Questions about Black, Part 4 of 4

The last question is deceptively simple.

Is black a color?
The answer is no and yes, depending on how you mean the question, and what you mean by "color."

The "No" answer:
If you're talking about how the abstract concept of black fits into the infinite range of hues and chromas within the three-dimensional color universe, you might argue that it doesn't really belong with the others at all, because by definition it has no hue and no chroma. Black is not only the absence of color; it's even the absence of light.

Munsell Color Solid from
The "Yes" answer:
Looking at the question another way, the answer is yes. Black does have its place at the base of the 3-D chart of the color universe, where hues are arrayed around the outside, chroma (saturation) decreases toward the vertical center line, and value goes up or down with height.

Black has its own color swatch just like all the others. It sits at the zero point of value, the extreme pole beneath all dark colors. It's like the lowest note on the piano, one that you can include in a composition if you want to. In yesterday's post, we explored the arguments for and against using pure black in a painting, and just how pure that black pigment can be.

Just as black is a color, white and all the gray tones are colors, too, since each has its own location within the 3D color universe. They are like other keys on the piano, each a legitimate option that an artist may wish to include.

The surprising thing is that black, white, and the gray notes can function in a color scheme in such a way that they don't seem neutral at all. If you choose a gamut with two bright colors plus neutral black (and tints of black), the black suddenly becomes a very distinct subjective color. In the case of the color scheme at right, it would appear blue.

And this is where the "yes" answer becomes more than academic. Black really is a color that can be a core component of a luminous color scheme.

I demonstrate how this principle works in this video, which perhaps a lot of you have already seen. (Direct link to video)

In the end, it's good for beginning painters to be aware of the hazards of black. Many teachers rightly warn against using black carelessly, because it can deaden mixtures or kill the mood or the illusion of light in a painting. It's good to know how and when to mix your own black from other colors. But if you use black consciously, it deserves to be a valued part of any painter's toolkit.

"Questions about Black" Series
Part 2: Mixing your own black
Part 3: Using black in a painting
Part 4: Is Black a color?
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