Reading Time: 25 minutes
- Consider whether black is even a colour.
- Discover the history and science of black.
- Learn about the symbolism of black in various contexts.
- Investigate the use of black in art and design.
Introduction: Is Black a Colour?
The debate of whether or not the colour black is even a colour has been ongoing for centuries, with many conflicting opinions. We will investigate the complexities of this question and provide an answer based on traditional definitions and modern scientific theories in this guide.
When discussing the definition of “black,” it is important to first understand what a colour is. According to traditional definitions, colour is described as “a visual attribute of things that results from the light they emit, transmit, or reflect” (Oxford English Dictionary). In other words, colour is something that can be seen and perceived by the eye.
Now, when considering whether black is a colour, it is important to define what black is. Generally, black is defined as the absence of all colours. This means that black does not have its own hue but rather is a shade made up of varying shades of light. Therefore, according to traditional definitions, black is not a colour.
Modern scientific theories, however, suggest that black is a colour. This is because black is represented on the colour spectrum, indicating that it does have a hue. As a result, according to modern scientific theories, black can be classified as a colour.
The Science of Colour
Light and colour are two topics that cannot be discussed without a basic understanding of physics. This knowledge is especially important when determining whether black is a colour. To answer this question, we must first understand the physics of light and colour, which includes light absorption, the visible light spectrum, the physics of colours, spectral colours, light refraction, the additive colour model, and the subtractive colour model.
Light absorption occurs when a material instead of being reflected absorbs visible light. This absorption is what gives objects their colour; the more a material absorbs certain wavelengths of light, the darker its colour. The visible light spectrum consists of all the colours of the rainbow. Each colour has a specific wavelength and frequency, which determines the colour.
Light waves themselves are made up of a continuous range of wavelengths or frequencies. When a single-frequency light wave strikes an object, a variety of things can happen. The light wave could be absorbed by the object if its energy is converted to heat. The object could either reflect or transmit the light wave. When these wavelengths are combined, they form the visible spectrum, which we can see with our eyes.
The physics of colours involves the concept of spectral colours. Spectral colours are those that can be seen in the natural spectrum of sunlight. These include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. However, other colour combinations, such as pinks and browns, are not regarded as spectral.
Light refraction is the bending of light as it passes from one transparent substance into another, this also happens with sound, water, and other types of waves. During a series of experiments with sunlight and prisms, English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton demonstrated that clear white light was composed of seven visible colours. This is why, just as light is split into different colours as it moves through rain, rainbows contain all of the visible spectrum’s colours.
The additive colour model is based on the idea that all colours can be created by combining three primary colours: red, green, and blue. By adding these colours together, you can create any colour in the visible spectrum.
The subtractive colour model is based on the idea that all colours can be created by mixing two primary colours: cyan, magenta, and yellow. By mixing these colours, you can create any colour in the visible spectrum.
When it comes to understanding the physics of light and colour and how it relates to “black,” it is important to remember that black is not a colour found in the visible spectrum. Instead, black is the complete absorption of all visible wavelengths of light. As a result of this absence of colour, black is achromatic.
Perspectives from History on Whether or Not Black Is a Colour
For centuries, philosophers have debated whether black is a colour or not. Aristotle, one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers, proposed the first known theory of colour, believing that it was sent from heaven by God through celestial rays of light. He proposed that all colours originated from white and black (lightness and darkness) and that they were related to the four elements of water, air, earth, and fire. According to his four causes theory of colours, he argued that black was a combination of all three, which made it unique from other colours. This theory of Aristotle’s was widely held for over 2000 years before being replaced by Newton’s.
Furthermore, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet, novelist, playwright, natural philosopher, diplomat, and civil servant, disagreed with Newton’s findings on black as a colour. According to Goethe, darkness was an active ingredient in colour, rather than just a passive absence of light. “Colour itself,” Goethe wrote, “is a degree of darkness.”
Goethe was also the first to conduct a comprehensive study of the physiological effects of colour. He had ideas about how the use of specific colours could change a person’s mood or emotion, based on his intuition, rather than scientific fact. His observations on the effect of opposing colours inspired him to create a symmetric arrangement of a colour wheel, with opposed colours that “evoked” each other.
The debate between these two schools of thought has been ongoing for centuries and remains unresolved today. Colour is, at its most basic level, an expression of light. When almost all of the light is reflected, you see white; when none is reflected, you see black.
Examining Cultural Perceptions of “Black” as a Colour
Black has a long and complex history when it comes to its use as a colour. Throughout history, black has been seen to represent different things in different cultures, from death and rebirth in Ancient Egypt to darkness and evil in Ancient Greece.
