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Black on Black: Annabelle 16x20



It's fall, it's pumpkin season, and Halloween is coming. I have a black cat named Annabelle who is about 14 years old. She was the runt of the litter.


In Landscape, Still Life, and Figure zoom classes with Walter Bartman instructing for The Yellow Barn Studios, he gave us the assignment to paint something black on black. Part of learning to paint is learning to see. Seeing the differences between local color (black) and the actual color of light falling upon a black object like a car or a jacket or a cat.


I think for most non painters... it’s a simple leap to say black paint, right? Well would you believe that a lot of us painters don’t use much if any black paint right out of the tube on our pallet. That’s because of a couple reasons. Black isn’t really a color, well it is in my opinion, and when I was little, it was actually my favorite color. Let’s see... many people would look at black and if you asked them what color they would just say dark. I mix my blacks from colors called things like ultramarine blue and burnt umber, or chromatic blacks from Alizarin crimson or transparent red oxide and phthalocyanine green (Thalo or pthalo), but there are other combinations. One benefit of that is that we can use a more limited pallet, which helps to harmonize a painting. Another is so we can push it around, warmer or cooler. There are rules... cool light: warm shadow and vice versa. The human experience, though so much of it is unconscious, is affected by so much that we may know, but are not consciously aware of... like walking... after year two, it’s sort of automatic.

I could go on and on about darkness. It’s just the absence of light. I suppose like many things in painting, it’s relative. Usually in painting, we are interested in light and shadow to effect 3D space out of paint on a flat 2D surface. Notice I said shadow. Most of us would agree that shadow is dark or darker than light. I learned today that the human eye/brain can only discern 256 values of grey from black to white at most (called halftones). In art we only use 10 values, number one being black. One could just use black paint and say... there shadow. But as David Desiderio said... “the colors live in the shadows.”

Walter just gave us a lecture on shadows, recently... good vs. evil, basically. I should say that color has psychological effects on our minds, probably nurture, but if you were afraid of the dark as a kid, maybe nature. I don’t know. So one of things Walter tries to get us to understand is that dark should have hues (colors) in it. Now, when a beginner, I like most painted with black paint. Black added to another color darkens it. This is called shading, and along with tone (grey) and tint (white) are some of value reference terms. When learning how to art paint, value is more important than color. But, adding black or white to a mix of paint also dulls it (chroma) and cools it (temperature).

So the challenge of painting black, or worse, black on black is to differentiate the object from the background. One of the techniques for doing that is to use the contrast of dark paint against lighter paint or vice versa. The thing is we are so attuned to just seeing local color that our brain... assumes sky, blue... grass green... cat, black without really seeing what’s there. Every color is in the grass and sky and the color of light hitting it effects it and learning to “see” that in order to paint that is kinda what fine art painting is about.

I was out in the pandemic temporary studio on my girlfriend’s enclosed back porch one night and the cats were freed to roam the house, so I painted my black cat on a black blanket at night, under artificial easel lighting. It recently won the Plein Air Magazine Salon competition for August 2020 in the category of animals and birds, which is why I wrote about it. Annabelle 16x20 oil on black gessoed canvas. Oh! Black cat, on a black duvet, at night on a black canvas. Cool!

‘Some transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.’ - Pablo Picasso


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