Whoever first spoke the phrase, “As simple as black and white.” , obviously, was not referring to pigments. There are many blacks, whites and grays, for that matter, produced in watercolor, oil, and acrylic paints. Each one unique and with a specific job to do. In some mediums it is possible to paint without black and whites, although, it may be more difficult to adjust the intensity of basic colors or produce value studies or grisaille paintings. Oil and acrylic painters rely on the use of blacks and especially whites, unlike watercolor purists who avoid the use of either pigment. Some watercolorists, however, will use these colors to make their task of highlighting and shading easier, usually in the form of an opaque gouache.There are blacks, whites, and neutral tints that enable a wide range of options for all mediums.
In the way of pigments, black is not always just black and white is not always just white. A version of black can be achieved by mixing the three primaries in certain proportions. For example, if you begin with a very dark blue and add a very dark red you will of course get a very dark violet, however, when you add a little of the deep yellow which is the opposite of violet it will transform the color into what appears to be black in a concentrated state. Although when you add white to the mix it will reveal the real characteristics of the color which will not be a true black. This mix is also marketed as Neutral Tint by some manufacturers.
Claude Monet avoided introducing a processed black color to his palette to achieve extreme darkness. He believed by using the primaries to create black you were maintaining harmony in your painting. Early in his painting career, Monet, like most new painters, used ivory black for convenience. Overtime, as he matured as an artist, he removed black from his palette as he realized the benefits of using true colors to produce extreme dark values. In his paintings you can really tell the difference.
Black was probably one of the earliest available colors to artists in the form of charcoal produced from burnt wood. Evidence of this is, of course, are the cave paintings left by prehistoric man. Their choice of colors was probably limited to charcoal black, chalk white and red earth tones. Whereas, today we have the luxury of thousands of colors at our fingertips.
There are several choices when it comes to black pigments. They are a little different from medium to medium, as not all colors are available in all mediums. Black hues are made primarily from burnt substances like carbon, soot residue from lamps, burned bones, and charred wood vines. These pigments when added to white will create different shades of gray. The three most popular blacks include Ivory Black, Mars Black, and Lamp Black. These are available in most mediums.
Ivory/Bone Black – Derived from burning ivory or bone until carbonized, very light fast, semitransparent, staining, widely preferred over other blacks because it harmonizes well with other watercolor pigments.
Lamp Black – Derived from the soot of lamp burned oil or wax, very lightfast, heavily staining, the darkest valued, most opaque black.
Mars Black – Perhaps, the newest and most versatile black, can be used in all mediums, dense, opaque and with a warm brown undertone, mostly appreciate as being non-toxic.
Who would have thought there would be so many choices!
There are not as many whites to consider. The choice, however, is actually more important. This is because the white you choose will affect the hue, intensity, as well as, the transparency of the color. The most popular whites are Chinese/Zinc white, Titanium white, and Flake white. The first two are available in most mediums and are very versatile. Zinc white is a transparent white and is used for tinting and glazing. It will lighten the color it is mixed with without losing the ability to see the original color. Titanium white is an opaque and is generally used as a white color in a painting. It is the most popular of all whites as is sometimes misused due to lack of experience. Titanium white when used to lighten, will overpower the pigment. It can transform a transparent color into a milky opaque. This may not be the desired effect you are expecting. It is, however, great for covering especially when using oils and acrylics.Watercolorists will use Titanium White to strengthen the white areas and also for highlights, but, not as much for covering.
The third white is Flake white #1 and is only available in oils. It has been a favorite for oil artists for hundreds of years. It is very durable and flexible, which keeps it from cracking over time. The addition of zinc improves its consistency and also speeds the drying. However, Flake white contains lead and is very toxic. The long term exposure to the lead may have contributed to the ill health and even, early deaths of some great oil painters. When this hazard was discovered, manufacturers developed other alternatives to avoid lead poisoning. Flake white hue is one such alternative than does not contain lead, but has a titanium base, and the tinting strength has also been reduced to match that of the original Flake white. There are those who will, however, continue to use the original Flake white, and with careful handling of the pigment, can avoid the adverse affects of the lead. As with black pigments, whites come in many shades as well, including Cremnitz white that has a stringy consistency, Iridescent white, Silver white, and Radiant white, all which provide shimmer and reflection, and also foundation white which can be a smoother consistency that is great for blending.
With all of this talk about blacks and whites, of course, there will be grays or neutrals available. Most of which can be reproduced by mixing other colors, however, if you are using these grays frequently it may be a great idea to purchase them premixed.
Below are just a couple of the most popular neutrals and grays:
Neutral Tint – a mix of 3 primaries, red iron oxide, indigo blue, and yellow ochre, great as a transparent for shadows, and creating dark values.
Payne’s Gray – named for its creator, William Payne, this mixture is also comprised from the primaries with a greater amount of indigo, some artists use this mix instead of black, which can add more vibrancy.
Grays can make great under painting pigments as they will provide a preliminary sketch and are also used to create tonal values on which to build your painting.
Now that you know, neutral pigments are not as simple as black and white, you can choose more wisely. These colorless additions to your palette are very important and useful in developing your painting. Experimenting within each medium will help you understand the pros and cons of using a particular white, black, or neutral. This will enable you to improve your paintings and get the most out of your pigments.
I hope this information will help to guide you through any “gray” areas that you might have on blacks and whites!
Have a Happy “Black, White, and Gray All Over” Day!
And remember to “Value” your tints and shades!