In Ancient Egypt, black was associated with fertility and life, likely due to its connection to the fertile soil of the Nile River. The colour was also used to represent the god Osiris, who was believed to be a creator god who brought life out of death. In Ancient Greece, on the other hand, black was associated with darkness, death, and evil. It was also a symbol of mourning, with the colour often being used to signify loss and grief.
Nationality or Ethnicity
Unfortunately, the use of synonyms for offensive words for people based on nationality or ethnicity has a long history of controversy. For example, the misappropriated use of the word “black” as an oppressive tool, is especially relevant in the history of the United States.
The Black Belt
The Black Belt is identified as a strip of rich, dark, cotton-growing dirt in the 1820s and 30s, attracting immigrants primarily from Georgia and the Carolinas in an epidemic of “Alabama Fever.”
While the core of the state’s Black Belt is widely recognised in central and west-central Alabama, there is little agreement on the region’s geographic extent, hence its name. The Black Belt emerged as the heart of a rapidly expanding plantation area following the forced removal of Native Americans.
Through history and the evolution of changing definitions “The Black Belt” was originally about the region’s unusually fertile soil. This occurred through the weathering of an exposed limestone base known as the Selma Chalk.
The second meaning of the Black Belt was as a region or place with a majority-black population that grew as a consequence of the expansion of slavery throughout the southern states. By the early twentieth century, the term had become synonymous with the region’s large African-American population.
The Thirteenth Amendment
After slavery was abolished in the United States, three constitutional amendments were passed to provide newly freed African Americans with legal status: the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment provided citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote. Despite these amendments and civil rights acts to enforce them, the Supreme Court issued a series of decisions between 1873 and 1883 that effectively nullified Congress’ work during Reconstruction.
During the period of segregation, African Americans faced discriminatory laws and practices. Many saw blacks as second-class citizens, and they were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, prisons, armed forces, and schools in both Northern and Southern states. This was done to control and oppress African Americans, and it serves as a reminder of the negative associations that can be made with the colour black.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act became a watershed moment in the long struggle to extend civil, political, and legal rights and protections to African Americans. This included former slaves and their descendants, and to end segregation in public and private facilities.
Meaning and Significance
Black is often considered a colour of power and strength, luxury and sophistication, with many people wearing it to express their confidence and make a statement. Black is also associated with mystery and secrecy and is a popular choice for formal occasions.
Overall, black is a colour that has an incredibly rich and complex history. Its use and symbolism have changed over time, but one thing that has remained constant is its ability to evoke strong emotions and feelings.
Whether it is seen as a representation of life and fertility or of darkness and death, black is a colour that carries tremendous meaning and significance.
Black as a Colour in the Visual Arts: Its Development and History
Black has been a powerful and significant colour in the visual arts since ancient times. It has been used to express a range of emotions and ideas, from mourning to power. Its role in culture and history is undeniable, as it has been used to represent a variety of concepts across many cultures.
Black is often associated with death, darkness, and mystery due to its dark hue. However, it can also be seen as a symbol of strength and resilience. From the Egyptians’ use of black ink for hieroglyphics to African Americans’ use of black power during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, black has played an important role throughout history.
Throughout art movements, the history of black as a colour in visual art is complex and varied. From its ancient roots to its modern-day applications, this colour continues to hold significance for many people around the world today.
Prehistoric Use of Black
Black was almost certainly one of the first colours used in art. Black charcoal and iron minerals were combined to create a black pigment that prehistoric artists used to paint on cave walls. This steer from France’s Lascaux Caves was painted more than 17,000 years ago, but an 18-year-old French boy exploring the nearby countryside did not discover it until 1940. The cave’s 2,000 Palaeolithic drawings depict humans, abstract symbols, and animals.
Ancient Greek Pottery
In the early 7th century BCE, the Ancient Greeks developed a highly refined technique for painting black and red silhouettes on clay pottery. The colours are the result of an ingenious differential firing process that takes advantage of the high iron content of Athenian clay. Clays are classified into three types: kaolinite, montmorillonite-smectite, and illite. Clay minerals can also include chlorite, vermiculite, talc, and pyrophyllite.
A fine solution of the same clay, known as slip, which is just liquified clay, would be applied to the leather-hard (semi-hardened) unfired ware by painting or dipping. A potter then would paint, draw or scratch (Sgraffito) designs on the surface of a vessel during the leather-hard stage. The vase would have been orange-red before it was fired, with the coated areas slightly darker in tone. The parts that have slip blacken during kiln firing giving the technique its name.
In contrast to the outline technique of pottery, in which the painter denoted a figure by leaving the flesh unpainted and drawing a black outline around it, black figure painting depicted the entire flesh in black. They later reversed the technique, painting red figures on black backgrounds. These “red figure” and “black figure” vases were often signed by their makers.
