General Comments

Virgil prefers Mars Black and Ivory Black (or Bone Black).

Some artists refrain from using single black pigments and prefer mixing their own from multiple pigments or they avoid using black altogether. Below are some comments from Virgil on these subjects:

Re: Mixing Blacks

  • This idea that black should be mixed from other colors has no good reason that I can see behind it. And to mix a substitute for it out of fugitive colors like alizarin crimson, sap green, etc. is folly. There are some very good black pigments available that do not fade or otherwise change color.
  • Mixtures of other pigments to approximate black can only equal the degree of darkness of transparent bone (called ivory) black if the pigments are at least as transparent as bone black. Umbers are not as transparent as bone black, so mixtures containing them will not likely read as dark, besides which, umbers (especially burnt umber) tend to dry matte and create sunken-in dry-appearing patches. What is called Van Dyke brown today is a mixture containing burnt umber, usually mixed with bone black.
  • When two or more pigments are mixed in an attempt to substitute for black, there are likely differences in lightfastness between them, so when the least lightfast of the pigments in the mixture fades, the hue of the mixture will change. I have samples of alizarin crimson that not only faded in my tests, but also lost their transparence, and became an opaque grey eventually. Some of the sap green samples did this also. This it why I see no good reason to eschew bone black in favor of mixed approximations of black.
  • I generally prefer to avoid tubed colors that are made with more than one pigment in my own work, out of concern for the possibility that one of the pigments in the mixture might fade before the other, someday, thus causing the color to change. So if there is a lightfast single-pigment color that will serve the purpose, as there is in the case of the blacks, that’s what I’ll use.

Perhaps one exception? Gamblin Chromatic Black is a mixture of phthalocyanine green PG 36, and a quinacridone red pigment, PV 19, which are approximate complements. Both pigments are highly lightfast and high in tinting strength.

Re: Avoiding Black

  • Regarding the “Don’t use black” dictum, whenever I encounter that, I ask if it came from someone who could paint better than Rembrandt, Velazquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, Sargent, Leonardo, Bouguereau, Titian, etc., all of whom used black.
  • The greatest painters who ever lived ALL used black. Whoever it was who started this “don’t use black” nonsense was surely not one of the greatest painters who ever lived, so why follow his advice?

Ivory Black or Bone Black — PBk9

Virgil’s Assessment

Ivory black is really bone black, a single pigment that does not fade.

Ivory black is semi-transparent, and is effectively transparent when applied thinly or/and when a small amount of a clear medium is added to it. As a glaze applied over something lighter, its hue shifts toward brown, whereas in a mixture with white, it reads bluish.

Compared to Mars black, Bone black is better for the later stages of a painting because it’s transparent, and doesn’t create a dirty appearance in mixtures with colors the way Mars black tends to do.

Its tinting strength is lower than Mars black.

It does dry slowly, but if the painting is done on a lead ground or has lead white as the only white in it, all the colors will dry better and form stronger paint films than otherwise. If faster drying of bone black is desired, a tiny addition of an alkyd medium can take care of it.

To get the utmost in darkness, bone black used transparently reads darker than anything else, with the possible exception of lamp black, which is best avoided because it’s a problematic paint. The reason a transparent passage reads darker than an opaque application is that some of the light that strikes it penetrates into the interior of the paint rather than reflecting off its surface, so less light reaches our eyes from those passages. This is useful in creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth because it expands the range of values at the painter’s disposal. Light in Nature is lighter than any paint, including white, so, as the Old Masters understood well, painting everything darker than it is allows for a more convincingly realistic effect.

Rublev labels its Ivory Black Bone Black, and that’s my favorite of that color. There are other brands whose Ivory Blacks are good also, including Sennelier, Blockx, Michael Harding, Williamsburg, Winsor & Newton, and Gamblin, among the ones I have used over the last few years

Technical Links

The Colour of Art Pigment Database: Black Pigments

* Although similar in chemical composition, true Ivory black iused to be from calcined ivory. Ivory is now banned and illegal to import. Bone black and Ivory black have come to be used interchangeably to name artist paints made from Calcined (burnt) animal bones.

Read a  description of how bone black is made.

Opacity Rating: Transparent
Lightfastness Rating: I, Excellent
Oil-to-Pigment Ratios: High in Oil Content
Toxicity: Low Hazard
Drying Rates: Very Slow

Mars Black

Virgil’s Assessment

Mars black is a synthetic iron oxide pigment, not a mixture, and is lightfast.

Virgil uses mars black instead of ivory black for his background mixture because it has a higher tinting strength and makes stronger paint films.

Another difference between those two blacks is that Mars is opaque, and ivory black is more transparent, which gives a cleaner-looking tint in mixtures.

The best black for mixing greys for underpainting is Mars black, because it has a high tinting strength, which equates to leaner greys when mixed with white, lead white in particular, which dries faster than other whites, and has lower tinting strength, therefore requiring less black to achieve a given value. This combination also creates the most durable paint films.

Technical Links

The Color of Art Pigment Database: Black Pigments

Opacity Rating: Opaque
Lightfastness Rating: I, Excellent
Oil-to-Pigment Ratios: High in Oil Content
Toxicity: Low Hazard
Drying Rates: Average

Lamp Black — PBk7

Virgil’s Assessment

Lamp black is a problematic pigment. Some painters like it because it’s darker than other blacks. It’s a poor drier, and it doesn’t form durable paint films.

Lamp black is similar in appearance and tinting strength to Mars black, but dries much more slowly and does not make strong paint films. Mars black is a better choice than lamp black.

The weak film strength of lamp black can be improved to some degree if the ground is white lead in linseed oil and the white in the painting is also lead white in linseed oil.

Technical Links

 The Color of Art Pigment Database: Black Pigments

This pigment was traditionally produced by collecting soot, also known as lampblack, from oil lamps.  description of how it was made.

Carbon is not hazardous, but there may be other combustion products that are hazardous and are can be present as impurities when produced from natural materials. Commercial preparations of the pigment should be considered as possibly slightly toxic. Avoid skin contact and inhalation. Where such impurities are present, Lamp Black is a possible human carcinogen. (Ref: Blick Art Materials pigment info).  Very fine particle size (Ref Natural Pigments)

Opacity Rating: Opaque
Lightfastness Rating: I, Excellent
Oil-to-Pigment Ratios: High in Oil Content
Toxicity: Low Hazard
Drying Rates: Very Slow