Alechinsky peignant

WHY PAINT IT BLACK?

Painting of Soulages
Painting by Pierre Soulages

“Black is a color by itself, which sums up and and consumes all others”. Henri Matisse

The first answers are indeed: « why not?” and “Are you a big fan of the Rolling Stones?” but there is much more to say regarding this amazing « color ».

The black color has always been a great inspiration for artists of all kinds (e.g., in movies, photography indeed and even literature) as well, obviously, in the art of painting to the point that a great deal of painters uses black as their only (or main) color for their artworks.

Black is not considered technically a color, which is pretty interesting. In order to understand modern views of colors, we have to turn to Isaac Newton‘s genius color spectrum: by refracting white light with a prism, he identified its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet … but not black. But what stands as a revolution is that Newton demonstrated that colors come only from the light they each one reflects or absorbs in specific ways.

As a matter of fact, through his experiment, Newton did not identify black as technically a color and this finding come precisely from his study of light it completely absorbs and does not reflects at all. Although his study dates back from the XVIIth century, Newton’s findings are still considered one of the most important scientific input as to the study of colors. I must of course admit that modern science has evolved since Newton’s work. Although I am far from a cultured scientist and that you surely can find other examples, I learned for instance about the exciting way eyes’ retina determines the way light signals caught by the eye become a color when transmitted to the brain. Considering that, we could conclude that colors only exist in our brain.

Unlike other colors, (true) black is characterized by the “absence or complete absorption of visible light (as) an achromatic color” unlike other colors such as red which is considered the most light reflecting color. Those characteristics of black are indeed thrilling for an artist considering in particular its potential (50?) shade(s) and textures. I guess we all use black and one should admit that this color has a definite impact on any artwork mainly determined by its quality, purity and texture.

As compared to great artists, I just cannot consider myself as mastering black. I just made a few humble attempts at using black as the main color of some of my artworks and I found, quite simply I admit, that black conveys a true depth to the canvas, some mystery and some kind of austerity. In some of my other paintings, I also found, such as probably yourselves, that black is a great way to bring about balance and above all a “structure” to a painting. I also realized that to superimpose a color on black makes the color deeper and that colors applied next to black have a more striking impact in the observer’s eye. Those characteristics can be found in real life in many instances: the night indeed associated with an atavistic fear, the beauty of obsidian used notably by Incas to make swords (called « Macuahuitl« ), carbon, coal and even the black lawyer’s robes.

I do not exactly know when painters started using black as their main color and I can only think of Asian (and especially Chinese) drawings, paintings and calligraphy. I am sure you have earlier references. Some great artists admit this heritage such as Fabienne Verdier or Pierre Alechinsky who partly studied in China or use Asian techniques. Others, such as Hans Hartung, Malevich or Franz Kline, used black almost to « make a statement » and surely bring to their art a breathtaking strength (I think in particular of the fascinating Malevitch’s “Black cross” made at the beginning of abstraction in 1915 – please see gallery).

I would like to conclude this article describing my feelings looking at the outstanding work on black by Richard Serra and Pierre Soulages. They have done such a (life)work on the texture and material that the latter has managed to make its black reflect light to the point its monochrome artworks seem to be colored. The former, on the contrary, have used black to completely absorb light at least in some of his artworks. I had the chance to visit an exhibition dedicated to some black paintings made by Richard Serra with carbon. I was fascinated and quite overwhelmed to find myself looking at the void, completely absorbed in the painting, like you can feel drowning into an Yves Klein’s blue monochrome painting.

Here are some paintings by some of those outstanding artists I hope you will find inspiring if not more.

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