Watercolor Tip: STOP ruining your paintings with this
Today I want to share a tip that I consider to be one of my cardinal rules when it comes to watercolor painting. I absolutely never, ever use black paint straight from the tube and in fact, I avoid even my own custom mixed blacks as much as possible and only use them as a last resort.
It’s one of the reasons why my colors and palettes are one of the signature aspects of my work and in my opinion, how you can get your paintings to be more interesting, vibrant and unique.
Generally speaking, I hate the idea of there being any kind of rules in art. I think that the idea of creating rules and limitations for people is a waste of time because art is so personal and subjective. So this tip is not a universal steadfast rule but I do think that most people out there could benefit from understanding.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in most cases, when people start applying black to their painting, it’s almost always to add darker values to their painting like shadows or dark areas. This was something I used to do a lot when I was starting out. Let’s say you’re painting a landscape and you want to add a shadow under a tree or maybe you have a portrait and the subject’s hair is black. Many people will immediately reach for black first to darken their color to a deep dark shade and that would be mistake #1.
It’s counter-intuitive because technically, black is the darkest value or shade and our brain has a tendency of tricking us by allowing the logical part of it to override what you’re ACTUALLY seeing. Black and especially black straight from a tube is actually a very unnatural and harsh color that doesn’t really occur all that much in the natural world around us. In fact, in physics, black is not defined as a color because black is actually the absence of light.
To fully understand what black actually is, you have to understand that everything we see around us is visible to our eyes because of light. So most objects and shadows around us, including black are actually a combination of many different colors being absorbed or reflected from their surfaces. If you hold a black feather or look at a black cat really carefully in the daylight, you’ll see a whole range of other colors reflecting off of his coat from the blue of the sky to green of the grass he’s standing on. And that’s the case for most things that we perceive as black. You have to practice and really get good at looking and now allowing your brain to trick you into assuming it’s just grey and black.
Coming back to painting, while mixing black into your color will darken it, it will do it at the expense of your colors. Black pigment that’s watered down ends up looking like ash so it’s going to add dullness and over time, as you layer more and more black into your work, your painting will get deader and deader as all that beautiful color and pigment you paid so much for and worked so hard to add starts getting buried in this cast of sad, lifeless grey.
So what happens if you’re painting something that really is black and how do you work darker values into your painting? Here’s what I suggest, put your black tube of paint away for like a month and try this instead.
Instead of reaching for black, use darker colors like violets, dark blues or deep hunter greens on shadowy dark areas with darker values. Or if you want to get a rich, luminescent black mix 2 deep complementary colors together to create your own rich black which will be so much more interesting and unique than anything you can get out of a tube. My personal favorite go-to is mixing Indigo blue with a dark brown like sepia. It’s absolutely beautiful and depending on my painting, I might make it warmer or cooler to complement the rest of the color palette on my paper. You can also get a gorgeous one from mixing a dark violet and a green.
Now I do want to mention that if your intention is to dull certain color areas on purpose, that’s a different matter altogether. And some portrait painters like Rembrandt or John Singer Sargent did this intentionally in areas like when they were painting blue eyes and wanted to intentionally mute it down to something more ashy. But the key here is to understand that effect and use it intentionally if that’s what you want to do. And if you like the effect that black gives your painting, then stick to what works for you and what makes your art unique.
You can check out this YouTube video to get a full demo of a painting that I did using black vs a painting without using black even once. You'll be amazed by the difference!