Saturday, March 12, 2011

Seeing B&W (Off-color)

An, ah, inkling of my future difficulties in art classes would come about after arguing with a teacher about whether or not black and white were really colors, when every kid with a box of Crayolas knows damn well that there are two crayons of those colors. Okay, well…  depending on your particular set, “Baby Powder” or “Coconut” and “Leather Jacket” or “Licorice.” Which brings to mind the bewildering descriptive terminology used for colors: like trying to pick out paints at the hardware store or even a tshirt color from an L.L. Bean catalog.
In all seriousness, the answer (or, depending on the question, the answers) are sometimes confusing, but fun to ponder. Especially for this novice who tends to see the world through a (distorted) lens of grayscale. While black and white are not technically colors per se, being “achromatic” - or hue-less colors - the distinction lies behind additive or subtractive color theory:
“Additive color involves the use of colored lights. It starts with darkness and mixes red, green and blue light together to produce other colors. When combined, the additive primary colors produce the appearance of white.”
“Subtractive color involves colorants and reflected light. It uses cyan, magenta and yellow pigments or dyes to subtract portions of white light illuminating an object to produce other colors. When combined in equal amounts, pure subtractive primary colors produce the appearance of black.”

This is probably what my art teacher was attempting to explain, had I maybe listened a bit harder before flunking, and been spared playing all this catch-up many years later. The observation that many practicing artists today are completely clueless about the science behind the usage of color, and even more so about the manufacture of their own materials, is the subject of “Bright Earth: Art & The Invention of Color” by Philip Ball (2002 Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In this book the history of crafting colors and how they evolved from natural pigments to complicated alchemical concoctions is explored in colorful detail, the nuts-and-bolts of exactly how and why color does what it does is explained in fascinating detail. Accompanying each stage in the advances of color is an incredible story of what went on behind the scenes - and behind the paints - of many monumental works throughout the history art. Works by Raphael, da Vinci, Cezanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Titian, Rembrandt and many more, are used to literally illustrate not their achievements in artistic expression, but precisely how they incorporated the accompanying technological leaps that happened before any brush even touched a canvas. From caves to Kandinsky, the scientific innovations that made the iconic images by these artists even possible in the first place are often overlooked, the chemists being unsung silent partners in these grand gestures of humanity.
Back in the day most artists were actively involved in the manufacture of their own media, since there was no recourse to a Dick Blick, Daniel Smith or Cheap Joe’s catalog. This also would have been a time when, to paraphrase Eric Gill, everybody was a certain kind of artist, as opposed to nowadays, where an artist is considered a certain kind of person. 

The 1976 CIELUV tweak (used here as something colorful to break up the text)

In the chapter “Plucking The Rainbow,” Ball breaks down the physics of what is going on with the perception and manipulation of color: the parameters and measurement of color space. Organizations such as the International Commission on Illumination valiantly attempt to standardize colorimetric standards that make my new tin of twelve wash pencils seem rather weak and puny in comparison. Aside from noting as an example the now thousands of colors listed in the nine-thousand page/nine volume set of the Society of Dyers and Colourists' Colour Index International, he walks us through the technical process involved in seeing simply black and white:

“The defining characteristic of a colored material… (is) what its total spectral composition is: how it absorbs and reflects light across the continuum of the visible spectrum. A color’s most discriminating signature is thus a wiggly line that traces the variation in intensity of the reflected light as the wavelength varies. The signature of pure white (…) is a straight line: all wavelengths are reflected fully. Black makes the same mark, but at zero rather than full intensity: every wavelength is negated.” (Ball)

This is at the heart or my fascination with pen & ink: there’s nothing more primal (short of squatting in a cave using the burnt end of a stick to draw a moose) than making a contrasting mark that absorbs all light… on a surface that reflects it. This visual harmony is like achieving a personal sort of metaphysical equilibrium between opposite extremes. Take even something so elementary as lettering: not only scratching out little black marks on a piece of white paper that stand for something, but drawing them in a particular way that will influence the interpretation of their meaning.
"If everything isn't black and white, I say, why the hell not?" - John Wayne

Lately I’ve been mulling over precisely this topic of the origins on how raw color is (or was, before better living/art through the chemistry of contemporary synthetics) derived from base organic materials. In the specific context of pen & ink and the early manufacture of India inks - of which there is evidence supporting the theory that it has its origins instead in China - there is a wonderful symmetry to the use of ground up bones for white, and the burnt char remains of the same for (ivory) black. I wonder if this underpinning is reflected in the Taijitu (yin-yang) symbol, which presumably at that time, the white and the black would have both been crafted out of the same substance. This icon may in fact be a literal visual depiction of such a relationship: out of these ends beginnings are made, as in using black ink on a white sheet of paper. As an end result, a pen & ink drawing itself is a work transcending the duality of black and white in binary opposition, resolving the apparent dichotomy. Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of a stretch to infuse a cartoon with so much cosmic meaning, but the mind wanders like following a line. A line might leads and guide the eye when looking, but watching it appear, making the mark is as magical as the aftermath.

Making the stuff that makes the mark is another story: rudimentary recipes for homemade inks call for meticulously collecting fine soot from blackened surfaces and mixing with a binder, plus adding water until desired consistency is reached. A similar process is used for traditional sumi-e inks, which grind compacted inksticks (pigment and animal glue) onto an inkstone. A recent Ink & Snow post featured some testing of different brands of prepared inks that don’t involve any more thought than buying a favorite coffee at a café, as compared to roasting your own beans, grinding them, and brewing them properly. Most days it's a continuum that depends upon how damn tired I am.

“Do I like my coffee black?  There are other colors?”

