Back to Black

Top Myth

Chiaroscuro or ‘Light-dark’ in art often refers to the practice of smashing some very dark paint next to some very light paint in the expectation of creating drama and spacial depth.

Disappointingly this rarely leads to the desired result. 

Surprisingly, too much contrast tends to flatten an image. 


To create the illusion of real depth in a painting it helps if the viewer can see into that space rather than be hit by an inpenetrable darkness.  

If  the viewer feels as though they can walk or reach into the painted space and know how that would feel it will help them to achieve a greater empathy with the subject .

Yeah but how?.

Think about the air itself around the figure, ‘feel it’!, what is the temperature in the room or landscape?. 

Pay as much attention to the relative warmth of the colours as you do to their tonality. 

Pay particular attention to the transition between the figure and the space around it,  How hard or soft is that ‘edge’?. 


Some opinionated arty type will often say that you should never use ready made black oil paint. That’s horseshit.

Personally, I think it’s better to say that you should be very cautious about when you use it and to apply great sensitivity when you do.

Sure, black can be ‘deadening’ to a painting and make it feel ‘heavy’ but maybe that’s what you want. 

In my view however the greatest difficulty when using black paint is in attempting to make subtle, nuanced blending. Specifically, a ready mixed black will tend to turn flesh tones into a muddy mess. That is why personally I very rarely, if ever, use it.

Top Tip

One alternative to using black is to combine Alizarian Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow to make a deep brown.  Several layers of this will achieve a ‘black’ and you can easily nuance the mixture to achieve the desired warmth.

Bonus Tip

A little cerulean blue mixed into the ‘black’ makes for a really cold darkness.

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