Detailed Ceramist Tangentiality
Because of my education in ceramics, I am familiar with the transformative process known as Vitrification. This is where clay is physically altered by melting it to make our ceramics water-resistant. The ancient Greek potters likely used a three-stage firing process with mostly up-draft kilns. These are two-chambered, with a lower combustion chamber where the fuel is placed and an upper pot-firing chamber where the clay is fired to ceramic material.
The first stage would be an oxidising one, with plenty of air allowed into the kiln and the temperature gradually raised to around 800º C/1472º F. This stage typically needs to be steady; even in today’s electric or gas fired kilns, for the chemically bonded water in the clay to be driven off and allowed to completely evaporate.
At this point, the potters’ works would turn bright orange-red as the oxygen in the atmosphere of the kiln combined with the iron in the clay to produce (red) ferric oxide. Once this temperature is reached, the potter would initiate the second stage by covering the upper air vents, which help draft the thermal heat upwards inside the kiln.
Additionally, the potter may have even placed damp material, such as green wood or bowls of water. This would create an oxygen-poor atmosphere in the kiln, which is more commonly known as “reduction firing.” By reducing the oxygen in the kiln, the red ferric oxide would be converted to black ferrous oxide, thus turning the entire ceramic black.
Depending on the calorific value of the fuel being combusted, temperatures in the kiln would continue to rise to around 945º C/1733º F. This intense heat causes fine clay particles in the coated areas of the ware to “sinter,” or fuse to form a hard, smooth, almost glassy surface.
The temperature was allowed to drop in the third and final stage, and the ventilation holes were opened at around 900º C/ 1652º F. This allows the oxygen to return to the kiln’s atmosphere. As the kiln cooled, the ferrous oxide on the uncoated areas converted back to ferric oxide, and these parts turned orange-red again. The sintered areas’ sealed surface was impervious to oxygen and therefore also remained black.
One of the reasons I am drawn to ceramics so much is that it is multi-technical and infused with luck, chance, physics, and chemistry.
The Middle Ages were a period of great creativity and artistry, with artists using colours to represent different forces and ideas. In Latin, the word for “black”, ater, is associated with cruelty and evil. “Atrocious” and “atrocity” are derived from this Latinate stem. It is no surprise, then, that in Medieval paintings the colour black was often used to represent evil or malevolent forces. Black devils, for example, were a common motif in these works, representing the power and dread that these forces brought with them.
In many of these works, the use of black was intended to contrast with other colours in the painting, particularly gold, which often represented the divine forces of God. By juxtaposing the two colours, the artist was able to convey the power of the opposing forces and create a greater sense of dread.
Furthermore, black was also used to represent real-world events such as the Black Death or the Black Plague. By using this colour to represent these forces of destruction, the artist was able to convey the horror and fear that these events brought with them.
The ‘Evil Eye’ Superstition
The ‘evil eye’ superstition is believed to have its roots in Mesopotamia, with the belief that a malicious glance could cause harm or a curse. The Egyptians buried the Eye of Horus, also known as a Wadjet pendant, with pharaohs to protect them in the afterlife. Assyrians, Phoenicians, Celts and people of the Hellenistic Era all shared similar beliefs. It was also present in Roman and Jewish culture, having been described in the Bible and has also been passed through generations to this day.
The curse of the evil eye is not a complicated concept; it stems from the belief that someone who achieves great success or recognition also attracts the envy and spiteful glare of those around them. That envy in turn manifests itself as a curse that will undo their good fortune. It can be cast on anyone by a jealous person who believes that the other person does not deserve the life/item (whatever they are jealous of) they have. The consequence is that the person is vulnerable to getting hurt, illness, or even end with death.
The concept is well captured by Heliodorus of Emesa in the ancient Greek romance Aethiopica, in which he writes, “When anyone looks at what is excellent with an envious eye he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality, and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him.”
The ‘evil eye’ superstition is still alive today and is held by many cultures around the world. Despite its ancient origins, it is still used by people as a form of protection against any possible harm caused by a malicious glance. The concept continued with the Greeks and Romans in similar superstitions. They believed the curse was the Gods and Goddesses’ way of bringing bad luck and misfortune to those who show a good deal of hubris, which is excessive pride or self-confidence.
Although there are many other different colours used, the most common colour when it comes to evil eye amulets is a combination of dark and light blue. Our ancient ancestors considered the colour blue to be important, for example, the Egyptians considered the colour the divine, while it was a symbol of gods for Sumerians.
