Students often ask if I use black watercolor in my paintings. Apart from a few experiments with black gouache and black gesso, the answer is no.
I find pre-mixed black watercolor too dead and neutral. It will certainly put plenty of tonal contrast into a painting, but making the darks lean either towards cool or warm puts a lot more life into the work.
My color palette is very simple and by using a transparent yellow (Indian Yellow or Quinacridone Gold) extremely rich darks can be mixed. They can be made warm with more Alizarin and Quinacridone gold or cool with more Ultramarine, or by carefully balancing the mixture, completely neutral if that’s what I need.
In order to mix really strong darks with watercolor it is important to use plenty of pigment and very little water.
Don’t wash your brush out between dipping into the different colors on your palette – this only dilutes the mixture.
Make sure you have plenty of paint squeezed out – you won’t be able to mix strong darks with minute amounts of paint on your palette.
Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Quinacridone Gold and French Ultramarine Blue can be mixed to produce either a warm, neutral or cool black.
The effect of warm and cool darks can be seen in these two quick sketches below.
The dark cavity of the window in the first example is painted with a warm dark and appears closer and less transparent than the cool receding dark in second example.
The warm dark window cavity appears close and solid. The cool dark window cavity feels more transparent and appears to recede
We can take advantage of the receding/advancing nature of cool/warm darks in our paintings. By adjusting the color temperature of the blacks we can manipulate the feeling of depth in our work.
In this painting cool blacks in the shadows and cavities of the building recede. The warm blacks in the foreground palm trees advance, separating the trees and building and adding to the impression of depth.
Adjusting Neutral Blacks
Sometimes the darks in a painting can appear flat and lifeless. This is usually because they are neutral and don’t lean towards cool or warm. To overcome this problem a small flick of pure Ultramarine Blue or Alizarin Crimson into the neutral dark will bring things back to life.
The dark shadows under the striped awning are brought to life with a few marks of pure Ultramarine. In this case I used Ultramarine gouache straight out of the tube. Gouache dries to a flat, opaque finish and is more visible over darks than Ultramarine watercolor.
Here an area of neutral dark is brought to life with a few spots of pure Alizarin Crimson.
Small touches of pure Alizarin Crimson animate the neutral shadows and depressions along the waterline in this painting.
In the painting below Ultramarine Blue Gouache was added to some of the window panes in the focal area to break up the solid neutral dark (Ultramarine, Quinacridone Gold and Alizarin Crimson), add variety to the panes and help them recede. The same Ultramarine Gouache was dropped into the shadow under the arch of the tunnel to push it further back into the painting.
It is easy to fall into the trap of simply applying dark areas to your paintings without thought to the color temperature of those areas. It is surprising how much difference a simple adjustment to warm or cool, or the addition of a few spots of Ultramarine or Alizarin can make to the color dynamics of your finished work.
Author: John Lovett