Updated: Apr 14
What's in this blog?
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken about various colors and their importance in art & design and for creators overall. This month I want to talk about an incredibly important and powerful color, but one that some might describe as a non-color– black.
Just like its opposite, white, black is technically without hue, making it an achromatic color. But despite this and being classified as a non-color, it’s used by artists, interior designers, and all creators as a core colour in their works. Let us have a look at its history and why it’s such a popular and important part of the artists’ palette.
Unique Importance in The History of Art & Literature
Black was the first colour pigmentation that was used both in art and book printing. It can be found in cave drawings from over 17,000 years ago in the Lascaux Cave, these artists used charcoal and iron minerals to create a black pigment. It’s also the first ink colour used by book printers, starting with the world’s first printed book, the Guttenberg Bible.
It’s therefore steeped in history and while what it has meant to artists and creators over the years has evolved, what hasn’t, is how fundamental it is.
The Greeks were the next to utilize black and take it to another level, developing a sophisticated technique for painting black onto red and orange clay pottery, which they later reversed to have ‘red figure’ vases with black backgrounds.
For a long period, black was not considered a worthy colour in clothing but around the 14th century, the increase in the quality of black dyes and laws that restricted colored cloth to
nobility led to an increase in popularity stemming from Italian bankers wearing it to show their importance and many kings around Europe following this trend.
It was the Romans who first associated the colour with funerals. Today it’s normal to see people wearing black at a funeral, for example, men wearing a black tie, and this started with the Romans wearing black togas to funerals.
The ‘little black dress’ is attributed to Coco Chanel and arrived in a line of suits and dresses from 1927, although its popularity took off when worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s Not All Positive
When I write about the emotions that colour can elicit, I’ve tended to begin with the positive side initially before highlighting the potentially negative emotions that colour can generate, but with black, it’s hard not to start with what most would see as intensely negative colors, due in part to popular usage.
One phrase that potentially sums up the origins of the colour black is ‘As black as night’. This goes back to medieval times when a lack of man-made lights disrupting the sky would have meant half of people’s lives would be spent in the dark, so it quickly became a colour associated with darkness and sometimes a lack of hope.
The origins of black being bad and white being good stem from monks in the 12th century when Benedictine monks wore black robes as a sign of humility, while Cistercian monks wore white robes to represent purity, accusing the Benedictine monks of using black for sin and the devil.
Darkness, death (mourning), and evil are three key feelings or emotions that people look to convey by using black in their art. The Latin word for black is ‘ater’ and is associated with cruelty and death, leading to other phrases like ‘atrocity’. In medieval times most paintings of the devil had him coloured black.
It’s also a colour closely associated with mystery, even fear. Creators can utilize this when looking to build an aura around a work of art or a new crafting project. Mystery has continually played a pivotal role in the art world, in many ways it’s a technique used to generate interest, a sense of exclusiveness, and ultimately drive-up price!
Looking At The Brighter Side
However, black is also used to convey a sense of power. It can symbolize elegance for some and is often seen as a sign of wealth.
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to see positivity in black, they looked at it as a fertile colour coming from the rich soil of the Nile. One of their most important gods, Anubis, turned into a black jackal when offering protection against evil.
As we mentioned it was around the 14th-century that the perception of black began to change and by the end of the 16th-century black was the essential colour for kings and queens.
To many, black is now the colour that never goes out of fashion, ironic considering its history of being ignored or feared, but for creators around the world, from artists and crafters to interior designers and fashion houses – black is a staple they all return to. In modern society, black is considered one of the safest colors to use.
Just think about how many different modern movements have embraced it, from the Beat movement in the 1950s, punk in the 1970s through to goth and emo in the modern-day. You will see artists using black to make a statement, as a way of standing out. If you are working on a project with a core set of values that you want to display, black is often the ideal backdrop to help this stand out.
And the growth of black continues in its own right. In 2014 a British tech business created a new black they called Vantablack, by growing carbon nanotubes on a metal surface.
They have exclusively licensed the technology to the artist Anisk Kapoor, who aims to have the viewer believe they are looking into a black hole. It will be exciting to see what art is produced in the next couple of years from this concept.
Versatility Is the Biggest Asset
The single biggest reason why black is used by creators in many fields is its versatility, which comes from it being classed as a non-color. This status has meant it can sit well when paired with a wide range of other colors, essentially making black the neutral colour to help others stand out. You might say that black represents the absence of color, which is why it teams up so well with other non-neutral colors.
For example, in paintings, the use of black as a background is very popular, in the fashion industry a black t-shirt is the most prominent colour used to showcase an image because it lets the viewer focus on the central design.
But then when you look at the world of interior design, black is often flipped to not being the neutral background but is used for statement pieces that stand out against more ‘neutral’ colours like white, beige, or lighter shades of blue.
If we look at some of the classic pairings with black, you have pink, which is given a punk twist when paired with black, while the use of black and yellow together can really create a standout effect for the item/image that is in yellow.
One other great example of the use of black in art is as an outline, it’s another technique for making a particular image more prominent. One of the most famous examples of this is Vincent Van Gogh. He would use black to outline objects in his paintings, for example, the bed in the painting of his bedroom.
Ultimately, creators have discovered over the years that it has great versatility, and you can utilize the colour as needed.
It’s What You Want It to Be
Ultimately, the popularity of black comes from its schizophrenic nature. Think about it for just a second.
Black is both traditional and yet used to signify rebellion.
Black is used to symbolize the rejection of authority, yet it never goes out of fashion.
It’s celebrated as a colour of union yet is embraced by those that want anarchy.
It’s these contrasts that make it a colour that creators will continue to use. It’s potentially the most versatile colour in the art world and most importantly it’s what the artist or viewer wants it to be.
If you are looking to add something a little dark and powerful to your home, we have several great examples available on our website www.Artisan-Preneur.com but let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes about the colour from one of the most significant modern artists of the 20th century.
There’s something about black. You feel hidden away in it. – Georgia O’Keeffe