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The Color Black: Sophistication, Seduction, & Strength

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

"Black #3.1" by Tiffany Richardson

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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 color 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 color 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 color 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 color 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 followed this trend.

It was the Romans who first associated the color 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 color can elicit, I’ve tended to begin with the positive side initially before highlighting the potentially negative emotions that color 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 color 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 color 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 colored black.

It’s also a color 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!