Theoretically Speaking: Painting Black

Theory for the artfully inquisitive mind.™

Painting objects at the polar ends of the value scale can be a challenge even for the experienced artist. How do you highlight white or shade black? Following are a few pointers on painting black.

Painting Black

  • Black objects are defined by highlights rather than shadows. Light reflecting off a black surface creates the middle and light values while black remains the dark value.
  • As with white, a touch of color can provide warmth and interest to basic black and grey tones, which can seem dull on their own.
  • Rich black: Burnt Umber + Payne’s Grey or a pure deep blue. By shifting the proportions you can warm or cool the values created from this mix plus white.
  • Grey values can be cooled with Payne’s Grey, blue or violet and warmed with earth tones, red, orange or yellow.
  • Reflected light is especially important on black objects as it helps to define the receding edge on the dark value side.

In the images shown here you can see this lighthouse as it appears in my original photo at left.  It is clearly a black object and you may be tempted to render it in shades of grey.  In doing so, you will create an image that appears dull and lacks vibrance.  On the other hand, if you distinguish the form using warm and cool "blacks", like you see in the enhanced image at right, the final rendering will be both more engaging and radiant. 

Are you up for a challenge?  Paint (or otherwise render in your medium of choice) a black object.  It can be one of your own choosing or you can use these lighthouse images.  The only guideline is that you may not use any commercially produced black.  You can mix black, you just can't use pure black paint, pencil, ink, etc. 

This watercolor rendering of a lighthouse was painted using only three colors, Burnt Umber, Sepia and Payne's Grey; Although the the idea of black is conveyed, no commercially produced black was used. Blacks are created by mixing the cool hue, Payne's Grey, which in it's simplest form can be identified as "blue", and warm, Sepia, (yellow) and Burnt Umber (red) hues. Although not in pure form, this incorporates all three primaries, which neutralize each other when used in visually equal amounts to create grey/black.

The areas that do not read cool or warm incorporate all of the hues to create a neutral temperature grey/black. The cool areas are more heavily influenced by Payne's Grey, while the warm areas use varying amounts of Burnt Umber and Sepia to shift the warm hues to either red or yellow.

This close-up image allows you to see the distinctive shifts in temperature within the "black" object. As a general rule, warm areas are closer to the light source and cool areas are farther from the light source. When painting an object with several regions, like this light house with the black roof, lantern base and platform, it is important to keep the light source in mind when choosing where to place warm and cool hues so that you are consistent from one section to the next.

Where the platform curves under, cool hues are used to show the absence of warmth from the light source. Although this is on the side closest to the light, the warmth does not reach the underside of the curve, thus causing it to be cool.