Black is Back

written by Sophie | Oil Painting

Often I hear people say that they were told never to use black in their oil painting practice. Now I probably missed some vital education, but I am at a loss why anyone would say that. Some say it is because “there is no black in nature”, which makes little sense to me as I can see plenty around me and art and nature are not the same thing. Another reason might be because it is a difficult colour. Now there might be a point worth considering. Lets explore black a little bit.

I use black. I love black. Look at the world, look at photography, look at art, and see how varied and interesting black can be.

But – tell me – black and white, may one use them or not? Are they forbidden fruit? I think not. Frans Hals must have had twenty-seven blacks. (Vincent van Gogh)

Now we got that out of the way and you all know on which side of the debate I stand, let’s move on to considering the potential problems and joys with black.

Tricky Colour

I do think black can be a tricky colour to work with for beginners. There are many different types of black (see below) and sometimes they behave differently from what a beginning oil painter might expect.​When mixed in with other colours many blacks make things greyer, duller, more neutral. Contrary to what one might expect, blacks do not always make a colour darker. The main effect of adding black to a medium-value colour is that it will neutralise and grey it. Because many think black will darken things only, this is unexpected. It is easy to end up with a grey ‘mud’ when you mix black into your colours and wonder where you went wrong. So for complete beginners there is something to be said for avoiding black. Its a tricky colour to work with.

Black is glossy when wet and will usually dry fairly matt, changing the look of your painting dramatically. Varnishing it will bring back the deep wet effect. You sometimes have to second-guess what things will look like when dry or varnished.​But with a bit of practice you can get to know and appreciate black, and all the different blacks out there. Even if it doesn’t always work very well as a darkener, it can work very nicely as a cooling tone, a neutraliser, a blue tone and indeed sometimes as a darkener too. Use it for what it is good at and make the most of it.​Of course unmixed black, straight from the tube, can be a wonderful choice. There is really no reason at all to not use black. Most of the old masters used black and we could not imagine a Rembrandt or a Velazquez painting without black in it!

Velázquez, The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, Oil on canvas, 1645.
Velázquez, The Jester Don Diego de Acedo, Oil on canvas, 1645.

Mixing Your Own Blacks

You can mix your own ‘blacks’ without using black. These mixed ‘blacks’ are usually more colourful and lively than the plain blacks from the tube. With mixing, you can give your ‘black’ a slight hint of colour, and give it some character that suits your painting. You can also create a shift within your painting, from a warm to a cool ‘black’. Often an extremely dark brown, (or blue or green, etc) will give the impression of being ‘black’ without being dull. In all, mixing it yourself or mixing tube black together with other colours, will provide you with more options.A good mix is Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. You can experiment with various dark blues or cool greens to see the different effects. Adding a deep cool red such as Alizarin Crimson or Ruby Red to Ultramarine Blue will also create a deep purple that borders on black. Experimenting will get you there!

I mix my own ‘ blacks’ but I also use black from a tube. I use black for flat backgrounds. I use black to mix into a mixed ‘black’. I use black to change the chroma, temperature or value of a colour.

I used to use just Ivory black for the backgrounds but though the finish and colour can be lovely it just takes far too long to dry. I’ve been using mixes lately” (Katy Sullivan)

 I rarely use tube blacks and prefer to mix my own from other colors. Almost any combination of pure dark colors can make lovely blacks. (Joe Ongie)

My blacks are a fairly thick pure mars black, applied with no medium and then smoothed out to minimize any texture which might catch the light. (Jeremy Geddes)

Jeremy Geddes, Miserere 2, 2012, Oil on Board 18x 18″

Tubed Black

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Although I love to experiment with different colours and brands, at the moment I own 5 tubes of black paint: 3 Ivory blacks (Mussini, Winsor & Newton, Vasari), Lamp black (Vasari) and Vine Black (Michael Harding).  I have yet to try Mars Black!I like my latest purchase of Michael Harding’s Vine Black. It is fairly transparent and gentle. It states it is made of the same pigment (PBk 11) as what most brands use for Mars Black.

My Vasari Lamp Black is deep and dark and dries matt and is opaque and strong. The Ivory Blacks are semi-opaque and a good all-rounder. It  dries matt and is fairly neutral in colour.


Most brands have Ivory Black, Lamp Black and Mars Black in their repertoire. However, there are differences between brands that can be quite large. So experimenting and trial and error is – as is so often – the only way to find out what works for you.

For example, Winsor & Newton’s Lamp Black is described on their website as a cool colour. Vasari describes it as cool and dense. Michael Harding’s Lamp Black, however, is soft and warm. Some brands use different pigments (Talens Rembrandt’s Lamp Black is not made from the usual Pbk 6 but Pbk 7) so it really pays off to read the manufacturer’s  descriptions and try things out for yourself.

As another example the three Ivory Blacks that I have are all slightly different. The Mussini Ivory Black is slightly oiler and a little transparent while the Vasari Ivory Black is the least oily and spreads very far (“long paint”) and is definitely my favourite.. The Winsor & Newton Ivory Black sits in between but it is closer to the Vasari.

As a general guide:

Lamp Black: made from carbon, pigment PBk 6, cool, matt and dark, opaque.Ivory Black: made from bone, pigment PBk 9, neutral, semi-opaque.Mars Black: made from iron oxide, pigment PBk11, warm, opaque, matt.Vine Black: made from iron oxide, pigment PBk11, cool, semi transparent.Many brands do a variety of colours that come close to black such as Perylene black (Mussini’s Atrament Black) or Payne’s Grey, or a Blue Black.

I generally use paynes gray instead of black, but Ido have ivory black on my pallette As well” (Roni Taharlev)

Do you use black? Do you rather mix your own? Or use greys? Which is your favourite and what do you use it for?

Thank you to the quoted artists for letting me use their words and expertise.

Some further reading:


Published: May 17, 2017

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  1. Art and nature are not the same thing? That is a very tricky thing to say, because were does black pigment comes from? Last time I checked it came from nature. So yes we can use it without any trouble, like absolutely everything that our senses can perceive, black comes from nature as well. And yes, science theory says nothing is truly black, but then again let´s use that very dark color that we call black! 🙂

  2. I use to mix ultramarine and Burnt Umber and no straight black, i will try as your advice to use black and adding to it vermilion or other color .like your Blogs

    1. Hi, yes Ultramarine and Burnt Umber makes a great black. I use that recipe a lot too. But it is really fun to try out different combinations. Have fun!

  3. I love black – I use mostly Vasari Mars Black and W&N Ivory Black & also Vasari’s.

    I used to always mix it with Alizarin/Viridian/Ultramarine, but don’t so much now. I prefer to add any hints of colour to one of the above blacks.

    I think I have perhaps 6 blacks, but usually only use those two.
    I do have an almost black mixed by a friend in LA – very useful neutral type.
    I also have a set of Munsell pre mixed Greys produced by a small company (now retired).

    1. Thank you Trisha for adding your comments and experience! Great to hear. I haven’t tried Mars black yet – must try it sometime. I do the same as you do: mix a bit of colour into the blacks to give it some life. Thanks again!

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