I Use Black Paint | helloartsy.com/i-use-black-paint

Yes, I Use Black Paint

The use of black paint in one’s artwork has been a hot topic of debate for as long as I can remember. I used to never advocate the use of black paint, but now I proudly own and use a tube of ivory black.

Change is Good (sometimes)

When you look deep into the history of art, painter’s palettes to be specific, black always found its way onto artists palette of colors.

Before modern times painters gladly used as much variety in pigmentation they could get their hands on. They had to… Prior to one hundred years ago or so artists were largely limited to the pigments that were sourced from their region of the globe or had to pay extraordinary prices for pigments that where imported from elsewhere.

The study of indigenous art materials sometimes leads to art forgers getting caught, but that’s a story for another day!

With such a limited amount of paint colors to choose from artists from the past gladly used black in their paintings. It was a stable, easily available paint that allowed an artist to mix his colors darker. However, with the influence of the impressionist painters the use of black paint fell out of fashion.

To this day, many painters still refuse to mix black into their paints often citing that it makes things “muddy” or that it is unnecessary because they can just mix other colors to make their black on their palette.

Making “mud” is more a matter of incorrect color temperature and an improper harmony between adjacent colors.   It’s all relative! Sure, you can mix up a dark color with a combination of pre-existing colors on your painting palette but that takes time and space.

Why I Use Black Paint

  • It saves me time. If I want to slightly adjust a color darker all I have to reach for one pre-made paint on my palette – black! My time is valuable.
  • It saves space. Mixing two or more colors just to get a darker color and then adding that darker color to another color can really make a mess of my palette.
  • I was always using it anyway. I used to be against the use of black but always used paynes gray in my artwork. That’s a double standard: paynes gray contains black!
  • Reliable shifts in saturation. Mixing a value-matched gray into a color is the easiest and most reliable way to reduce a color’s saturation (chroma).

Use Black Paint With Caution

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t stand looking at a painting in which the artist overused black paint. The artwork has a dead, dirty look to it.

One has to be careful but, that’s not to say that black paint should not be used altogether. I see the ugly effects of black’s overuse often in amateur portraits in which the young artist tries to darken skin tones with black and never considers a more subtle approach through the use of color temperature shifts and other more realistic means.

Convenience has become such a priority in my art making that I have expanded my palette to not only include black but a couple of grays as well and of course, each of these grays each contain black as well!

Do you use black paint?


  1. Ian Macbeth says:

    Great article. I use black sparingly as it tends to have a high tinting strength, so it’s difficult to control. But to not use it for this reason is a bit silly. I also use complementary colours to darken or mute colours as this can be easier, but using cadmium red to darken a green is a bit wasteful if you ask me. If you are careful black can be very useful. It makes a nice olive green mixed with yellow. Also, sometimes your darkest part of the shadow is best painted with pure black.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Thanks for commenting Ian. The only thing I would say is be careful with “complements”… they almost always shift the hue. This is hard to detect with your eye alone, but if you measure the mixed color with calibrated equipment you can see this very easily!

      1. Ian Macbeth says:

        I wouldn’t worry about being so scientific about it!!

        1. John Morfis says:

          I would and here’s why:
          Understanding the science of pigment mixing makes you smarter and more skilled at mixing colors. I no longer waste time guessing and “feeling” my way through color mixing. I set up and get to work. This understanding quite literally saves me 100s yes hundreds of hours per year. That means more time to make more art or enjoy my life. But, and this is an important distinction I am a professional painter and paint for money. If you were running a business surely you would want to know ways of being more efficient and more profitable?

          I also teach this stuff so once again understanding a more quantified, scientific approach is much appreciated by my students. My students get much less emotions and guesswork from my lessons and instead learn facts about color and pigment mixing. 99% of what you read regarding paint mixing is nonsense and not based on anything other than the artists own feelings/emotions.

          Now I must admit I do have a philosophy or a cutting off point with all this stuff. I like to know just enough to make better paintings, faster. I don’t get hung up on the science to the point in which it is taking away from my painting business… never. You’ll never see me in forums debating or trying to prove something is some waste-of-time facebook group.

          Thank you for commenting.

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