Putting Black on Palette

Back in Black

Who has not rocked out to the rock n’ roll anthem, “Back in Black” by the group AC/DC? Perhaps you were in your car while stuck in traffic and you turned it up while it was on the radio.  You may have been in your studio, playing air guitar in front of blank canvas. 

If you were painting outdoors it is not likely that the song was running through your head.  However, it would be very possible that black was certainly not on your palette!

Black is often considered to be a forbidden color for outdoor painting.  Technically, black is not even considered a color!  Since black is the absence of color, it is defined as neutral. 

Without getting too technical, black is either the absence of color or the accumulation of all colors at once.  That is a discussion that will be saved for later regarding additive and subtractive color mixing.  For now, let us get back to the use (or non-use) of black as a pigment for painting.

Not All Black and White

Black was in primary use in the early days of painting.  In fact, it may have even been one of the first to be used.  Like ochres and oxides or clays, black would be considered an “earth color”.  It is easy to imagine the carbon ashes of burnt wood or bones being crushed into a paste to make marks on the walls of caves.  Black was included in Aristotle’s theory of color, believing that color is a gift from God given to us by rays of light to represent fire, water, earth, air.  His theory included white, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, and black.  Notice that with black, red, and yellow are also included in Aristotle’s color theory. Today, we are taught about yellow, red, and blue as being the “primary” colors.  They are labeled primary because it is not possible to create these three colors.

Nice Assortment

When I go to a museum, I like to look at the self portraits of the older painters.  They often show themselves holding their palettes.  In these paintings, I can see for myself the colors they probably were using. More often than not, only a small arrangement of colors is ever represented.  Usually they are a yellow, a red, a green, a white and a black.   Nice to know!  The older painters are often regarded as having “certain qualities” lost to modern painters.  Their work can be described as having a harmonious and even tonal quality throughout the painting, with certain accentual notes of color boldness here and there. 

Judith Leyster
Judith Leyster, Self Portrait c. 1630

Into the blue? 

As the Impressionists broke away from the academic studio tradition, black was eventually removed from their palettes.  The old style of black and brown paintings became tiresome to these modern radicals who took to making “bright pictures”. For them, black would serve no purpose.  Blue was in the shadows of the trees and under the chins of sitters lit by the direct sunlight.  The bright mixtures of green were possible by taking black off the palette.

This desire for brightness may not be the only reason for black to come off the palette.  There were other historical reasons that may have contributed to the shift from black to blue.  One reason may be the rise of industry where the by-products of manufacturing produced chemical composites that allowed for synthetic replicas of hues that were formerly cost prohibitive.  Certain blues of the historical period of the “masters” were allowed only for royalty (thus “royal blue”), making black the economical choice for creating softer blues.  The development of cheaper blues from the waste of industry meant blue would become an exciting new instrument with which to launch the modern painter into a whole new direction of making pictures.

“Mayonnaise” Pallet

One of my favorite books about painting is “Oil Painting Techniques and Materials” by Harold Speed.  In the chapter on color, he suggests that the Impressionists emphasis of color purity may lend a risk towards a “fruit salad sort of coloring” that can turn up in the worst of some Impressionist painting.   He also suggests that a certain “dignity of the earth colors” could be missed if black is entirely removed from the palette. 

chez-le-pere-lathuille painting by Manet
Édouard Manet, “Chez Le pere Lathuille” c. 1879

I will say that the tonal harmony of the older painters was achieved because of their judicious handling of black.  Manet, often considered an Impressionist as well as not one, used black on his palette masterfully.  Manet studied in the academic tradition.  It appears that Manet used a palette that was a mixture of academic and modern colors.  Cadmiums and ochres for the hues were used with both blue and black on his palette. 

The obvious use of using black masterfully is probably Whistler and his painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother).

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” (Whistler’s Mother) c. 1871

Into the Black?

In my own ventures in learning to paint, I found that by initially using black instead of blue, forced me to learn more about the instinct of color mixing.  In varying hue intensity with shades before attempting to do it with complements, I was able to dismiss the overwhelming confusion of having too many colors on my palette right away. 

Maybe that is why, when I am once again at the museum and looking at the self portrait of a painter with her palette from centuries ago, I feel like I nearly see a little knowing nod or wink.  Like a kinship across time, we’re sharing notes and a little black secret to what is in the the recipe. Therefore I find that many times, I have put black back on my palette, and just rocked with it.

Artfully Engaged

As the pandemic continues, many of us find ourselves mapping out and navigating ourselves into a new way forward.  We hear from medical and mental professionals about the mix of emotions and their effects this historic disruption has had on what we all knew as our stable way of doing things.


