolour lightens so much when it dries painting an area of dark seems far to heavy but can be useful to create drama in your paintings.

using black in your paintings

using black in watercolour painting

Pro tip: A way to get around this is to experiment with pen and wash. Use a permanent marker or sketching pen to draw in the subject and the shadows. It will force you to be bolder and result in much more realistic looking paintings. The paintings and drawing above are both by Rowland Hilder, who used black to great effect in his work.

Note how in the painting, compared to the black and white sketch, the black doesn’t appear as prominent, our ‘shadow blindness’ helps us to accept the scene, rather than notice how much dark there actually is in the painting.

Myth #3 : Real artists don’t use black paint

The Impressionists steered clear of black but for many contemporary painters black is an integral part of the work.
Paul Emsley, winner of the 2007 BP portrait prize, painted the below portrait with just two colours: Mars violet and blue black, plus an occasional touch of white.

mixing-black-paint-palette

Paul Emsley, Michael Simpson, Oil on board, 2007

The palette colours are very limited: “But it is surprising what colour effects are possible,” Paul describes the colour tones created.

“For instance, for the warm flesh tones I might use just Mars violet, adding a dash of white if I want to soften the tone. And where I want the bluer parts of the skin or areas of shadow, I will add a tiny amount of blue black to the Mars violet. The variety comes from how much the colour is diluted, the extent of the overlaid colour, and the proportions of colours used in the mixes.

“In my experience, the fewer colours you use, the more shocking are the reactions when you do make subtle changes. Until you begin to experiment, you don’t fully realise how much variety can be achieved with just two colours!”

Should I use black paint to start with?

In how to choose a basic acrylic paint palette I don’t initially recommend a black because with the ultramarine blue and burnt umber you can have the flexibility of creating a tone very close to black which can be tweaked to both a warm and a cool black.

This technique was used by many a portrait painter, notably Velázquez, who always had both a warm brown black and a cool blue black on his palette.

After studying Velázquez’s paintings in the Prado, Harold Speed, author of ‘The Science and Practice of Oil Painting’, came to the conclusion that the artist used black to control the intensity and saturation of colours, particularly in his skin tones.

Speed mixed the closest combination of modern day pigments to create an interpretation of Velázquez’s two blacks, one warm, and one cool.

  • Ivory black mixed with a little burnt sienna to create his own variation of bone brown (warm black)
  • Blue-black to which he added a little cobalt blue (cool black)

“In the first sitting I imagine he rubbed-in the head with very simple colours, little more than his two blacks; and concentrated his chief attention on placing the main masses of his light-on-dark scheme in the handsomest possible manner, and getting that basis of fine drawing on which the whole thing rests. All this being done in a fairly light key, and with very little paint everywhere except in the lights, which while not loaded were solidly painted. In the next sitting this was scumbled with negro hueso (bone brown) and a yellow that Velázquez used.”

Harold Speed – Author & Painter, The Science and Practice of Oil Painting, 1924

Mixing your own black

Depending on the pigments you are using, you can often make a very nice black from a combination of primary colours or existing pigments.

Using the basic acrylic paint palette colours, ultramarine blue & burnt umber can make a very dark hue.

This mixture of a blue and a brown can be enhanced further if you use a darker blue, say
Prussian Blue (which is often a mix of phthalo blue and black) with burnt umber.

If you don’t have a burnt umber you could use a burnt sienna or raw umber, however, the raw umber won’t give you the flexibility of warming up and cooling down a colour due to its bias towards more of a green brown.

In the video below I demonstrate some of these mixes.


What is Chromatic Black?

Chromatic black is a black made of a ‘chroma’ or colour rather than containing any specific black pigment. ( You can check this on the paint tube by looking for a PBk pigment – which indicates black)

For example, Gamblin’s chromatic black is made from Phthalo green and quinacridone red.

If you don’t have these colours you can make a close Phthalo Green by mixing :
Phthalo Blue ( green shade) + Hansa yellow ( medium ideally, if not light) mixed with quinacridone red.

Why Use Chromatic Black?

Chromatic black can give a subtler tint than a premixed opaque black, such as Mars black, it also can have less of an effect on colour shift when mixing, producing more neutral tints.

Gamblin Chromatic black for oil paint

“The overuse of traditional black pigments color mixing can be a problem.
Color mixtures can easily become “dirty” looking. I believe that this is not caused by the use of black itself in color mixing but because of the relatively large pigment particle size of both Ivory Black and Mars Black.

Chromatic Black solves this problem since it is made from modern organic pigments that are both tiny in size and transparent. Colors are grayed without being made to look “dirty.” This also points to a limitation of Chromatic Black: while it is a fabulous mixing black it is not as good as Ivory or Mars or Black Spinel when a true black is needed in a painting.”

