In our darkest hour: Black
Rembrandt “Old Man in Military Costume” (detail) 1630-31
In our darkest hour, in the middle of a pandemic, I thought we could examine black as a colour that has it’s very own “voice” and timbre. What follows is extracted from a course I designed (with Gail Schoeman) many years ago, called “Colour Voices”:
Abbott Thayer “The Sisters” 1884
“Black envelops and swallows, is cave and abyss, the holes of space and the bowels of the earth, night melancholy and death.
Mourning sinks into black and rests in its muffled sadness.The widow’s veil of separation and loss, the judge’s robe of sober authority, are black.
The black vestments of the cleric renounce the bright-hued pleasures of the sensual, material life; the black elegance of evening wear engages them. (...)
Black is foulness,decay and dirt. But the black dirt can be the soil itself, the fertile covering of the earth from which life arises.
Black encompasses the terrors and beauties of the underworld and its tenebrous precincts of healing and initiation.” From the ARAS Book of Symbols
Edouard Manet Luncheon in the Studio 1868
Like brown, black isn’t a primary, secondary, or tertiary colour. In fact, black isn’t on the artist’s colour wheel and usually isn’t considered a colour at all.
In terms of light, black is the absence of all colour but in terms of paint, black is the consummation of all colours.
Black means a few different things, and almost all of them have negative connotations. That’s because humankind’s instinctively fear the darkness, and anything that lurks in the night.
Black also represents another great fear—being underground, again with no light to see by. Because of these two associations, death, depression, and fear all are part of the colour black.
In a different way, black also represents space, specifically outer space and infinite space.
There’s also a mystery to things that can’t be defined, or seen, and the colour black often accentuates anything with those mysterious or indefinable qualities.
Black is oblivion and sleep but that is where dreams are conjured. It is in the solitude of darkness that we mine the revelatory gold of self-reflection and bring it up into the light.
James Whistler “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1” or commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother” 1871
To the consternation of his fellow Impressionists, the painter Renoir declared, “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours is black!”
What he meant was that black works as a darkener because its near chromal neutrality does not sully the colour it grays.
While scorned on a few snooty palettes, black is the loyal friend that helps make other colours look more brilliant than they are.
We’re all familiar with paintings with over-bright colours. Too many colours at full strength can fight with one another in acid cacophony.
To achieve colour harmony and permit full-strength colours to work to full advantage, you need graying. A small or moderate amount of black is the secret to this enrichment.
Subtle graying of surround amplifies the power of pure colour centres. And then there’s white. Just as black is necessary for evolved colour mixing, so is white.
Black alone makes things deadly, and white alone makes things chalky. But when black and white are both added to anything, you get the most beautiful tones of all.