Slip into something more elegant.

Often thought of as a solemn color—think graduation gowns, funeral attire, judges’ robes, you get the picture—black is deeply expressive. After all, it wouldn’t be the go-to color for life’s big occasions if it weren’t.

Many art instructors advise their students to avoid using black altogether, as it can easily overpower a painting, but the color has been essential to art since humans first started making marks. It was one of the first colors used in cave paintings, with charcoal being among the easiest media to produce.

The constraints of technology meant that, for thousands of years, most printed media was in black-and-white. Artists contended with this reality by creating designs that worked with this limitation, breaking up shadows with techniques such as cross-hatching.

Black by Kubo Shunman 19th century; ink and color on paper, part of an album of woodblock prints (surimono); 8x7⅛

Black by Kubo Shunman 19th century; ink and color on paper, part of an album of woodblock prints (surimono); 8×7⅛

The Power of Color

Kubo Shunman’s appropriately titled Black demonstrates the power of the color. Although the black jar isn’t the most foregrounded of the objects in the image, this vessel and its lid pull at the viewer’s attention like a black hole.

There is no shading or cross-hatching to indicate form, and the interior of the jar is rendered in the same black as the outside, with only the faintest line indicating its edges. The image confronts the viewer with its there-ness, standing out like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

La Grenouillère by Renoir, 1869

La Grenouillère by Renoir, 1869

Renoir Knows

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, known for his colorful paintings of life in 19th-century Paris, also knew the value of the darkest color: “I’ve been 40 years discovering that the queen of all colors was black.”

 

none more black

Lewis Whyld/PA Images/Getty Images

From the Ashes

One of humanity’s oldest mark-making implements, charcoal still reigns supreme for preparatory sketches and cartooning as well as complete works (just use a fixative!).

Getty Images charcoal

Getty Images

The Little Black Dress

Vogue 1926 — This illustration shows a model wearing a black long-sleeved dress with a series of tucks that cross in the front—Chanel’s Little Black Dress.

Conde Nast / Getty Images

Conde Nast / Getty Images

Gotham Black

Get a professional look for your finished artwork. Gotham Deep Black Frames from Jerry’s Artarama are sleek, gallery-quality extra-deep frames suited for heavy duty canvases. They run in standard sizes, ranging from 4 x 4″ to 48 x 48″, and have crisp, clean lines and a rich, midnight black finish.

Jerry's Artarama

Found In Nature

Not really. Foodies, take note. Black garlic is aged by what is called the Maillard reaction, heating blubs of garlic over several weeks, and was first used as a culinary ingredient in the kitchens of Asian cooks and chefs. The taste?: sweet, Balsamic-like and sticky. Now high-end eateries stock their shelves with the stuff.

Black garlic and black butterfly wings Getty images

Getty images

Texture

Entrancing walls of a slate quarry in the United Kingdom. There are slate quarries found throughout the world but Wales is famous for their pits while Spain extracts 90% of Europe’s slate, used in roofing.

The Image Bank/Getty Images

The Image Bank/Getty Images

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Article contributions by Mike Allen. 

Exploring Color

Color is powerful, expressive and many an artist’s greatest joy. Explore exercises, lessons and and step-by-step demonstrations in the 30th Anniversary Edition of Exploring Color Workshop now!