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.

In a series of monochrome paintings within traditional genres such as still life and interiors shown at Tate Britain’s Painting Now exhibition in 2013/14, 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 in which 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
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


Unusually, Mr and Mrs Philip Cath 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. In 2014 a purpose built museum dedicated to his work opened in his hometown of Rodez, France.

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


A brief history of black in Western painting

Palaeolithic artists mixed powdered charcoal with spittle or animal fat to fix the pigment to cave walls, creating images of bulls and other animals. By heating wood with very little oxygen, early artists made 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 and 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 Colour offers a range of blacks, each with their own special qualities:

Perylene Black. 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, and 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