I once thought the watercolor palette revolved around Ivory black.
“Think of what starlight and lamplight would lack, diamonds and fireflies, if they couldn’t lean against Black.” Mary O'Neill
Okay not really, but still. I didn’t think my palette could be complete without it. I mean, it’s black. Like white, I assumed black was a pure color that man didn’t have a right to tamper with. I mean really… who can make black? Black just… is.
So I painted black with Ivory. I preferred Ivory’s softness and ease of blendability over Lamp’s heady, staunch opaqueness. (I think of Lamp as an extrovert and Ivory as an innie. As a fellow innie, I fell in love with Ivory. Happily ever after, until...)
One day while in a flurry of mixing, I accidentally made black. I mean, it was really, really black, and it was the most beautiful black I had ever seen. In an attempt to cull my palette, I had found a simple way to replace one color with two that were already there.*
I thought I’d give DIY black a go. I could always pop an Ivory pan back in later, if needed.
Yet, months passed. And (please don’t tell Ivory) but I never missed that pan. The more I made my own black, the more I loved black.
I didn’t realize this until I went the DIY route, but tube blacks tend to appear flat in a painting. Paintings with the DIY black were much more vibrant when compared to my earlier, ivory-saturated paintings. In fact, black can be such a lively and diverse color that many artists simply refer to deep tones like black as “darks.”
Many artists recommend the standard primary mix for black: Yellow+Blue+Red. However, I prefer a two color mix because it’s easier to achieve consistent mixes with only two colors than with three or more.
I did a bit of research and found several, common ways to mix a two-color black. So I began a fun experiment, and here's what I discovered.
[Links are to the pigment and brand I used. Some are affiliates — thanks!]
Red + Green
Many artists use Alizarin crimson (PR264) and Phthalo green (PG7) to make black, but these colors are too finicky for my tastes. When mixing them, I could achieve a very strong black, but it took a lot of effort. These colors are so dominant that I felt as if they were constantly at war with each other, like two siblings who were trying their best to one-up each other. Even when adding tiny dabs of pigment, it was too easy to overshoot black and head into dark green or purple.
This constant tweaking often caused me to mix more paint than needed. I didn’t like this waste. And I also didn’t like that I wouldn’t be able to adjust or scrub out mistakes with these highly staining colors.
Still, green and red are used by many artists to create black, so it may be worth it to experiment more with this combo. However, avoid convenience greens when trying to make black. Mixing a convenience green (and sometimes even a single-pigment green) with red usually results in brown or olive, which is obviously not black.
Blue + Orange / Violet + Yellow
I was a little wary about these suggestions. I know from experience that many orange pigments turn purple when mixed with blue. Yellow often goes green when mixed with violet.
Also, many of the colors one might use in these mixes, like PO62 or PO48 (orange), PY35 (yellow), and PV23 (purple), are often staining, granulating, and/or opaque. I struggled with some of these issues throughout the Crimson/Phthalo experiment and preferred to avoid pigments with these attributes.
Last but not least, I don’t keep orange or violet in my palette. Meaning I would have to mix it first. Meaning that any black I produced with these mixes would be more than two pigments. This nullified these suggestions, at least for me.
However, I recognize (and applaud) that all sketchers are not the same. Though these mixes wouldn’t work for me, they may work for you, so I was willing to give them a try.
The outcome was less than ideal, at least in regards to black. I was able to mix a lovely range of grays, some mighty fine violets, a beautiful brown or two, but rarely a black. As far as I can tell, getting a decent black from a blue/orange or violet/yellow blend relies on a very specific pigment combination.
That’s great if you have those specific pigments with you at all times. Otherwise, it’s not so great, at least in regards to black.
Blue + Brown
I’ll cut to the chase: Using these two colors is my favorite way to mix black. I am able to get good results with almost any blue/brown mix, and great results with a variety of blues and browns.
It is also easy to vary the warmth of the black by varying the amounts of blue or brown in the mix. A ratio of more brown to blue will create a warmer black, and the opposite ratio will produce a cooler shade.
My favorite blue/brown combo is raw umber (PBr7) and Daniel Smith's Indanthrone Blue (PB60). These two colors are staples in my palette and can be easily blended to make a warm or cool black. If I add a touch more water, I’ll wind up with a beautiful warm or cool gray.
Even though ultramarine (PB29) granulates, it also works well with raw umber and produces a strong black. Substituting cobalt (PB28) also produces black, but cobalt lacks the strength that ultramarine or Ind blue has so the result isn’t as strong. However, some may prefer this softer effect.
If you enjoy staining pigments, Phthalo blue (PB15:3) and Prussian (PB27) combine with umber to produce a good black. However, when diluted to gray, both of these mixes weren't as stable and exhibited a green, red, or brown cast.
Though not pictured here, I've had good results mixing blue with other dark browns like burnt umber, Van Dyke brown, and sepia, but some of these browns are mixes and already contain black (PBk) so it's sort of cheating, but be a cheater if you want! It's only paint.
Use what you love, but I recommend you give raw umber a shot. (I really like M. Graham or Daniel Smith. Graham's version is slightly warmer.) It's a spectacular brown for tree trunks, dirt, bugs, and other brownish things. If you are interested in learning more about setting up a watercolor palette, you can read my tips here.
Do you mix your own black watercolor? If so, I'd love, love, love to know what pigments you use. Leave me a comment so I can experiment with those also. And happy mixing!
*I actually replaced two colors. I also removed Payne's gray from my palette because, with a touch more water, most DIY blacks transform into excellent grays. Score!