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The Color Black: Morbid, Powerful, and Timeless

Published on Jun. 1st 2007

Photograph by Scott Liddell at scott

Black isn’t a primary, secondary, or tertiary color. In fact, black isn’t on the artist’s color wheel and usually isn’t considered a color at all. Instead, black appears when you bring ANY color to it’s darkest value (although that’s not always possible with oils.)

What the color black means to us psychologically:
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 color 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 color black often accentuates anything with those mysterious or indefinable qualities.

Black is also one of the boldest, most powerful colors; and the most intense against a white background. As a result, designers and advertisers often use just black and white for greater effect, despite all the other colors available.

Black and white photography still exists for much the same reason—it can be much more striking than a photograph in color.

Is black a “girl color” or “boy color?”
Tuxedo and Flower Neither. Black has no gender-specific qualities at all.

When it comes to clothing, the color black is used equally by both males and females, and often for formal occasions—the timeless “little black dress” for women, and the traditional black tuxedo for men.

On the other hand, “gothic” or “goth” styles of clothing primarily uses the color black because of its association with death.

Black in society:
Beyond fashion, black is sometimes worn as a symbol of authority, like with court judges and their long black robes. Referees of many sports wear black as well, or a combination of black and white or black and yellow.

In addition, having a black belt in almost any martial art shows expertise at a high level, if not the very highest level possible.

More often than not, however, black is used to reference things that are bad. “The black market” is one such term which describes stolen goods sold at reduced prices.

Blackmail also uses the word “black” just for it’s negative qualities, and there are many more occurrences as well. The bubonic plague, for instance—responsible for millions of deaths during the middle ages in Europe—was known as the Black Death or Black Plague.

Pigments found in black paint:
Most black pigments are natural pigments similar to graphite or coal, called amorphous carbon. In some cases this black pigment is made from charred animal bones, or burnt vegetative matter.

In fact, almost all black paint is made from some kind of burnt materials with the notable exception being synthetic iron oxide, a more recently developed black pigment.

Common black oil paints:
Mars Black, Lamp Black, and Ivory Black are the most common black oil paints used today. Some artists also mix their own version of black by using a dark blue and a dark red. Read more about that in my article on mixing blacks and browns.

Famous black paintings:
Of course there are a few minimalist black paintings that I could mention (Reinhardt is the artist that comes to mind) but the very first painting I thought of was Picasso’s Guernica. This painting represents the horrors of war in general, and the bombing of Guernica, Spain, by Nazi Germany more specifically.

Keep in mind, in real life it’s 11 feet tall by 23 feet wide.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Pink isn’t a primary, secondary, or tertiary color; instead it’s a tint of red, and doesn’t appear on . . . read more

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