Are these 3 Black Paint Myths Holding You Back?

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 strength, 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 affect 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 too 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.


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 subtle 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 colour. 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

This Post Has 77 Comments

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

  2. 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.

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

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

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

  4. 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

    1. 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,

      1. 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.

        1. Hey Dan,

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

          Good luck with your portrait,



          1. 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

          2. 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,


  5. thanx will

  6. 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

    1. 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!


  7. 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

    1. 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,


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


        1. Hi Jeremy, that technique can be helpful,

  8. as always thanx will

  9. 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!

    1. 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.


  10. 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.

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


  11. 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!

    1. 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.


  12. 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.

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

    1. 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.

  13. 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.

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


  14. 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.

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


  15. 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!

    1. 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!


  16. Hi Will,

    Thank you for this. I sure appreciate your great website.

    I am a beginner painter and have been trying to get a very deep dark green, like that in the shadows of the ocean along a tree-lined shore. I have tried a number of things. I want to use it as the background. I think I ended up getting the darkness that I want but it’s dull and looks a bit muddy.

    Any tips on the best way to make this green? I sure would appreciate it. My painting has been sitting for a very long time just waiting.

    Much thanks.

    1. Hi Jackie, you might find this video on mixing greens helpful, so you can see the different greens that can be achieved that will suit your painting.

      Hope it helps,


      1. Thanks Will, my apologies I just saw that video. If you don’t mind answering one more question for me please?

        You say you use a little ultramarine blue but are you referring to adding it to the carbon black/yellow combo, or are you speaking of using the ultramarine/yellow combo in your paintings? I think the colour I would be seeking is in between the black/yellow combo and the ultramarine/yellow. Could I add a touch of ultramarine blue to the black/yellow combo without mucking it up?

        Sure appreciate your help. And love the videos! Thanks

        1. Yes that’s right, you can intermix the blue and the black, or the different blues to create the perfect colour for your mix, so yes, you can add a touch of ultramarine blue to the black/yellow combo.


          1. Thanks so much. I just love your website; sharing with my friends :)

            Happy painting!

  17. Hello Will
    I have been enjoying your website and found the section on varnishing to be very helpful indeed. Thank you for addressing the benefits and pitfalls in an understandable manner.
    I had a question regarding some of the black and dark gray sections of a recent acrylic painting. Within a few months, the areas developed a powdery whitish surface. The black (or dark gray) was painted thinly over an acrylic underpainting on illustration board. The work is unvarnished. Any idea what I should have done differently? The rest of the piece is fine.
    Many Thanks,

    1. Hi Henry,

      So pleased you’ve been finding the lessons helpful, mmm, I haven’t come across a white powdery surface on acrylics, apart from if a matte medium was used. Was the acrylic just mixed with water?

      1. Hi Will
        Yes, just water. I was painting rather thinly as well.
        The finish looked just fine for about a month, then developed this hazy film.
        I was able to remove some of it with a dry brush, but not all.
        Perhaps I should repaint the sections affected, but it makes me wonder what’s to keep it from happening again.

        1. Hi Henry, that’s really strange, because hazing or cloudiness usually comes from a medium that has dried opaquely (acrylic mediums are usually white when wet and dry clear). You would be able to paint over the section fine, but I appreciate it’s a little disconcerting why it’s happening. What you can try is making a few test swatches with the paint in a variety of thicknesses on a couple of different ground surfaces and see if it happens again, It might be coming through the gesso from the canvas, that’s the only thing I can think of. Sorry I can’t give you a definite answer Henry, hope it was just a one off.


          1. Thanks Will – that’s a good idea. I can prepare a test section and hopefully isolate the problem.
            Regards, Henry

  18. Thanks for this incredible tutorial noir! What would you suggest mixing for a transparent black glaze? The painting has phthaloc blue (green tone) mixed w/ raw umber as part of a background, but I wish to make a corner of the subject which is almost black (warm brown/black) almost imperceptible against a dark shadowed background, so the glazes will be used to gradually bring the background to close to black. I suppose a chocolate black is what I see – a Rembrandt black (who do I think I am?). So what would give a translucent black that I could graduate with more layers as I move into the shadow area?

  19. Hello Will,

    Thanks for all your great tutorials! I sent a comment but I’m thinking it might be lost.

    Can I mix a transparent black for glazing – to be administered in thin almost translucent multiple coats – to create ambience? I’d like to use raw umber or burnt umber with perhaps a phthalo blue (green shade) or ultramarine blue – would these be too opaque?

    1. Hi Mary,

      Nice to hear from you, Ivory black would be a great choice for building up dark glazed layers as it has a nice feel in thin, semi transparent layers.


      p.s. You can also mix a chromatic black, just see the different mixes listed in the article.

  20. Hi Will. This may sound like a dumb question, but what colors do you mix to get the color of coal? Someone has asked me to paint something in particular, and coal is the main color used.

