This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
"If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black and white?" Pope.
Black is the last and lowest in the series or scale of colours descending, - the opposite extreme from white, - the maximum of colour. To be perfect it must be neutral with respect to colours individually, and absolutely transparent, or destitute of reflective power in regard to light; its use in painting being to represent shade or depths, of which it is the element in a picture and in colours, as white is of light.
As there is no perfectly pure and transparent black pigment, black deteriorates all colours in deepening them, as it does warm colours by partially neutralizing them, but it combines less injuriously with cold colours. Though it is the antagonist or contrast of white, yet added to it in minute portion it in general renders white more neutral, solid, and local, with less of the character of light. Impure black is brown, but black in its purity is a cold colour, and communicates this property to all light colours; thus it blues white, greens yellow, purples red, and cools blue; hence the artist errs with ill effect in painting who regards black as of nearest affinity to hot and brown colours, and will do well to keep in mind - " The glow of sunshine and the cool of shade" and to preserve his depths without darkness. But be who takes his knowledge of colours from pictures, without regard to nature and philosophy, will be sure to escape originality, and to fail in practice as a colourist. It is the same in every other department of painting.
It is a fault of even some of the best colourists, as evinced by their pictures, to be too fond of black upon their palettes, and thence to infuse it needlessly into their tints and colours. With such it is a taste acquired from the study of old pictures: but in nature hardly any object above ground is black, nor are any rendered neutral by black in daylight; although black minerals abound, and the objects of vegetal and animal nature may be blackened through every degree of impurity by the action of fire. Black should, therefore, be reserved for a local colour, or employed only in the under-painting properly called grounding and dead colouring; except shadow cannot be gotten without it, for want of adequate pigments: but the chiaroscuro of black and white is always offensive to just chromatic harmony. Nevertheless this rule is regulative, and not absolute in practice.
As a local colour in a picture, it has the effect of connecting or amassing surrounding objects, and it is the most retiring of all colours, which property it communicates to other colours in mixture. It heightens the effect of warm as well as light colours, by a double contrast when opposed to them, and in like manner subdues that of cold and deep colours; but in mixture or glazing these effects are reversed, as we have already said, by reason of the predominance of cold colour in the constitution of black: having therefore the double office of colour and of shade, black is perhaps the most important of all colours to the artist, both as to its use and avoidance.
Black is to be considered as a synthesis of the three primary colours, the three secondaries, or the three tertiaries, or of all these together; and, consequently, also of the three semi-neutrals, and may accordingly be composed of due proportions of either tribe or triad. All antagonist colours, or contrasts, also afford the neutral black by composition; but in all the modes of producing black by compounding colours, blue is to be regarded as its archeus, or predominating colour, and yellow as subordinate to red, in the proportions, when their hues are true, of eight blue, five red, and three yellow. It is owing to this predominance of blue in the constitution of black, that it contributes by mixture to the pureness of hue in white colours, which in general incline to warmth, and that it produces the cool effect of blueness in glazing and tints, or however otherwise diluted or dilated. It accords with the principle here inculcated that in glass - founding the oxide of manganese, which affords the red hue, and that of cobalt which affords the blue, are added to brown or yellow frit to produce a velvety-black glass; and that the dyer proceeds to dye black upon a deep blue basis of indigo, with the ruddy colour of madder and the yellow of quercitron, galls, sumach, etc.; and experience coincides with principle in these practices, but if the principle be wanting the artist will often fail in his performances.
All colours are comprehended in the synthesis of black, consequently the whole sedative power of colour is comprised in black. It is the same in the synthesis of white; and, with like relative consequence, white comprehends all the stimulating powers of colour in painting. It follows that a little black or white is equivalent to much colour, and hence their use as colours requires judgment and caution in painting; and in engraving, black and white supply the place of colours, and hence a true knowledge of the active or sedative power of every colour is of great importance to the engraver,* and of main consideration in every mode of the chiaroscuro: which means, if we comprehend all the explanations which have been given of the term, whatever can be attributed to light and shade, but is more properly limited to the effects of their union and contrast.
* The eye of the engraver who happens to be possessed of a fine natural sensibility of sight, bent so continually in his practice over the black and while of engraving, and the neutrality of the steel plate, must revert with neculiar gratification and delight to the harmonious and soothing effects of colours.
By due attention to the synthesis of black it may be rendered a harmonizing medium to all colours, and it gives brilliancy to them all by its sedative effect on the eye, and its powers of contrast; nevertheless, we repeat, as a pigment it must be introduced with caution in painting when hue is of greater importance than shade. Even when employed as shadow, without great judgment in its use, black is apt to appear as local colour rather than as privation of light; and black pigments produced by charring have a disposition to rise and predominate over other hues, and to subdue the more delicate tints by their chemical bleaching power upon other colours, and their own disposition to turn brown or dusky. And for these reasons deep and transparent colours, which have darkness in their constitution, are better adapted in general for producing the true natural and permanent effects of shade. Many pictures of the early masters, and particularly of the Roman and Florentine schools, evince the truth of these remarks; and it is to be feared the high reputation of these works has betrayed their admirers into this defective employment of black.