Gamblin Technical notes on Chromatic Black

Chromatic Black paint recipes

Start by mixing in equal proportions, but be sure to also try mixes that aren’t equal, so you’ve a ‘black’ that leans towards a color. You’ll see in the video below the colour bias they can give depending on the mix of colours

  • Complementary Colours: Blue and orange or dark green and dark red (yellow and purple don’t work as well)
  • Dark purple: Ultramarine Blue + Cadmium Red deep or Naphthol red
  • Quinacridone red + phthalo green
  • Ultramarine Blue + Earth Colour (burnt umber, burnt sienna)
  • Prussian blue + alizarin crimson + tiny amount yellow (hansa) – not strictly a chromatic black as Prussian blue has a tiny bit of black in it but a useful black nevertheless.

Add a touch of white to your black mixtures to see the colour bias.

Farrow & Ball
I’m a huge fan of these paints and the subtle, muted tones. Our gallery front was painted in Lichen, a lovely dull green/ grey, however when colour matching interior paints for shop displays we used more affordable paints and just added black acrylic paint. This was usually fluid acrylic so the mixture was smoother and it always produces a lovely muted colour.

Sometimes the beauty of colour is a juxtaposition of bright shades with muted tones.

‘Better gray than garish’
Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres

You might also like:

1. How to choose a basic acrylic palette
2. The importance of contrast in painting

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue November 6, 2011

Many thanks for this very interesting and liberating article Will :-)

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Will Kemp November 6, 2011

You’re welcome Sue.

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Karen January 1, 2012

Your information is easy to understand and very professionally set out and I would be very willing to direct my learners to your website to further their learning. Good job and keep going.

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Will Kemp January 1, 2012

Hi Karen, Thanks very much. Hope your students find it helpful in their painting,
Will

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Katherine Herriman February 25, 2012

That was surprisingly fascinating. Cheers very much. Looking forward to exploring mixing blacks and the rest of your site.

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Will Kemp February 25, 2012

Hi Katherine,
Glad you enjoyed the post, black paint can be extremely useful. Hope you enjoy the rest of the site.
Will

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dan May 20, 2012

Hi Will,
Firstly I would like to congratulate you on your website. Yours is one of only a few I found interesting enough to follow all through the website. As a newbie painter I was wondering if you could look at the colours I have choosen for skin tones. They are alizarin crimson, cad red, colbalt blue, ultramarine blue, lemon yellow, cad yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna, raw umber. Any advise or colour substitutions would be grateful. Keep up the good work. thanx

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Will Kemp May 20, 2012

Hi Dan,
Pleased to hear you have been enjoying the website, If you are just startting with portraits I would be careful of using the strong yellows too soon, maybe start with a yellow ochre and then add a touch of cad yellow to this mix. The lemon yellow, especially with the blues you are looking at using will cause vivid greens very quickly and can quickly knock your colours out. The rest of the earth colours look great. Just be aware not to go too orange/pink with the cad red and cad yellow.
Hope this helps,
Will

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dan May 21, 2012

Thanx for the reply will. There are so many recommeded palettes out there its confusing, in one book i received there were 22 colours to get to make all the skin tones!. I found a book by james horton that just uses burnt sienna +white for pale skin tones, burnt umber for mid tones, and raw umber for darks. simple!. i will take your advice and put lemon yellow on the back burner for now. Many thanx.

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Will Kemp May 21, 2012

Hey Dan,

Yeah, starting simply is definitely the right way to go,

Good luck with your portrait,

Thanks

Will

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dan May 21, 2012

Sorry Will, one last question if i may. I know you can tone down colours by using its complementary but in your skin mixing tones video , you used burnt umber and ultramarine to tone down a skin colour. I was just wondering if their were any circumstances when you would use one or the other? or does it matter? thanx dan

dan May 22, 2012

thanx will

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Anne L. May 23, 2012

Not only are you a brilliant artist but also a gifted teacher. I’m retired, but was a graphic artist by trade. Over recent years I worked with pastel and decided to try acrylics for health reasons. As a beginner, I find your website and lessons invaluable. You address every basic topic that a beginner needs to know, yet do it with easy to understand methods and all the information presented is in a concise and straightforward manner.
Thank you for sharing your talent with us. I’m looking forward to learning more.
Hoping you have great success with your website
Anne

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Will Kemp May 23, 2012

Hi Anne,
Thanks for your kind comments, so pleased you are finding the website useful and are enjoying working with acrylics. Great to have you along for the journey!

Will

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dan May 31, 2012

hi will . really enjoyed your portrait in oil section. I would like to ask a question if i may. I find it hard to draw and paint portraits with any degree of accuracy, i was wondering what you thought about using photos as a way of learning.? also when painting and drawing from life, i find this can be overwelming. i thought about just drawing and painting features of the face so as to not worry about observing too much at once. do you think this may help.? any tips would be great. thanx

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Will Kemp May 31, 2012

Hi Danny, working from a photo is a perfect way to start and this series is aimed at beginners working from a black and white photo reference. Matching accurate skin tones can be tricky so starting with a black and white image helps you to learn about drawing and the importance of contrast. Also, note how the reference photo and finished painting are the same size. This will help in judging shapes in your drawing.