The good news is that we can certainly all understand how we all could possibly feel, which may be a little topsy-turvy.  Still, one thing I have noticed are a couple things.  One is our resiliency overall.  We tend to go through several processes individually yet in the end we create slogans like “rise up” or “stand strong”.  


I like to believe that means we all truly support each other and want the best for each other and ourselves in the pursuit of personal and societal happiness.  I hope you are being well and know that we are all finding our way out of uncertainty by creating new things and inventing new ideas about work and life.


Another aspect is our tendency to open-up and share.  Here are a few art related ways I found recently to stay in touch and stay involved.

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Staying Well with Art

Painters Palette at the Ready

Hi Everyone,
I hope all us are well during this interesting time in our history.  As we are encouraged to “Stay Safer at Home” we are finding ourselves burdened with adjusting to many things.  Some of my friends tell me they are adjusting to a lack of structure.  Some were used to waking up and going to work every day, and with that came their routine of “getting out the door”, and that is no longer necessary in the same way it was a few weeks ago. 

Couple that with the extra management of home-schooling children, providing your own daily meals, struggling with hectic grocery store runs, and managing dwindling finances, how do we cope with so many new considerations suddenly thrust into our lives as never before? 

Continue reading “Staying Well with Art”

Similarities Unify Us More than our Differences

My Brushes on a Table

As I write this, many of us are having concerns about our health due to the Corona Virus pandemic.  In connection with that are concerns about our leadership, election campaigns, and the economy.  I recently attended a panel discussion about civility in partisan times.  One of the major points was that throughout human history there has been conflict and worry, however our similarities often unify us more than our differences.

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The Patience to Do It

People often say to me that they could never be an artist.  It is not for lack of skill or desire, they say, but because they don’t have the patience to do it.  I rarely understand what they mean by that.  My work typically deals with the immediate response and interpretation to what I see in front of me.  I work with big brushes and make broad strokes, and the process is energetic.  So that is possibly why I get confused when people tell me that they don’t have the patience to paint.  Well, what about the patience to look at something? 

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Hindsight is Nineteen-Twenty

     I was rummaging through my studio, sorting and clearing out a few things.  Stacks of old canvases and sketches, basically untouched, began to reveal a story.  The story was the progress of my work over the last decade.  Going back and looking at the old canvases was like going through a lost photo album.  I could remember the thoughts I was having, the difficulties or successes of the moment.  It was astonishing to see where my work was at ten years ago.  Of course, I had to consider and ask myself, where will it go from here?

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The Opposite of a Critique

Photo by Chris Barbalis

Article By Curtis Green, Photo by Chris Barbalis

     At one point during my time as an art student, we learned how to describe a work of art.  This was an excellent exercise for all of us young eager and emotional students ready to pour out our guts to anyone who would listen.  Our professor had us put our work up on the wall.  There, we were to stand before everyone else and start divulging our own descriptions of our pieces.   This was opposite of a critique.  A critique included our work on the wall for sure, but now others would talk about what they saw and thought about it.  This time the artists would speak for themselves.   Oh boy! Continue reading “The Opposite of a Critique”

Thinking of Artists as Grateful Gift Givers

Painting of A Sentiment for Fall by Curtis Green

By Curtis Green

As the holiday season approaches, I started thinking about artists as grateful gift givers. Artists can be thought of as gracious and giving or snobby and pretentious or maybe a mix of all of these.  As my thoughts were coming together, I remembered a funny routine by comedian George Carlin about his views on the game of golf.  The bit explained his unique perspective about the game.  He joked that golf was a snobby, elitist, pretentious endeavor played for the sake of chasing a tiny ball around for hours on end.  Perhaps art can be viewed with similar terms.  Continue reading “Thinking of Artists as Grateful Gift Givers”

The Art Collector vs. The Art Collector

Photo by Aaina Sharma

I read a lot of articles about the art world. I subscribe to current articles that often relate what happened at certain events or shows. They offer news from small galleries to big museums, auctions and art fairs around the world. These articles are shared and reposted over several platforms. They sometimes read like a red carpet review of “who wore what, where and when” but they also contain serious information like auction trends and percentages per genre. Topics may be about a particular artist, who has somehow busted an all time record for the sale of a single piece. This industry reading is part of what one does, when one does, what I do, make art. I wonder, is there a scenario of the Art Collector vs. the Art Collector? Continue reading “The Art Collector vs. The Art Collector”