Black, is it a colour at all?

Black is the darkest colour, the result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. It is an achromatic colour, literally a colour without hue, like white (its opposite) and grey (its median). It is often used symbolically or figuratively to represent darkness, while white represents light.

Black ink is the most common colour used for printing books, newspapers and documents, because it has the highest contrast with white paper and is the easiest to read. For the same reason, black text on a white screen is the most common format used on computer screens. In colour printing it is used along with the subtractive primaries cyan, yellow, and magenta, in order to help produce the darkest shades.

Black and white have often been used to describe opposites; particularly truth and ignorance, good and evil, the Dark Ages versus Age of Enlightenment. Since the Middle Ages, black has been the symbolic colour of solemnity and authority, and for this reason is still commonly worn by judges and magistrates.

Black was one of the first colours used by artists in Neolithic cave paintings. In the 14th century, it began to be worn by royalty, the clergy, judges and government officials in much of Europe. It became the colour worn by English romantic poets, businessmen and statesmen in the 19th century, and a high fashion colour in the 20th century.

In the Roman Empire, it became the colour of mourning, and over the centuries it was frequently associated with death, evil, witches and magic. According to surveys in Europe and North America, it is the colour most commonly associated with mourning, the end, secrets, magic, force, violence, evil, and elegance.

Black ink, invented in Ancient China and India, was traditionally used in the Middle Ages for writing, for the simple reason that black was the darkest colour and therefore provided the greatest contrast with white paper or parchment, making it the easiest colour to read. It became even more important in the 15th century, with the invention of printing. A new kind of ink, printer’s ink, was created out of soot, turpentine and walnut oil. The new ink made it possible to spread ideas to a mass audience through printed books, and to popularize art through black and white engravings and prints. Because of its contrast and clarity, black ink on white paper continued to be the standard for printing books, newspapers and documents; and for the same reason black text on a white background is the most common format used on computer screens.

In the Protestant Netherlands, Rembrandt used this sober new palette of blacks and browns to create portraits whose faces emerged from the shadows expressing the deepest human emotions. The Catholic painters of the Counter-Reformation, like Rubens, went in the opposite direction; they filled their paintings with bright and rich colours. The new Baroque churches of the Counter-Reformation were usually shining white inside and filled with statues, frescoes, marble, gold and colourful paintings, to appeal to the public. But European Catholics of all classes, like Protestants, eventually adopted a sober wardrobe that was mostly black, brown and grey.

Some 19th-century French painters had a low opinion of black: “Reject black,” Paul Gauguin said, “and that mix of black and white they call grey. Nothing is black, nothing is grey.” But Édouard Manet used blacks for their strength and dramatic effect. Manet’s portrait of painter Berthe Morisot was a study in black which perfectly captured her spirit of independence. The black gave the painting power and immediacy; he even changed her eyes, which were green, to black to strengthen the effect. Henri Matisse quoted the French impressionist Pissarro telling him, “Manet is stronger than us all – he made light with black.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir used luminous blacks, especially in his portraits. When someone told him that black was not a colour, Renoir replied: “What makes you think that? Black is the queen of colours. I always detested Prussian blue. I tried to replace black with a mixture of red and blue, I tried using cobalt blue or ultramarine, but I always came back to ivory black.”

Vincent van Gogh used black lines to outline many of the objects in his paintings, such as the bed in the famous painting of his bedroom. making them stand apart. His painting of black crows over a cornfield, painted shortly before he died, was particularly agitated and haunting.

 

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