The dark blue represents karma and fate protection; calm and relaxation; the open flow of communication. Whereas, light blue signifies general protection; broadening your perspective; solitude and peace. The black centre of these amulets is to ward off and absorbs the negative energy of the evil eye or any evil auras.
Gaelic Language Folk Law (Droch Shiúl)
Gaelic folk law, or Droch Shiúl, is a type of curse or superstition that was widely held by Celtic people. This ancient belief said that certain individuals had the power to inflict harm on others simply by looking at them with envy and malice. While there are different forms of this phenomenon throughout the world, in Ireland it manifests itself in various ways including illness, bad luck, financial loss, infertility, or even death.
It is believed that the only way to ward off such curses is through protective charms or rituals such as wearing pieces of clothing inside out, repeating special words three times, avoiding looking directly into another’s eyes, and throwing salt over one’s shoulder. carry small bags containing herbs thought to be a powerful protection against this evil eye curse.
Those who are familiar with Gaelic culture are well aware of the power these beliefs continue to hold today, even if they may not fully comprehend why. According to Irish Celtic tradition, the native Irish Péacóg (Peacock butterfly) possesses the Droch Shúil or false eyes as a form of natural camouflage for protection from larger predators.
I came across this excellent blog by Shane Broderick, and it helps to understand how our forefathers once approached life, for better or worse.
Another example I discovered during my research was from Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches. This audio recording was made in 1968 as Mr. Roderick Ferguson narrated a story in Scots Gaelic about an evil eye which was placed on a cow.
In the sub-region of Asia’s Indian subcontinent, particularly in India and Pakistan, black is most often connected to evil. However, in Hinduism for example, a black ointment known as kajal has for centuries been used to decorate a big black bindi or mark on the forehead of infants as a mark of protection against the powers of the evil eye. This black spot is supposed to diminish the beauty of the child and ward off any negative powers.
The term Nazar originated in the Middle East and North Africa and is still widely used today in Arabic-speaking countries. In Arabic نَظَر [ˈnaðˤar], it means ‘sight’, ‘surveillance’, ‘attention’, and is also used in Azerbaijani, Bengali, Hebrew, Hindi, Kurdish, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Turkish, Urdu and other languages.
The Nazar, also known as the evil eye, is an ancient talisman from the Arab culture. Nazar amulets are a powerful symbol of protection that can be worn or hung in homes or businesses to provide peace of mind and safety from harm.
The Eye of Providence
The Eye of Providence is a powerful symbol that has been used for centuries to represent God’s omniscience. It is commonly depicted as an eye within a triangle surrounded by rays of light and is often accompanied by the words “Providence” or “glory.” The Eye of Providence is especially well-known in modern times due to its prominent placement on the United States dollar bill, where it is thought to represent God’s watchful eye. It serves as a reminder to all citizens that their lives are being watched over by a higher power.
Throughout history, various groups, including Freemasons, have used the Eye of Providence to represent their belief in the divine providence of the Great Architect. It also serves as a reminder that all of our actions are scrutinised by God and that we must strive to act with integrity and justice. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the Eye of Providence can be a powerful reminder of our shared humanity and the need for accountability.
Black and Negativity
Language is probably the most obvious example of the connection between black and negativity. Think about these commonly used expressions: Black Monday, Black Death, Black magic, Blackball, Blackhole, Black-hearted, Black mood, Black sheep, Blackmail, Black market, Blackout, the list could go on…
For example, in the European Middle Ages and early Renaissance, black was associated with all things evil, including the devil. People turned to the church in response to massive outbreaks of disease, famine, and war, especially the Black Death.
The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic that lasted from 1346 to 1353 in Western Eurasia and North Africa. It is the most lethal pandemic in recorded history, killing 75-200 million people and peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The devil was the figure who bore the brunt of the blame. In Latin, the word for black, ‘ater,’ was closely associated with evil or monstrosity, and the devil is frequently depicted in a jet-black coat in mediaeval paintings.
What Is the Significance of The Colour Black in Witchcraft?
The colour black represents death, darkness, protection, the underworld, life, birth, resurrection, and fertility. For witches, this colour covers and protects them from negative influences.
By the early modern period, the emphasis had shifted to those thought to be associated with the devil and evil spirits through sorcery and witchcraft. The term “black magic” was applied to those who were thought to be working with evil spirits for evil purposes. Women were frequently persecuted because many female pagan practitioners were seen as a threat to the church, and women were also seen as more likely to be seduced by the devil and fall into sin.
Witches were depicted in dark clothing and were frequently accompanied by a black goat; the devil in disguise.
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials held between early 1692 and mid-1693 in colonial Massachusetts, remain one of the most infamous events in American history.
