Artwatch UK

Black is a Colour

23 March 2012

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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Above, Fig. 1: Iain Walker, No Mans Land, oil on canvas.
Above, Fig. 2: Iain walker, St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, oil on canvas.
Above, Fig. 3: Iain Walker, God’s Jester, oil on canvas.
MALCOLM MORLEY:
“I remember visiting the Delacroix house in Paris, where they have a palette on which he’d mixed a whole row of grey tones, each looking like a pearl, and each mixed from colour, not from black and white. Instead of darkening yellow with black, he darkened yellow with purple.”
From Artists on Art, Martin Gayford, The Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2001.
SEEING NATURE’S PALETTE:
“I cannot help thinking that something important is being lost and that we ought to refresh our eyes with the more subtle harmonies for which they were designed. The dead of winter is the time to do this. For life has retreated, leaving its many colours half-hidden but perceivable, and the landscape is filled with a subtle counterpoint that could never feature on the telly. The lesson so patiently taught by Corot, Turner and Cézanne – that no natural object is truly monochrome, and that even in the blackest thicket can be discovered all the colours of the palette – is repeated by winter. And that is why there is no better time to visit the country, to walk or ride in the fields and to take the chance of the weather for the sake of the eyes…It is an interesting exercise to stare into a dark, denuded hegerow and count the colours. Soon you will come to see that this unassuming, unclamorous thing could not be transcribed in paint without using the entire pallete: every shade of red and blue, from salmon pink to scarlet, and from deepest indigo to pale forget-me-not, is lurking there, recuperating from the light of summer. And as you watch these hues glimmering like embers you come to understand the myster of colour: how red excludes green and yellow blue; how white is somehow not a colour at all and the metal shades are like glosses in which colours are trapped and made invisible. These strange phenomena are not explained by the physics of light – a fact which Goethe noticed, and which led him to compose his great treatise on colour. They are not facts about things, but about us seeing things. Pondering them we are also pondering the mystery of consciousness. How is it that the world not only is, but is also revealed? Why was it not content just to be?”
ROGER SCRUTON
The FT Business, 23 December 2000.
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