Rules of art, part 2

John Singer Sargent

First rule of art: There are no rules. Second rule of art: Never use black in a painting.

Another fine canon in the realist impressionist realm is to never use black. I've heard this from many artists/instructor types, even read it in a few articles on color. It's not a bad rule per se but who says you can't. Sargent used it beautifully, as did Zorn, Alexander, Whistler, Manet and so forth. It was good enough for them, why not us mere mortals? The general thinking in color theory is that black is a color eater, it's a dark value that is a black hole. And it's true to a point.

Many colorist schools espouse the use of color as value. That you should replace what you think of as dark with a rich color (purples, blues, turquoise grays, etc) or if you need a really dark dark, mix one using two rich deep compliments like ultramarine blue and burnt umber or sienna or alizarin and prussian blue. You get a rich deep hue with a lot of color in it, unlike, say, a lamp black. It's true enough but maybe color is not the thing in your painting.

J. M. Whistler

What got me thinking about this was the above painting Wapping on Thames by Whistler. I saw it recently in D.C. and having not seen it in a while was struck with the bold use of black pigment. The couple in the foreground, the boats in the distance. Whistler was not what you would call a colorist, he was more of a tonal dude. This particular painting is not tonal because of the full range of values presented in it but whatever ism you assign it too, it works just fine thank you very much. There's enough color in it to accent against the stark blacks, grays and muted tones. I love that blue stripe, whatever that is.

Anders Zorn

Like the Sargent at the top, this well known Zorn painting is done with an unusual yet very simple palette of yellow ochre, alizarin (or maybe cad red deep), black and white. How do we know this? He's showing us. He's saying, "Look at me you bunch of jävla förlorare, I did this with just these 3 colors. You couldn't do this if your life depended on it. Äter mig!" He had an ego. Well deserved too. You try painting flesh with those colors.

John Alexander

Love this painting. Does it need a lot of bright color? Does it ask for more? No. It's elegant and rich and lanquid and beautiful. I love this painting. You could call it symphony in black, red, and yellow... but Whistler would get mad.

Like I need to tell you who this is....

Here's my point again with the rules. There's a time to learn em and there's a time to burn em. Just don't use a rule as a crutch. Take black off your palette for a while and see what you can do, then put it back on and see what you can do once you really know color, value, form, shape etc. Try the Zorn palette and see what you can do as an experiment. Once you go black... yada yada.