During this time, people were accused of witchcraft and were subjected to court proceedings and trials, as black was seen as a colour of evil and bad luck, and many of those accused of witchcraft were associated with it.
The association between black and witchcraft began with the accusations made against those suspected of practising the “devil’s magic”. Many believed that those accused of witchcraft had used dark magic and were therefore associated with the colour black. Furthermore, those accused would often wear black clothing to their trials, further cementing the idea that colour was an indicator of evil or bad luck.
More than two hundred people were charged with witchcraft, and twenty were executed at the time. However, many were later pardoned, and their families were compensated by colonial authorities in 1711. Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the last convicted Salem “witch” whose name had yet to be cleared, was finally exonerated in July 2022.
Throwing a witch into a pond, lake, or river was one of the many ancient ‘tests’ for a witch. If she drowned she was innocent, if she floated she was a witch. This was depicted in the satirical film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) in a scene involving a witch-burning trial.
Monks at War
The Benedictine monks wore black robes as a sign of humility and penitence. In the 12th century, the “Black monks,” as they came to be called, were challenged by the Cistercian monks, who wore white. The Benedictines accused the Cistercians of being prideful, as demonstrated by their white robes. The Cistercians prepared their comeback: black, they responded, was the colour of the devil, death, and sin, while their use of white symbolized purity and innocence.
The normal monastic colour is black, symbolic of repentance and simplicity. The habits of monks and nuns are identical; additionally, nuns wear a scarf, called an apostolnik. The habit is bestowed in degrees, as the monk or nun advances in the spiritual life.
During WWII, both the RAF Bomber Command and the German Luftwaffe had aircraft dedicated to night operations, with the undersides painted matt black. This provided some protection and camouflage against the night sky.
On the upper surfaces, the RAF typically used a standard temperate land scheme (dark green and brown). The Germans, on the other hand, created a swirling grey wave pattern (Wallenmuster) that was used on the upper surfaces, and sometimes all over, bombers and night fighters.
Masters of Ink
Black ink for writing was invented in China during the Neolithic Period, possibly as early as 4,500 years ago. The ink was made from ground soot mixed with animal glue and shaped into solid sticks, or “cakes,” which were used for calligraphy and painting.
The true masters of Eastern “ink wash painting” were artists who were able to use only black ink to capture the spirit of a scene. The bests artists used the fewest amount of brushstrokes possible to evoke an atmosphere.
According to the ancient Chinese divination text, I Ching or Yi Jing, which is also known as the Book of Changes or the Classic of Changes, black is the colour of heaven. The phrase “heaven and earth of black” arose from the observation that the northern sky had been dark for an extended period. The Chinese thought Tian Di, or the Heavenly Emperor, lived in the North Star.
Additionally, black and white are used in the Taiji symbol to represent the unity of yin and yang. The ancient Chinese considered black to be the king of colours, and they honoured it more consistently than any other colour. “Know the white, keep the black,” Lao Zi said, and the Dao school believes black is the colour of the Dao which means an ethical or moral pathway.
In China, black, like white, is associated with death and mourning and was traditionally worn at funerals, though this varies depending on the age of the deceased.
Black in Print
The Gutenberg Bible was the first book ever printed, and it used black text on white paper since it was the easiest to read of the two colours. Only with the creation of a new type of printer’s ink, created by blending soot, turpentine, and walnut oil, was the mass production of printed books possible.
In contrast, the first computers used green type on a black background. However, when researchers discovered that traditional black-on-white improved reading accuracy by 26%, they switched as soon as the technology allowed it.
Back in Black: Black in Fashion
Until the 14th century, the finest cloth was dyed with red, blue, or purple dye rather than black. However, with the introduction of high-quality black dyes and the implementation of laws restricting coloured cloth to the nobility, wealthy Italian bankers began to wear black clothes as a sign of importance. Kings all over Europe took notice and soon adopted the black style themselves.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century that black saw a resurgence in style. British “dandy” Beau Brummell revived black fashion with the black Regency-era tailored three-piece suit that became the modern man’s mode. The Victorian era was defined by a desire for respectability, and a dark wardrobe often contributed to this. By the twentieth century, business attire consisted of black jackets, waistcoats, bowler hats, and umbrellas. The “black lounge” suit or “stroller” became popular in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Commonwealth countries, particularly with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
At this point, black had become an acceptable colour for women’s evening wear. Credited with pioneering the timeless “little black dress,” Coco Chanel unveiled her line of effortlessly chic black suits and dresses in 1927, captivating the fashion world and being featured in American Vogue. The basic black Givenchy dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is credited with popularising the look. As one of the most versatile and always fashionable pieces of clothing, the simple black dress has become an essential part of any wardrobe.