Even for basic black, a casual perusal of any art supply catalog reveals this range of different flavors: carbon, ivory, lamp, Mars, vine, bone, velvet, onyx and jet. As with other colors, the terms used to describe these blacks are opacity, density, flatness, richness, depth warmth and coolness. An example of progression in sheen would be from flat to matte, then satin, and finally gloss - an interesting point that the same can also be said when referring to white. Sennelier, the French company that produces my current favorite ink, lists the following “characteristics” of pigments to consider in use:

·  Vivacity of tone
·  Sensibilité à la lumière/Sensitivity to light
·  Permanence en mélange/Continuously mixed
·  Pouvoir couvrant/Coverage
·  Pouvoir colorant/Tinting
·  SiccativitéSiccativity
·  Pouvoir de suspension/Power to suspend
·  Finesse/Finesse
·  Comptabilité avec d'autres pigments ou d'autres techniques/Compatibility with other   pigments or other techniques
·  Stabilité à la temperature/Temperature stability
·  Solidité face aux intempéries/Robustness to bad weather
·  Toxicité/Toxicity
·  Poids/Weight
·  Densité/Density

For some reason, lists like that make me want to attend a wine tasting, which if held in proximity an art gallery or critique, can easily lead to logorrhea. A side-note in that Sennelier's brand is labeled a “China” black, in addition to being an India ink. This may reflect a difference in manufacturing process, perhaps in the use of a “slow drying” varnish as the vehicle and binder for the pigment. Personally I haven’t noticed it drying any slower than other inks, and continue to be impressed with its performance. 

Another recent read for me, Simon Jennings’ “Artist’s Color Manual” (2003 Chronicle Books/HarperCollins) echoes the sentiment expressed by many an artist who avoids the use of black in their work, pointing up that “black rarely appears at its purest in nature.” An example of this would be the iridescence of a raven’s feathers, or even the luxurious black fur coat on the Bird-Dog while on yesterday’s walk. I spent much of the time during that walk out looking for black, but even when I thought I had found it, my painterly partner pointed out that it really wasn’t - it was just getting too dark to see the color (should have known Schrödinger had a black cat).

Malevich's Black Square, 1915, Oil on Canvas

But it’s existence as an idea has informed concept art: the range of shades of black listed above recalled a 2010 trip to an art museum exhibit and seeing the color field works by Clyfford Still. At the time they didn't move me, but in retrospect, I now have a better appreciation for the underlying principles that he was experimenting with. Live and in person, these paintings showed subtle areas with distinct differences between what prints or photographs as a flat area of solid black.

 Ad Reinhardt's Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962, Oil on canvas

Other examples included here are the monochromatic piece by Kazimir Malevich, and a later abstract expressionist work by Ad Reinhardt. While the former is contingent upon the white frame as part of the Suprematist design, the latter - similar to Still - also utilized a system of unreproducible, contrasting shades of black to create layers of depth that, in his words "challenge the limits of visibility" (take a peek also at Art Spiegelman's 9/11 New Yorker cover which is an homage to Reinhardt). Both painters created equally infamous works which continue to challenge the conventions of color, and the concepts of objective representation and meaning.
(fade to white)

“The world begins in black and white” - Gordon Onslow Ford

Returning to Jennings’ “Manual” and the Color Index International's standard classification table, this time for white, there again is the irreducible relationship between color and chemical composition, evoking analogous studies of neurology and the philosophy of mind. Over the course of evolution from lead white to zinc white, there has been an equal unearthing of varieties in flavor: titanium, zinc, titanium-zinc, pearl, iridescent, warm, neutral, antique, flake, ceramic, permanent, foundation, mixed, ivory, silver, transparent, satin, porcelain and Chinese. Don't get me started on white-out either.
Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 Neo-Dada "White Paintings" sought to "reduce painting to its most essential nature, and to subsequently lead to the possibility of pure experience" via housepaint. His blank canvases was more of philosophical statements than paintings: a sort of a stage upon which the play of light and shadow would interact, somewhat similar to the patch of shower stall I stare at every morning while contemplating art in the bathroom.

So here’s a case where while pursuing information about a relatively new area for me (color) inevitably boomerangs back into learning even more about what I thought I knew all about to begin with (black and white). In this humbling way I managed to reenact my perennial classroom advice about always seeking to expand one’s base of knowledge because it will ultimately enhance appreciation and skill in other, seemingly unconnected areas. Also the maxim that many beginning students in drawing would be better off initially restricting their studies to black & white so as to avoid overcompensation/crutching their way around difficulties in fundamental design problems, is still sound advice in both classroom and studio experience.
I still maintain a preference for black & white in photography, for film and of course in comics. Case in point being the luxurious depth of Fleischer Studios’ Popeye films from the 1930’s that still reign supreme over most contemporary animation efforts, which are fast approaching flawless reproduction of reality (in other words, boring). The time I spent nose pressed up against the glass of some of Ansel Adams' photographic masterpieces is forever etched upon my brain. And then there's Godzilla.

Staring down a blank sheet of white paper is supposedly for many an artist the surest way to stress out and seize up in creative blockage. Having never had that problem myself, all one really needs is some black ink to change that in a hurry. 
And after pecking away at this post intermittently over a couple of weeks, the very last thing that occurred while trying to find a line between these random mullings, I scrolled up to the logo for the Ink & Snow masthead.


  1. I just stick to "ooh, colors, pretty" and "I can make a picture that looks kind of like something you recognize." Sort of. But your in-depth treatment reminds me of the deep and turbulent waters I get into when I start noticing things about music and try to express the concepts to people with advanced degrees. It's like I'm trying to smoke a whole Grove Dictionary so I can trip out on the entire known cosmos of music. All I get is brain damage.

  2. Brain damage: half my wash is probably drool.