Should You Use Black? For the Serious Oil Painter It Is a Serious Question

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Are you a serious oil painter and would like to know more about the black pigments?

Should you use black in your oil painting color palette?

Should you mix all your dark values using complementary colors only?

black oil paint

These questions have been hotly debated subject among serious artists as long as I can remember.

Even a short time ago when I took a portrait painting class at the Art Students’ League of New York,  a very well-known and respected teacher asked the class if using black was “in or out” or “appropriate for the modern painter.”

The class seemed to be split on the subject and no definitive answer was ever pronounced that day.

In my opinion, black isn’t necessarily a crucial pigment in oil painting.

I do not use it at all in my regular color palette. In fact, I have very rarely ever even purchased a tube of black. The only time I buy a tube of black is when I want to do a value study.  Then I purchase a tube of black and white for this special project.

But it is technically possible to do without black altogether.

As a matter of a fact, it is just a matter of mixing primary and secondary colors in order to compensate for a black hue. This isn’t to say that the choice between black colors in oil painting isn’t very important.

Many artists shy away from using black at all because it tends to “dirty” color in mixing, and instead prefer to use a color’s complement to tint or shade. However, using black as a color, you can avoid ‘dirtiness’ to some degree by taking note of the color bias and tinting strength.

This is where it becomes important to pay attention to the differences in the black pigments and how to use them properly.

When choosing to use black oil color, there are 3 main variations of black pigment.

Black Oil Paint Pigment- Quick Comparison Guide

Pigment NamePigment Characteristics & Best Application
Ivory Black by Winsor & Newton BUY NOW ON AMAZON1. Ivory Black is semi-transparent, giving moderate coverage. It can be thinned down to be used as a glaze. It is ideal because of its moderate tinting strength. It is considered the most useful in general painting for this reason.
Mars Black by Winsor & NewtonBUY NOW ON AMAZON2. Mars Black is opaque, therefore it is ideal for direct painting especially where more coverage and opaque layers are needed. Best pigment to use as an underpainting because of the faster drying time.
Lamp Black by Winsor & Newton BUY NOW ON AMAZON3. Lamp Black is the most opaque black pigment, allowing the deepest blackest black coverage. It is the strongest black pigment and is great to use when dark blacks are needed in a painting.
Payne's Gray by Winsor & NewtonBUY NOW ON AMAZON4. Payne's Gray - Although not always considered black, it can provide black tinting when in need of a transparent color. Suitable for achieving a black tint while glazing.

#1. Ivory Black

Ivory Black is a deep velvety black that is cooler in mass tone, but warm in tint (slight brownish undertone). It has a very slow drying time.

Best Application: Ivory Black is semi-transparent, giving moderate coverage. It can be thinned down to be used as a glaze. It is ideal because of its moderate tinting strength. It is considered the most useful in general painting for this reason.

#2. Mars Black

Mars Black is the strongest black and is warm in both mass tone and tint. It is more ideal for an underpainting because it dries a bit faster.

Best Application: Mars Black is opaque, therefore it is ideal for direct painting especially where more coverage and opaque layers are needed. Best pigment to use as an underpainting because of the faster drying time.

#3. Lamp Black

Lamp Black, a very old pigment dating back to prehistoric time, is also a deep, velvety black but has a bluish undertone. It has a very slow drying time.

Best Application: Lamp Black is the most opaque black pigment, allowing the deepest blackest black coverage. It is the strongest black pigment and is great to use when dark blacks are needed in a painting.

Differences in the 3 Main Black Pigments

Hue

The most obvious difference between blacks in oil painting is the hue variance.

The most common and universal blacks (Ivory, Lamp & Mars) are easily identified by their hue characteristics, usually regardless of the oil paint manufacturer, as long as they are made from high quality pigments.

Ivory Black is a deep velvety black that is cooler in mass tone, but warm in tint (slight brownish undertone).

Lamp Black, a very old pigment dating back to prehistoric time, is also a deep, velvety black but has a bluish undertone.

Mars Black is the strongest black and is warm in both mass tone and tint.

Tinting Strength

Tinting strength when using black colors in mixing is very important because it determines how much or how little black pigment will be effective.

If a subtler tint of black is preferred, Ivory Black is ideal because of its moderate tinting strength. It is considered the most useful in general painting for this reason.

Mars Black has a strong tinting strength, but Lamp Black is the strongest black and is great to use when dark blacks are needed in a painting.

Drying Time and Durability

All three of the most common blacks usually contain linseed oil as a vehicle.

Ivory Black and Lamp Black tend to have a very slow drying time.

Mars black is more ideal for an underpainting because it dries a bit faster.

Transparency

Mars Black is opaque, therefore it is ideal for direct painting especially where more coverage and opaque layers are needed.

Lamp Black is also opaque, allowing the deepest blackest black coverage.

Ivory Black is semi-transparent, giving moderate coverage. It can be thinned down to be used as a glaze.

Payne’s Gray or Charcoal Gray is more suitable for achieving a black tint while glazing. Although they are not always considered blacks, they can provide black tinting when in need of a transparent color.

Payne’s Gray by Winsor & Newton is a good pigment for achieving a black tint while glazing.

Use just any black color to tint and shade, and you’ll be disappointed with the results.

If you choose your black pigment wisely, you shouldn’t have to worry about keeping blacks out of your palette.

Just to let you know, all of the product links in this article are affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy anything, but it doesn’t cost you any extra. Don’t worry, I’m always honest, open, impartial with my reviews – I only recommend the good stuff – but this affiliate income helps keep the site running.

Let us know about your experiences using black in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this much debated information about using black. This has been very helpful.

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