In the 1960s Mary Quant transformed the way women dressed, making them more comfortable and liberated. She was a London-based mod and youth fashion designer who was responsible for the miniskirt, hotpants, and A-line dresses, which were typically in both colourful and geometric black and white designs.
In 1988, Quant collaborated and designed the Mini’s interior for a limited-edition variant that was mostly offered in the UK. It has seats with red accents and black and white striped upholstery. Red seatbelts are present, and the upper left quadrant of both the driver’s seat and the passenger seat bears Quant’s signature. The bonnet badge had “Mary Quant” inscribed over the signature name, and the steering wheel featured Quant’s trademark daisy. Instead of the more typical chrome or black finishes, the headlight housings, wheel arches, door handles, and bumpers were all finished in “nimbus grey.”
In the 1970s, youth culture and music scenes ranging from goths to new romantics and heavy metal to punks popularised and redefined wearing black clothing.
Steampunk fashion quickly gained popularity in the 1980s, combining the aesthetics of Victorian and industrial-style clothing, such as corsets and waistcoats, with contemporary accessories, such as body piercings and dramatic black eye makeup. A new generation has challenged black respectability with a different kind of rebellion, corresponding to darker themes from previous centuries.
Furthermore, films such as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas by Tim Burton not only developed a cult following and inspired an edgy aesthetic, but they also had a tremendous influence on the dark, gothic trend.
The influence of this dark gothic style crossed over into the mainstream and started to appear in both the fashion and beauty industries. This was combined, with an obsession with thinness in the fashion industry, and drug use in the Grunge scene in the 1990s with the term “heroin chic”, let’s hope it never reappears.
The Blackest Black in the World
In 2014, an English high-tech company announced that it had made the darkest black ever seen. Made by growing carbon nanotubes on a metal surface, Vantablack, as the scientists called it, traps light to such an extent that the surface looks like a void.
The company licenses exclusive use of the technology to the artist Anish Kapoor, who uses it to give the viewer the impression that they are looking into a black hole.
In North America, although post-Thanksgiving shopping is nothing new, the term “Black Friday” has been adapted numerous times since its inception in the 1950s. The term “Black Friday” was coined in the 1960s to describe the large number of workers who took the day off. This often led to extremely congested roads, which were so bad that they were referred to as “black” by police officers.
Businesses were concerned that mentioning traffic issues would make customers less likely to visit them on Black Friday in the 1980s. To avoid this, they designated it as the day when they made the most money and became “in the black,” or profitable.
Famous Artists Known for Using the Colour Black
Famous artists have used the colour black in a variety of ways to create powerful works of art. However, for some of these artists, what is colour in art without the use of black?
From Matisse’s bold black lines that define the contours of his paintings to Hockney’s charcoal and acrylic sketches, black has been used to evoke emotion and create visually striking pieces. Let’s look at serval artists who used black in their work:
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker who lived from 1746 to 1828.
Goya created a series of “Black Paintings” (1821-1833) using only ochre, gold, brown, grey, and black. The series is thought to be Goya’s response to the 17th-century Basque witch trials during the Spanish Inquisition.
One particular piece titled “Witches’ Flight “, depicts the devil as a massive, deep-black-horned goat looming over witch covens.
T.H. Matteson was an American painter who is most well known for his painting “The Examination of a Witch“, which he completed in 1853. This painting is a representation of the Salem witch trials and features an intense use of the colour black.
In the painting, Matteson uses black to become both the centrepiece and backdrop of the artwork; allowing it to become the absence and presence of all other colours.
By using black as the main colour, he draws attention to the theme of oppression and emphasises the significance of the Salem witch trials.
The French artist Henri Matisse (1859-1964) was a master of colour and had a unique ability to create powerful images with just a few brushstrokes or linocuts. While his use of bright colours is renowned, Matisse also made use of the colour black in many of his works.
Although many fine painters never use black, Matisse in 1946 declared; “When I didn’t know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I used black as ballast to simplify the construction.”
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was an American abstract expressionist painter who is best known for his unique “drip painting” style. He was born in Wyoming in 1912 and died in 1956 in a car accident.
Pollock began a series of works exclusively using black in and around 1951 and it became an important part of his oeuvre. These paintings were created by pouring turpentine-thinned black ‘Duco’ nitrocellulose paint directly onto a blank canvas. As the black paint was applied, it blurred, much like when a photograph is enlarged and detail is lost as the canvas was a soft raw cotton substrate, as opposed to a firm primed canvas.
This gave his work a dark and moody look that was quite different from the bright colours of traditional abstract expressionism. The use of black also allowed Pollock to create a sense of drama and tension in his artworks.
