Should You Use Black? For the Serious Oil Painter, It Is a Serious Question

Should you use black or not?  Since I began oil painting, it has been a hotly debated subject among serious artists.

Even as early as 5 years ago when I took a portrait painting class at the Art Students’ League of New York,  a very well-known and respected teacher asked the class if using black was in or out or appropriate for the modern painter.

In my opinion, black isn’t necessarily a crucial pigment in oil painting. I do not use it in my palette.  It is technically possible to do without black altogether. As a matter of a fact, it is just a matter of mixing primary and secondary colors in order to compensate for a black hue. This isn’t to say that the choice between black colors in oil painting isn’t very important.

Many artists shy away from using black at all because it tends to “dirty” color in mixing, and instead prefer to use a color’s complement to tint or shade. However, using black as a color, you can avoid ‘dirtiness’ to some degree by taking note of the color bias and tinting strength. This is where it becomes important to pay attention to the differences in different blacks and how to use them. When choosing to use black oil color, there are several variations of black pigment to choose from just like there are different whites.

The most obvious difference between blacks in oil painting is the hue variance. The most common and universal blacks (Ivory, Lamp & Mars) are easily identified by their hue characteristics, usually regardless of the oil paint manufacturer, as long as they are made from high quality pigments.

Ivory Black is a deep velvety black that is cooler in mass tone, but warm in tint (slight brownish undertone). Lamp Black, a very old pigment dating back to prehistoric time, is also a deep, velvety black but has a bluish undertone. Mars Black is the strongest black and is warm in both mass tone and tint.

Tinting Strength
Tinting strength when using black colors in mixing is very important because it determines how much or how little black pigment will be effective. If a subtler tint of black is preferred, Ivory Black is ideal because of its moderate tinting strength. It is considered the most useful in general painting for this reason. Mars Black has a strong tinting strength, but Lamp Black is the strongest black and is great to use when dark blacks are needed in a painting.

Drying Time and Durability
All three of the most common blacks usually contain linseed oil as a vehicle. Ivory Black and Lamp Black tend to have a very slow drying time. Mars black is more ideal for a underpainting because it dries a bit faster

Mars Black is opaque, therefore it is ideal for direct painting especially where more coverage and opaque layers are needed. Lamp Black is also opaque, allowing the deepest blackest black coverage. Ivory Black is semi-transparent, giving moderate coverage. It can be thinned down to be used as a glaze. Payne’s Gray or Charcoal Gray is more suitable for achieving a black tint while glazing. Although they are not always considered blacks, they can provide black tinting when in need of a transparent color.

Use just any black color to tint and shade, and you’ll be disappointed with the results. If you choose your black pigment wisely, you shouldn’t have to worry about keeping blacks out of your palette.


If you enjoyed this blog and found it interesting or helpful, please share it with someone you think might also enjoy it.   Thanks,  Gary


About Gary Bolyer Fine Art

I am a New York City-based landscape artist.
This entry was posted in How to Paint in Oils and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Should You Use Black? For the Serious Oil Painter, It Is a Serious Question

  1. Pingback: Mastering the 7 Key Components of Value: How to Paint Like a Modern-Day Rembrandt | Gary Bolyer Fine Art

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