Yes, you could just work from the features as practice, however, learning about modelling the big forms without worrying too much about the details can be very beneficial to improve your paintings.

Hope this helps,

Will

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Jeremy June 1, 2012

I’ve found using red film to look through at color subjects is a great way to reduce to values.

jnl

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Will Kemp June 1, 2012

Hi Jeremy, that technique can be helpful,
Thanks,
Will

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dan June 1, 2012

as always thanx will

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Moyra Blayney September 1, 2012

I’m quite excited now about trying to incorporate a wee bit of black in my paintings!! Since you gave me some useful websites suggestions ages ago…I’ve found that marketing my art through social media has got me over 7,000 views on my art page and I have sold three more paintings!! Thank you Will!
Moyra

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Will Kemp September 1, 2012

Oh Hi Moyra,
Great to hear from you! That’s fantastic news! three more sales is a brilliant result, really pleased the marketing sited helped you.

Thanks,
Will

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Lisa Martin January 19, 2013

Hi Will! You are a gifted writer!! And your knowledge and skill of painting is very extensive and impressive. The way you share it, it all makes so much sense! I received some good basics many years ago in college and now I am thoroughly enjoying gathering more information watching your videos and reading your articles. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. It is so valuable and significant to have.

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Will Kemp January 19, 2013

Hi Lisa, very kind if you to say so. So pleased you are finding the site helpful in gaining knowledge of painting.

Cheers,
Will

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Bobbi February 18, 2013

What a great site! Thank you! I was searching for a ‘recipe’ for a denim blue (it’s for a butterfly painting). I wasted quite a bit of paint until I came upon your site. I think the cad orange and ultramarine blue will do the trick.

I have been painting for a few months and love it so – the hours just fly by – even when I hit a wall. Then I go searching…I’ve now found a wonderful reference place.

Again, thank you!
Bobbi

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Will Kemp February 22, 2013

Hi Bobbi, you’re welcome. So pleased you have found the recipe for your denim blue. A touch of black can also work wonders to tone down the subtle grey blue of denim. You can either use a black straight from the tube or mix one with burnt umber and ultramarine blue.

Cheers,
Will

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moira ladd July 28, 2013

Hi, I found this very interesting. I actually work on a Black gesso ground canvas, and an awful lot of black in my work. I have been working on this style for a while now, which you will see if you take a look at my blogpage. I think it would be interesting.
keep promoting good old black! well done.

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Will Kemp July 28, 2013

Hi Moira, pleased you found the article interesting and thanks for sharing your approach.
Cheers,
Will

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aryan agarwal July 30, 2013

hi will.
can you help me how should i make burnt umber for your acrylic landscape painting on canvas on: http://willkempartschool.com/acrylic-landscape-painting-techniques-lessons-for-an-absolute-beginner-part-1/

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Will Kemp July 30, 2013

Hi Aryan, no need to mix Burnt umber, just buy it in a tube. It’s a very handy paint ti have in your paintbox.
Cheers,
Will

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joseph spiteri malta October 27, 2013

I don’t have much to add to previous comments, I think you are a very good painter and super teacher. I also think you are a very kind person to give knowledge so freely. It is a pity that I don’t know you personally. Malta is a tiny island lower than Sicily in the middle of the mediterranean. Colouring the support with a transparent colour to kill off that glaring white has helped me a lot and I am very excited about it. Thanks again friend.

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Will Kemp October 27, 2013

Thanks for your kind words Joseph, so pleased you’re finding coloured grounds have been helping your painting.

Cheers,
Will

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Glen November 27, 2013

Hi Will and thanks for the great info on your site.

I use black all the time with yellow to make beautiful olive greens. Now I’ll consider using it more widely.

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Will Kemp November 27, 2013

Great to hear it Glen, black can be so handy when mixing olive greens.

Cheers,
Will

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Lance Rubin December 1, 2013

Will, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Although the information is widely available, you have presented it in a clear and concise manner that is easy to understand, and very completely covers the subject. I must thank you for making this available to me and the internet at large. I will be referencing your website a great deal in the future, and I will be referring many people to it as I get a lot of art related questions on some of my art pages. Thank you!

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Will Kemp December 2, 2013

Hi Lance,

So pleased you enjoyed reading the article, thanks for your kind words and thanks in advance for sharing the website with any aspiring painters!

Cheers,
Will

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Will Kemp May 22, 2012

Hi Dan,

Good question.

For portraits I personally mute down the colours with either Burnt umber or Ultramarine blue or a black mixed from the 2 of them. This gives you the ability to have a warm black and a cool black.

So when the skin tone is looking too warm/ orangey I would add a touch of cool black (more blue than brown in the mix) and if the skin tone had gone too cool/ grey I would add a touch of warm black (more brown than blue in the mix)

I hope this helps,

Will

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