Mark Rothko was a Latvian-American abstract painter who lived from 1903 to 1970. His colour field paintings, which depict irregular and painterly rectangular regions of colour, are his most well-known works.
Early in his career, he was known for using bright colours in his works. However, in his later years, his paintings communicated his message of tragedy and death, as Rothko once claimed. This can be seen in the grimness of paintings devoid of colour, such as Untitled (Black on Gray).
Patrick Joseph Caulfield (1936-2005) was a prominent British painter and printmaker of the twentieth century.
His work is known for its distinct style, which incorporates elements of photorealism within a stripped-down scene by combining bold colours and thick black outlines.
When I was younger and living in Luton, I remember seeing Caulfield paintings on display at the Tate Gallery and thinking that, with careful application, black can bring a painting to life.
Anish Kapoor is an internationally renowned artist known for his use of black in his work.
Kapoor has spent his career delving into the depths and complexities of black to create powerful works of art. He has used black to convey mystery and intrigue in many of his sculptures, paintings, and installations.
Kapoor has exclusive rights to use Vantablack for artistic purposes, much to the consternation of other artists who argue it is to the exclusion of others.
How Artists & Designers Can Best Leverage the Use of Black & White
In art and design, using black and white can be a powerful tool for creating an impactful visual that resonates with viewers. Artists and designers can create a dramatic effect by contrasting these two colours to highlight specific aspects of their designs.
Hopefully, my website logo demonstrates this point well.
Using black and white can also help to simplify a design, allowing the artist or designer to focus on the message they are attempting to communicate.
To maximise the use of black and white in art and design, consider the following steps:
The first step is to identify the message you want to convey through your design. Consider what you want your viewers to feel when they look at your work. Once you have identified the message, you can consider how to best communicate it in black and white.
Next, consider your design’s composition and how the black and white elements will interact with one another. Consider how the contrast between the two colours can be used to create a dramatic effect to highlight certain aspects of the design. Consider how using black and white can help to simplify the overall design and focus on the message you are trying to convey.
Finally, experiment with different black-and-white combinations to see which works best for your design. Experiment with various patterns and compositions to find the one that best works. Do not be afraid to experiment and think outside the box; experimenting with different designs can lead to unexpected results that are even more powerful than you anticipated.
By taking these steps, artists and designers can effectively leverage the power of black and white to create an impactful visual that resonates with viewers. The contrast between the two colours can be used to create a dramatic effect and to emphasise certain aspects of a design, while also helping to simplify the design to focus on the message. With experimentation, artists and designers can create a powerful visual that captivates their viewers.
What Colours Make Black?
Fine painters rarely use black. The pigment in black paint is very deadening and harsh, and it can be difficult to work with, often prone to muddying colours and producing smudgy results. It’s far better to take your time and create dark hues from the rest of the colour wheel. A common exercise in colour theory classes is to make black out of the primary colours.
To achieve a deep, true black, you must first understand the colour wheel. To make pure black with traditional painting mediums, combine three colours in equal parts: blue, magenta, and yellow.
Tips for Printing Blacks
In the commerical printing industry or even your inkjet printer at home, the colours used are referred to as Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow and Key (black) and abbreviated as CMYK.
Printing black in the CMYK colour mode can be done in several ways. A standard black print is typically printed only with black ink or toner, while a rich black print includes elements of other CMYK colors (Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow); for example:
- If you set values of: C = 100, M = 100, Y = 100, K = 0 you end up with greyish black;
- Regular ‘standard’ black has CMYK values of: C = 0, M = 0, Y = 0, K = 100;
- However, to obtain a pure deep ‘rich’ black in reprographics, set the CMYK values to: C = 60, M = 60, Y = 60, K = 100.
In general, you will find standard black to be more useful than rich black, particularly if you want to print small fonts. Depending on how you define a small font size and the method of printing, plain black is much more legible than rich black in small fonts. The layering of different tones can affect the printout’s crispness, especially if the registration on the printing press is off.
Not only that, but using rich black also employs multiple layers, which can be quite expensive because you end up spending more on toner or ink. However, standard black uses only Key, which is less expensive than the alternative.
Nonetheless, when Rich Black ink is used correctly, and a suitable font size is selected, and the printing process is not smudgy, the final print is impressive and noticeable.
Blacks in Digital Graphics
In the RGB colour system, combining red, green, and blue will create black. This is the most common method used to create black in digital graphics.
It is important to remember that while black is not ‘technically’ a colour; it still plays an important role in the colour wheel. When used correctly, black can help to create interesting and striking visuals.
What is the Difference Between a Colour, Tint, Shade, and Tone?
