Paint it Black

written by Sophie | Art History



Black is one of the most difficult colours to get right in painting. Many artists prefer to use Ivory Black, others swear by Mars Black. For some the deepest black is conveyed by mixing dark blues and reds together, creating extremely rich and dark purples and browns that appear black to the viewer and lack any greyness.  However you prefer your blacks, there is no denying that the Dutch 17th century masters knew a thing or two about depicting black. 

In the 17th century artists usually used charcoal black and to a lesser degree bone black (more info here). As far as I know these blacks are no darker than our modern choice of black pigments. Yet seeing these 400 year old paintings is awe inspiring: the depiction of black clothing is just mesmerising. Black velvet, silk, embroidery, and brocade are all depicted with spectacular painting skills. Of course showing off their deceptively modest, yet extremely expensive black clothes was one way to display wealth and status for the sitter in the painting. A good dress painter, therefore, was vital for a good portrait. 

I find the depiction of black fabric in Dutch 17th century paintings extremely inspiring. So often it is ‘simply’ a very well placed variety of black and grey marks which gives us the illusion of a deep black fabric. But the clever way the painters uses various grey tones in order to give us the impression of the deepest of blacks is really extremely clever.

Here are some details of well-known Dutch 17th century pieces. See how the painter used the brush, see how he chose to leave brushwork visible (Rubens) or create a highly detailed recreation of the fabric itself (Ter Borch).

Black on black never looked so gorgeous!

You can click the pictures for an enlargement.

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Woman, possibly Clara Fourment (1593-1643), c. 1630. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-1666. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Couple, Probably  Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, c. 1622. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Jacob Jordaens, Portrait of Catharina Behaghel, 1635. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Gerard ter Borch, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1663. National Gallery, London.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Oppjen Coppit, 1634. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Published January 21, 2019

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  1. What a fascinating post, Sophie…and to see these examples so clearly, it really inspires one to take their time with their brushmarks and subtle greys to make the folds more credible. I can see how this would translate so well into also painting very dark hair on someone’s head. The Rubens’ detail in particular is amazing. Thank you!

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