Friday 8 November 2013

Back to Black

Last week, I went to visit an artist friend who has a small but exquisite garden, lovingly tended and filled with all manner of botanical treasures. She gave me some seed heads for my next painting project, and then almost as an afterthought, gave me some of the lovely black leaves and berries of Ophiopogom planiscapus 'Nigrescens’ or black lilyturf. I took them home, popped them into jam jars, planning to begin work on the seed heads once the weekend was over.

But all weekend long, my thoughts kept slipping back to black.

Jacaranda seedpod
It’s such a powerful and evocative colour, but one that most watercolour artists tend to avoid. In fact, it’s one of the few colours that I just don’t have in my box of paints. To be honest, I haven’t really had much use for black. I searched through my sketchbooks to see if I had used it in the past, but found just a page of olives, a jacaranda seedpod and a tiny scarab beetle.

Plein air study of an olive tree and olives, Cairo

Black paint can either be bought readymade, or created using mixtures of the three primaries. Of the commercial blacks, Lamp black is made from the soot of oil lamps (a rich velvety opaque black), whilst ivory black is made from crushed roasted ivory or bone (a warmer less intense black). There are also neutral tints (first developed by 18thcentury English watercolourists as an alternative to sepia) which are used to “neutralise” the intensity of the hue. Winsor and Newton’s neutral tint is actually a mix of lamp black, dark blue and violet. Payne's grey, another popular neutral tint, is a mixture of iron blue, yellow ochre and crimson lake.

Little scarab beetle painted using mainly Payne's grey, and a pectoral in the form of a scarab from Tutankhamun's tomb

It is generally agreed that the best blacks of all are the chromatic blacks, created by the artist by carefully mixing primaries. Ask a dozen artists their favourite chromatic black, and each will give you a different recipe of pigments.
A word to the wise... this is best done on a day when it's too dark to paint and too wet and cold to go out!

So, with all thoughts of the work that I should be doing cast aside, I found myself on Monday morning making the “mother of all black charts”. Not a quest for the fainthearted, but by the time that I had finished, I had made some very interesting discoveries.
  •  Hookers green, a pigment that I have really disliked up until now, made the most gorgeous range of dark earthy greens
  •   Viridian and Perylene green both made a delicious range of blacks, especially when combined with Winsor dioxide.
  •  Perylene maroon also came up trumps, better even than alizarin crimson, creating some beautifully rich colours. 
You can read more about pigments and their qualities here

So having satisfied my curiosity somewhat, I started to paint the Ophiopogom.  As it was only a study, I decided to throw caution to the wind and just dive in without a lot of preliminary sketches. I loosely arranged the leaves and berries onto a sheet of paper (using blu-tack to hold them in place), took a photograph to remind me of the composition and popped the leaves and berries back into the water to keep them fresh.

The berries are a beautiful blueish black. I mixed cerulean, cobalt violet and paynes grey to get the lightest colour, adding indigo and winsor violet to get the richer tones. 
I draw the berries out carefully in pencil and then paint the lines in a paler version of the finished colour

The leaves go from a gorgeous pale yellow to green to a rich inky black … a fantastic combination of colours!   I started with naples, blending it into lemon and first adding cerulean to the lemon and then indigo, before blending that into perylene green. The upper parts of the leaf were first given a wash of the cerulean/cobalt violet/paynes grey mix, and then finished off with a mix of perylene green with winsor dioxide and a teeny bit of perylene maroon. The veins on the underside were painted with perylene green.

 Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (lilyturf). Although it looks like black grass, lilyturf is actually a member of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). Planiscapus means ‘flattened scape’ and refers to the flattened flower-stalk of this species, as seen on the stalk on the left.

Regardless of the mixes used, black flowers and plants make visually striking and dramatic paintings. I really love Rosie Sanders paintings of black flowers (see here), and Coral Guest's black tulips. Billy Showell’s gorgeous painting of Tacca chantrieri (batflower) has both elegance and intrigue.

Yes, I will definitely be going back to black.

"There's something about black. You feel hidden away in it." ~ Georgia O'Keeffe


  1. Brilliant post Shevaun! Interesting mixed for black. Thank you :)

    1. Thanks Dianne! It's such an interesting colour... loads of potential there! :)

  2. Brava Shevaun thanks to share your color expirience. Always helpful.

  3. I hope so, Renata, thank you!

  4. A great post Shevaun, thanks for sharing.

  5. Great much to learn, thank you.

  6. Fantastic post Shevaun, haven't really done black much but want to try now!! Xx

  7. What a wonderful post and painting - and thanks for sharing your favorite mixes for black.

  8. It's "only a study"?! It looks like a prize winner to me! It was fascinating to read about your process and color explorations. Thanks for sharing.

  9. WOW! Your art is absolutely incredible, and I absolutely love the Olive study. I would love to be as skilled an artist as you one day, and I look forward to reading more of your blog :-)

    1. Thanks Jessica! I'm pretty impressed with your herbarium too... what a pity that we don't live closer- we could have met up and swapped tips! :)

  10. Just catching up with the blogs and I find this! I'm another who doesn't use a black, but prefers to mix it. You get livelier blacks that way. I LOVE your black chart and when I get a day when I have the 'itch' but nothing to paint, or not enough light etc. I'll create one of my own.

    Wow! I wish I'd seen your gorgeous little 'sketch' before my last painting. I could have done with some guidance on depth of dark colours - I always go over the top. Need to learn some restraint. there! that will be my motto - 'Foghlaim roinnt srianta'


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