Black is a Colour
We reported in an early Journal that Anna Somers Cocks, when editor of The Art Newspaper, had observed that Frans Hals employed as many as six tones of black and that these were “too often deadened by bad cleaning”. This prompted a response from a painter colleague.
Iain Walker wrote:
Anna Somers Cocks’ observation that Frans Hals painted with up to six tones of black reminded me of another appraisal made some years ago when Hals was being shown at the Royal Academy. An eminent art critic noted in his review of the exhibition that Vincent van Gogh had claimed to have counted no fewer than 28 different blacks in a Hals painting. The observation, the critic accepted, may have indicated Vincent’s preoccupation with the picture but it could not have been so because research had revealed that at that date there were only six blacks in production. Many readers may have concluded that poor Vincent had got it wrong again, and that this was a critic who did his homework.
At the time of this review, a project exploring the nature of black and the assumptions we have of it, was being conducted with the first year students at the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington. To this end, one side of the studio had been painted black throughout and filled with black objects and materials: black cottons, velvets and silks, as well as a numerous household objects that were painted or sprayed with matt or gloss paint. Coal and soot were also used.
The task given to the students was to make a perceptually accurate painting of a section of the studio without using any black paints. They met this requirement by mixing their own blacks from the colours contained in their paint kits. It was pointed out that Francis Bacon often produced a black by mixing sap green with alizarin crimson. The students also made use of Prussian blue, cobalt, burnt umber, violet etc. Their studies swiftly established that it was entirely possible to make an optically accurate transcription of a black set-up containing many black objects without ever having recourse to any commercially available black paint.
In painting, all colours and tones are relative. Margaret Meade cites the Eskimos as having 17 words for white. When confronting an all black set-up, it soon becomes apparent that there are greenish blacks, reddish blacks, bluish blacks and so forth. Theoretically, there may be a black which absorbs all incident radiation but even a material as black as soot apparently reflects 3% of incident light. Couple this fact with the effect of “simultaneous contrast” and it is hardly surprising that most painters think of black – and white – as colours in their own right and not just as means of creating a tonal range in a painting, as there other ways to do this.
I recall the above as a demonstration of how well-meaning academic research, although possibly correct in one way, can also be misleading and harmful when applied to painterly practice.
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