The Color Black in Art and Decorating

Is black your favorite color?

Guernica by Picasso

Guernica by Picasso

Some people might stand by the color black as their favorite because it is stylish and mysterious. Black leather jackets and shoes can be intimidating or sophisticated and elegant, depending on how it is styled. Either way, black as a fashion statement is bold and powerful.

Black clothing is often worn to express dignity, somberness and grief at funerals, or it is associated with elegance and authority in men’s and women’s formalwear at weddings and “black tie affairs”.

Black works well in fashion and decorating because it is a neutral that dramatically sets off bold colors.

The stylish use of black in fashion spilled over into interior decorating and design, particularly in the Art Deco period of design, which originated in Paris in the 1920s and came to the US in the 1930s. The glossy sophistication of black in Art Deco is re-created to some degree in decorating today.

So, what is black?

Scientifically speaking, black is not really considered a color as it is a lack of color or, an absence of light. White, is the full rainbow spectrum of light reflected back to the eye. Black is perceived when no color is reflected back to the eye from an object or field.

Black can be made by mixing pigments, so it can be viewed as a color as well. When red, yellow and blue paint are mixed together, black is created. It isn’t the most saturated version of black, which requires ingredients like charcoal, but it is black. White however, must rely upon chemicals like titanium or ingredients like chalk to make white pigment.

The masters of the Renaissance created a controlled pallet of pigments in grays- called grisaille. This method was often used to paint an under-painting, which is a blueprint for the colors that are painted over it. The controlled pallet was mixed by creating piles of paint in increments of 10% light, from black, which is no light, to white, which is 100% light.

The artist could create the illusion of a three dimensional object or form on a two dimensional surface by drawing in the subject matter and accurately rendering each of the ten increments of light. For instance, a shadow might have two or three values, or shades, from value one [10% light] to value three [30% light].

In abstract expressionist art, black is often used for its own sake. It churns up more mysterious or deep emotions, as in the painting called Guernica, a massive anti-war piece by Pablo Picasso, painted for The Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s fair.

Post impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh sometimes outlined elements of his paintings, including flowers, with black. A flock of crows, scattered to the wind above golden fields, were directly rendered in black. As a result, his bold colors and forms were rich, yet somehow somber. The color and textural movement in his paintings both delight and emotionally grip the viewer. Black adds a dramatic low key to his work.

Frank, the owner of a large design firm in New York had his dining room painted bottle green, which is a small step up from black with a greenish tint. He brought light into the intimate atmosphere of the dark room by having the ceiling completely mirrored and spotlights put in. The walls were textured and had a wet look finish, which was created by adding spar varnish to the high gloss paint. The walls sparkled under the small spotlights. Art was powerfully presented, as were fabrics and the glossy obsidian, soft edged dining room table.

Black adds an element of strength to a room. Utilizing its psychological qualities in a sensitive way can express itself as a sophisticated look.

A collection of prints of Pablo Picasso’s paintings, including Guernica, can be viewed and purchased at


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