Never Use White in a Painting?

Some artists didactically insist black should not be used in a painting, often supported by the argument that the Impressionists didn’t. Do you ever hear it said about any other colour?

If you wouldn’t use black to darken a colour, then perhaps using white to lighten it shouldn’t be automatic either? The main problem is few colours are light in tone (though some do come in “light” and “dark” versions). You might lighten a red with a bit of yellow, but how would you lighten a yellow?

Sunset over the Minch monoprints by Marion Boddy-Evans
Sunset over the Minch monoprints

I think where “don’t use white” should be considered is when you’re working with the lightest tones on a painting. Don’t automatically use pure white, use very pale yellow, blue, red, green, purple first. Take a look at Monet’s snow paintings to see what interesting colours “white snow” can be (for example Lavacourt under Snow in the National Gallery in London).

A monoprint I made a few years ago has pale blue that seems lighter than the white of the paper (the top one in the photo). I think it’s the coolness of the blue that does this, against the warm white of the paper.


10 Replies to “Never Use White in a Painting?”

  1. I have never heard by anyone that white color didn’t exist in nature, but as Renoir said, I have often heard that black color did not exist in nature. It is completely false: some volcanic stones (in Iceland for instance), coal, hair etc. And some masters as Derain, Matisse, Soulages or Chinese calligraphists have perfectly used the black color. There is not bigger contrast than a color juxtaposed to black… Matisse knew it by heart.

  2. In nature both white and black are coloured by sun light which is never white in real environment due to dust and/or vapour colouring it in hues that differ from place to place depending on soil composition, humidity, technogenous factors, etc. I think the very first artist who demonstrated this fenoemena in his paintings was Van Gogh. His paintings of different periods are so different because of different colour of sunlight in all these places.

  3. Indeed Alain, the very things traditional black pigments were made from proves the existence of black in nature… carbon from wood and from bone. And what about the black of a dark night!

  4. The Impressionists have made one big “mistake”: they definitely said that black hue doesn’t exist in nature, so they used blue, violet for the shadows! But that was another dogma among all the pre-existent dogmas! I do not imagine a painting of El Greco, El Caravaggio or Giacometti without black! Black adds a metaphysical dimension to art, a kind of solemnity. Edouard Manet, contemporary with the Impressionists, in his “Olympia” knew it perfectly. And black mixed with white is so painterly.
    A good painter has no dogma.

  5. Great examples Alain! Black can be very powerful in a painting.

    But it also muddies mixed colours easily, which can be problematic for beginners. The solution is not to avoid using it but to not mix in with other colours on the palette, keep brushes clean, let it mingle/mix in the painting itself only. I’ve some watercolour figure paintings where I added black ink as the last thing, onto still-wet paper/paint, that I love.

    1. In particular, yellow mixed with ivory black is a big disaster! When we speak of black, we mainly think ivory black: but there is a warm, opaque black that is a marvel: Mars black. A pinch of the latter in other colors is wonderful. Payne’s grey deserves too to be used, with blue and red hues for instance: it adds sumptuous depths and mystery.

  6. I don’t use black anymore, and I don’t use white either really. But it’s not a rule I refuse to break, I just prefer not to. I am doing watercolors, so this is specific to this medium, and my own opinion, use it as you will, and hopefully its’ just something to think about which expands your options.

    1. Some colors adding white to them affects the lightfastness. ( prussian blue PB27 and dixoazine violet PV23, and also some of the other premixed colors that contain white have more issues )
    2. Black is often chalky ( Soot PBk6 or PBk7, bone soot PBk9 ) and stands out compared to other pigments. Lunar or mars black is actually magnetic ( yes I use magnets with it to control it’s flow and granulation ) but it dries to a very dull color.
    3. Payne’s gray often contains soot, it’s just a convenience mixture, and it varies by brand what you get.
    4. Using complementing colors, which neutralize to a gray, you can get some very nice darkening colors. WN Burnt Sienna ( PR101 )+Ultramarine Blue PB29 makes a fantastic gray that does not kill the colors involved like bone black can. Mixed properly and applied generously it gets really close to black, and is very good at darkening colors. I am not exactly not using black since I can just make it, but then I also can adjust this black to lean blue or brown, instead of relying upon sepia, neutral tint, or payne’s gray and how the manufacturer mixed it, and it’s not nearly as chalky as a black pigment.
    5. Perelene green for example, and some other similar colors are very good at darkening things, as well as some of the darker blues, darker reds. If you use a complementary color which neutralizes to darken then you end up with some powerful colors.
    6. White is generally an opaque color, opaque colors can end up being flatter, and you don’t get the same quality of luminescence you can get in watercolor. To use it properly takes a lot of skill, and you should study the masters, present and past as to how they used it ( like Wyeth or Stephen Quiller, AWS ). I am not good enough to use it and not have it hurt my finished picture.
    7. Preserving the white of the paper actually requires more planning, and improves the final picture in watercolor. If you use white it should not be a crutch because you cannot preserve the white of the paper. Also note that a “mr. clean magic eraser” can lift any staining pigment, it’s not using any chemicals and is perfectly safe per a lot of well regarded watercolorists, it should be a standard tool just like rock salt and frisket. ( And frisket, masking tape, etc. )
    8. Look at using ink to achieve the blacks ( pen and ink, quill, even a sharpie is nice )

    To me using white is sometimes necessary, but to use it on everything really limits your options. Variety is the spice of life and sometimes you do want to just use black, but even then you want to have more than one tool in your arsenal. I think for some using black becomes a crutch, which limits them to one solution, when my hope is that there should be no limits in art, there are just so many ways to get to dark values why limit yourself to the one obvious route.

    Of course this is specific to watercolor, oils and acrylics do not have the same chalkiness to the black pigments, but even then, why use the obvious route all the time.

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