Why I Banished Ivory Black

catalystA few years ago I was working on a painting that needed some large passages of dark gray and black, really dark, profound black. Ivory was not even coming close to doing the job. It was too brown, too gray and too matte and worse I could not get it to dry evenly. It is a dull color. In my search for alternatives I queried an art message board and one painter wrote back in bewilderment that black is black, “what are you talking about?” I looked up the guy’s work which seemed to be minimalist, the content being about 90 percent color. You’ve got to know your materials. Had he never looked at Velasquez or Rembrandt for obvious starters? There are as many types and shades of black as one can imagine. I found a possible solution in “The Materials and Techniques of Painting,” by Kurt Wehlte (published by and available at Kremer Pigments in NYC). He has several suggestions for mixed black which I began using with very satisfying results. The colors I currently use are alizarin crimson, burnt sienna and phthalo blue (prussian blue also works well, but has a bit of green in it).

The great thing about mixing black is that you can get a velvety, smooth black so dark that it can appear as a void on your support. You use various ratios of the three pigments to push it around between warm and cool, reddish/brown through neutral to blueish/purple. These advantages are most apparent when working with gray.

The drawback is that, being a mix you must mix enough because you’ll never again get an exact match. When I first started using it I was working on a nine panel work that was mostly shades of very dark gray. Every day I mixed a new batch and it drove me crazy trying to get it the same as before. Soon it dawned on me that I didn’t have to get an exact match for this work because it was on separate panels. The slight or even exaggerated variations of gray between the panels improved the overall dynamic of the composition. That is a key strategy I learned from this practice: keep loose and look for ways to transcend or incorporate problems into the work. It has helped me find my way in all kinds of situations.

I have never tried to use this mixture with pigment powder or in watercolor. I am curious if the results are similar. A woman once made the alluring promise to show me how to get the “blackest blacks” in my drawings, a secret she claimed to possess, handed down to her from Wyeth himself. Alas, she must have been toying with me as she never kept her word.

Ivory black is still a good choice as a mixer, but on its own it is too drab to be useful. Following Wehlte’s advice I also banished burnt umber and use a mixture of raw and burnt sienna and, ironically, ivory black with pros and cons similar to the above.


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