    Thanks for your input.

    1. Hi Donna, if you’re painting a piece of coal the reflection colours will vary depending on the colours surrounding it but using a burnt umber and ultramarine blue will give you a good dark mix with variety between the warms and cools, alternatively an ivory black would work well.
      Hope this helps,


      1. Hi Will. I think there may be some coal in the painting, but the biggest thing I’ll be painting is a train engine. Since the scene is at night, I can’t tell very much about it, except that there does appear to be some brown, as well as the black.

        1. A Cadmium red or warm red and a burnt umber, then a ultramarine blue or black would work great.

          1. Thanks. I’ll try that when I’m able to get those colors. This will be my first time painting anything of that caliber; my paintings have been of simple things until now. I’m a little nervous.

  21. Hi,
    Love painting color,,I didn’t start until my late 40’s,,I could draw and drew portraits as my favorite subjects,,,never had any formal training so I ran into problems at times on technique and which brushes to use,,,my problem now is I am tight,,,my portraits need some excitement and looseness,,,,I’m pretty good on colors but need more of something, because I see that my paintings appear kinda lifeless to me,,,,now I’m in my late 60’s, do you think there is a chance that I will have the time to develope more exciting work,,,Please I would value any suggestings you give,,,,,thanks barb.

    1. Hi Barb, nice to hear from you, and yes there is definitely time to develop a more looser style to your portraits (I think my oldest student brand new to painting is 93!) I think sometimes its just a case of giving yourself permission to create work that isn’t as finished or tight. Give yourself a timeframe to work within, and then only work to that. It will feel hard to start with but you’ll soon develop a sense of the pure essentials needed for your portraiture.

      Hope this helps,


  22. Will, I discovered your tutorials recently and also your artwork. Splendid are both! I hope you can find time to glance at my website. As a painter since 5 years old, I can say how refreshing it is viewing another professional artist and hear them express and talk about paint and paintings. Your direct and lively approach is a real treat!

    1. Thanks Randy, pleased you’ve been enjoying the website and thanks for the link.

  23. I have used a lot of ivory black as a light glaze after I’ve done some preliminary painting, then come back with other layers to achieve a jewel like effect. . But it can definitely darken your painting down too much and give it a dreary look. I am intrigued by the two color painting and will try it. Thanks for all the information and advice about variations in black as well as your other posts.

    1. You’re welcome Christine, hope you enjoy experimenting with the blacks.

  24. Dear Mr. Kemp,

    I love your online ‘art school.’
    This site has been tremendously helpful in my continuing education as a painter.
    Thank you.


    Erik Vatne

    1. Great to hear it Erik, pleased you’ve been finding the site helpful in your paintings.

  25. Without scrolling through all of the posts, can you use Chromatic Black (Gamblin) with acrylics?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Lynda, you can’t mix Gamblin paints directly with acrylics as Gamblin paints are oil paints. You can paint with acrylics and then oils on top but not together.

      1. Thanks Will. I knew I could do oils over acrylics but wasn’t sure if they could be mixed. I love the concept of Chromatic black….just not into oils.

        Thank you so much for your time,
        Lynda Ianuzi

  26. I’m interested in making abstract acrylic paintings in Black. Is there a specific combination you’d recommend for an all black painting such as you see in one color canvases? Do they use different shades of black?

    1. Hi Ed, yes you can get different shades of black such as Mars Black, Ivory Black and Carbon Black.

      1. Might it be interesting to make black out of alizarin, ultra and burnt umber and other blacks made of dark complementary colors to add to this group? Or would this be considered too much “color”?

        1. Hi Christine, you could use chromatic blacks but it might bring in too much intensity when adding white to the pigments, for experimenting with chromatic blacks Quinacridone Red and Phthalo Emerald work well.

          1. Thanks so much, Will, I will do some experimenting with the various blacks and perhaps do some glazing over them. So many interesting things to try when making a painting.

  27. What is a good black mix for a silhouette against a yellow/orange sunset?

    1. A blue-black, mixed with Ultramarine Blue and a little Burnt Umber would work well.

  28. Hi Will. Thanks for these tips – I do tend to avoid black but I will experiment a bit now. I am pretty much self taught and your videos really helped to get me started, and now I’m selling my work! So thanks for your part in my art career

    1. That’s brilliant news Helen, great job! so pleased you found the lessons helpful.

  29. Hi Will, I’ve just recently taking up painting classes. I’m so glad you made videos for those who want to learn about art and painting. How I wish I could have a teacher who could guide me daily until I could paint properly. Art classes here are so expensive, can’t afford too many classes. If you could help to check my paintings, I’ll be elated… Thanks.

    1. So glad you’ve been enjoying the lessons Irene, I don’t currently offer a painting critique service but hope you find the lessons helpful.

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