A tint is a colour mixed with white that increases lightness, whereas a shade is a colour mixed with black that increases darkness. Both processes affect the relative saturation of the resulting colour mixture.
The tone is created by combining colour with grey or by tinting and shading. When a colour is mixed with any neutral colour (including black, grey, and white), the Chroma, or colourfulness, decreases while the hue (the relative mixture of red, green, blue, and so on depending on the colour space) remains constant.
So is White the Absence of Colour?
In the most literal sense, pure white paint is the absence of all colour. In other words, you can’t mix colours to get white paint. This is due to the fact that any paint colour will absorb at least one wavelength. Many people believe that combining all of the colours of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) will produce white.
Conclusion: A Recap of the Complex Question: Is Black a Colour?
To summarise, the question of whether or not black is a colour is open to interpretation. While traditional definitions may suggest that it isn’t a colour, modern scientific theories suggest otherwise. To understand why some people consider black to be part of the visible spectrum, one can look at the physical properties of light and colour. However, this does not imply that everyone will agree with this viewpoint. Finally, opinions on this subject vary and are based on personal experiences and understanding.
To make matters even more complicated, to make an informed decision, one must consider the optical properties of light as well as how we perceive colours. Despite this complexity, I am convinced that black is a phantom shade of colour, with a unique combination of hues that creates a beauty that nothing else can match.
Finally, if you want to add some colour to your interior decoration, art is a great way to do so. You can easily change the theme of your home or workplace by purchasing a painting in your preferred colour palette, which can completely alter a space. Choose art that makes you happy and remember the careful use of black can add a level of sophistication and elegance to your life and surroundings.
Whether you purchase pre-existing items or commission custom work, a few well-chosen pieces can have a significant impact. So, why not start searching for some art today?
Learn More Now
If you enjoyed this post, you can learn more about other colours by clicking on the links below:
- The Colour White: It’s Mystical and Cultral Significance
- The Colour Blue
- The Colour Red: Coming Soon
- The Colour Yellow: Coming Soon
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Henry Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it’s black”. However, it is a common misconception that all Model Ts were painted black.
From 1914 to 1925, the Model T was only available in black, which allowed for efficiency and uniformity, while also allowing Ford to pass on production savings to customers.
Various models of the vehicle were produced in a variety of colours including blue, red, grey, and green, during the years 1908-1914 and 1925-1927. In the end, a total of 15 million ‘Tin Lizzie’s’ were manufactured.
- Black bean
- Black olive
- Carbon black
- Charleston green
- Coal black
- Cool black
- Davy’s grey
- Dim gray
- Eerie black
- Outer Space
- Raisin black
- Red Black
- Roseman Black
- Super black
Black sapphire is a nearly opaque gemstone that appears to absorb all light that enters the gemstone. This stone can also appear very dark blue or grey at times.
The most popular sapphire colour is blue, but green, pink, and yellow stones are also popular. Sapphire exists in all possible colours except red due to the presence of other chemical elements within its structure; this variety of corundum is known as ruby.
Corundum is a crystalline form of aluminium oxide with traces of iron, titanium, vanadium, and chromium. It is a mineral that forms rocks. It is naturally transparent, but its colour can vary depending on the presence of transition metal impurities in its crystalline structure.
Black sapphires are mined in large quantities primarily in Australia. Black sapphire is frequently confused with Onyx, which is a softer gemstone, whereas sapphire is one of the hardest gemstones.
Black sapphire represents the wisdom of trusting one’s own intuition. It is a grounding stone that provides protection and centering for the body as well as the inherent energy forces. It deflects negativity from others and provides calm strength in high-stress or chaotic situations, especially as a Star Sapphire. Black sapphire protects those with mediumistic or clairvoyant abilities and is excellent for dispelling doubt, relieving anxiety, and alleviating sorrow. It is also said to be a powerful talisman for finding and keeping work.
The letter “K” in CMYK stands for Key. The lines and/or contrast of the image are provided by the key plate, which is usually impressed with black ink.
Some people still believe that the “K” in CMYK is derived from the last letter of “black” and was chosen because “B” already means blue in the RGB colour space.
Shadows are typically a very dark blue hue, though they may appear black due to the lack of light. In fact, many people mistakenly assume that shadows are black when in reality they have an underlying shade of blue.
So when it comes to painting try not to paint shadows using black, use a very dark blue instead and you will be amazed at the difference this can make.
Adrian Reynolds, or ‘Ren,’ is a Dublin-based contemporary artist. His works are a reaction to the world around us. A world that continues to evolve quicker than ever. His work investigates colour, form, and texture, putting them at the intersection of abstraction and representation. His art has been shown in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.