Back in Black


“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” Leonardo da Vinci.

Considered a ‘non-colour’, black has always been a contentious issue in painting, yet contemporary painters continue to make new and exciting uses of black in their work. As today’s painters explore new approaches in the use of black, we look at the history of black in western painting and discover why black is not always black.

Exhibiting a series of monochrome paintings within traditional genres such as still-life and interiors (Painting Now, Tate Britain until 9th of February), Gillian Carnegie’s technique shifts between an expressive impasto and flat colour. Most startling is her palette of greys and blacks; Section, 2012 is one of a series of flower paintings and where there should be colour, it is absent. By using a monochrome palette she avoids being labelled with a style or technique and challenges the expectations of the viewer, leaving them to wonder if her paintings are old-fashioned or ultra-modern.

Gillian Carnegie, Section, 2012, oil on canvas
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
© Gillian Carnegie Photo: Lothar Schnepf, courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Recent graduates of Goldsmiths College, Mr and Mrs Philip Cath unusually work as a couple to construct narrative paintings with balloon figure protagonists. To avoid creating a ‘theatrical’ staged effect with a visible depth of field, they put the action against a luscious black field which has the effect of an ‘abyss’ in their compositions. For them, ‘…black is polarising, judgmental, absolute.’

Working exclusively in black since 1979, French abstract painter Pierre Soulages lays on thick layers of paint then uses a range of tools to create smooth and rough textures that absorb or reject light, modulating the uniformity of the black. May 2014 will see a purpose built museum dedicated to his work opening in his hometown of Rodez, France.

Mr and Mrs Philip Cath, Massacre, 2013, oil on linen
Courtesy the artists

A Brief History of Black in Western painting

Used since the beginning of time, palaeolithic artists mixed powdered charcoal with spittle or animal fat to fix the pigment to the wall, to create images of bulls and other animals on cave walls. By heating wood with very little oxygen, early artists created a carbon residue which formed charcoal. In time more vivid black pigments were made from burning bones or grinding a powder of manganese oxide.

In ancient Greece black features as one of the four primary colours of the classical palette. The Roman philosopher Pliny claims that Greek painters used only white, red, yellow and black (note the absence of blue) actually forming a very similar palette to ancient man. In the late Renaissance this palette re-emerged in the treatment of light and shade in the works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and was also evident in Spanish painting from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Many painters now choose to create ‘chromatic’ blacks through colour mixes without the use of black.

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colours offer a range of blacks each with their own special qualities:

Perylene Black. Introduced within the last ten years, this is the first permanent black for thousands of years. A strong black with a green undertone, it is so green that in watercolour and acrylic it is called Perylene Green. It can be used straight from the tube as black or is good for green and blue mixtures and tweaking complementaries.

Lamp Black. A pure carbon, made from the residual soot when burning oil, its name comes from the practice of making it with oil lamps. It is a fluffy, fine pigment which has a bluish tint and produces a wide selection of slightly cool and blue greys. Slow drying, it should not be used extensively as an under-painting layer for oil paints.

Ivory Black. An inorganic synthetic black made from carbon black and Calcium Phosphate, in Roman times the best grades of Bone black were burnt ivory. A very slow drier in oil, it should never be used in under painting.

Mars black. An inorganic synthetic iron oxide, Mars Black is more opaque and less toxic than other black pigments. Developed in the early 20th century, it is dense and opaque with a warmish brown undertone.

The new black?

The Impressionists would argue that black doesn’t exist in Nature, but contemporary painting no longer depends on observation of Nature alone. Gillian Carnegie’s paintings evoke black and white photography, a crucial part of what forms a certain generation’s memories. Mr and Mrs Philip Cath call up historical references, ‘In an era in which anything goes; we've always secretly admired the furious moral certainty of the English Puritans, for whom the colour black had an austere and dogmatic purpose.’ Pierre Soulages is famous for switching direction halfway through his career to emphasise how light is reflected from the colour black - a formal concept he calls ‘ultra-black.’ Black is so much more than the absence of light.

*Lead image: Mr and Mrs Philip Cath, Massacre, 2013, oil on linen, 203 x 325 cm, courtesy the artists