For something which many say is not a colour in its own right, merely the absence of colour and light, black has attracted a lot of attention among painters. For centuries they argued over which was the blackest of blacks, then along came the Impressionists who tried to tell us that we should never paint a true black anywhere.
Yet, from all the evidence of prehistoric cave paintings, black was the first colour in the palette, and the first pigment used by humans.
Traditionally, single-pigment blacks have relied on elemental carbon – the Carbon Blacks. The first and, until relatively recently, most popular source has been charcoal made by the controlled charring of plant matter, particularly thinner branches and twigs of trees and shrubs. There have been many alternative sources, including the mineral graphite (a layered carbon crystal), and carbon from the combustion of almost anything else, including ivory, animal bone, seeds, and organic fuels such as oils.
Charcoal is readily made, and its manufacture is still a traditional woodland industry. Careful selection or trained growth produces sticks of varying density and properties which have been widely used for drawing, and are commonly found in the underdrawings of oil paintings.
Some works in charcoal have attained cult status, including Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, popularly known as The Burlington House Cartoon (c 1499-1500). But in general such drawings are not intended to be finished works in their own right, and are all too often ephemeral.
Giovanni Bellini used Charcoal Black pigment in his The Feast of the Gods (1514-1529), his last painting which was completed after his death by Titian. Although they were probably sparing in their use of black, the large black bird seen in the middle of the gods, in the detail below, appears to have been painted almost entirely using Charcoal Black.
There are more sustained passages of black in Maerten van Heemskerck’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c 1530). These appear low on the Virgin Mary’s robe at the right, and in the shadows of the trees at the upper left. Microscopy of samples taken from the paint layer forming the robe shows it contains particles of wood char, confirming his use of Charcoal Black.
El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ (1583-84) is a good example of the extensive use throughout the work of Charcoal Black pigment.
Carbon-based pigments make near-ideal black paints regardless of the binding medium being used. Mineral carbons, in the form of coal and graphite, have proved the least suitable. Whether mined or synthetic, graphite produces a dark grey paint with a distinct sheen, although it has been an ideal ‘lead’ for drawing.
Most carbon pigments do have a slight colour tint to them, though, commonly blue or brown. When used with drying oil as a binder, carbon takes up more binder than any other pigment, and is notoriously slow to dry. As a result, drying accelerators, such as copper salts in the form of Verdigris, have often been added to improve drying performance.
In their quest for the ‘blackest black’, painters have been prepared to try carbon blacks derived from some unusual, and invariably expensive, sources. This has resulted in pigments such as Vine Black (from charred marc, the residue from winemaking), Swedish Black (charred birch bark), Peach Black (charred peach pits), and Cherrystone Black (charred cherry stones).
One longstanding source has been the charring of animal bones and related waste – Bone Black. This has been used since before the Middle Ages, but became the dominant source during the eighteenth century, particularly in its highest quality Ivory Black, a curiously attractive oxymoron. As long as painters have been sold Ivory Black it has been disputed that the pigment has ever been made from significant quantities of ivory. There is no doubt, though, that horn and antlers have been charred for it.
Peter Paul Rubens’ Samson and Delilah (c 1609-10) is one of relatively few paintings which has been shown to contain both Charcoal Black and Bone/Ivory Black pigments, and was made at the time that the latter was starting to become more popular than vegetable blacks.
Dirk Bouts’ The Virgin and Child (c 1465) shows the relatively early use of Bone/Ivory Black pigment.
The blacks used in William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode series are of animal origin, as seen in The Tête à Tête (c 1743).
When Impressionism developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, one of its tenets was to banish dark colours, including black, from the palette. Monet’s stated opposition against black was so strong that, after his death, Georges Clemenceau is alleged to have had the black drapes removed from Monet’s coffin, exclaiming: “No! No black for Monet!”
In truth, there are plenty of blacks seen in Impressionist paintings. Monet may at times have mixed his own from three different colours, but he also knew of the danger that they would produce a dark muddy grey, not a true black. Other Impressionists and leading artists of the time were less convinced of the need to remove black from their palettes.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir has certainly been sparing in his use of Ivory/Bone Black in his painting At the Theatre (La Première Sortie) of 1876-7, but it has been found in the passages which look, well, black, such as the rail at the lower left.
The same pigment is seen in many of the details in Renoir’s By the Water (c 1880) too.
Édouard Manet seems to have had no such concerns in his use of Bone/Ivory Black in Corner of a Café-Concert from 1878-80.
Finally, there are innumerable dots of Ivory/Bone Black in Georges Seurat’s huge divisionist masterwork Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6), and in its darkest areas they become confluent, just like a normal painting.
Most recently, some modern synthetic organic pigments have been offered in black paint. The best-known, perhaps, is also known as Perylene Green, which in concentration becomes Perylene Black. It’s particularly useful for the darkest shadows in foliage. But for general use, Ivory/Bone Black has stayed on most palettes.
For there are always times when an artist needs that blackest black.
John Winter and Elisabeth West FitzHugh (2007) Artists’ Pigments, vol 4, ed Barbara H Berrie, Archetype. ISBN 978 1 904982 23 4.