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Looking at the dark side

Do you avoid using black in your paintings? Or do you wonder if black is the secret missing element in your work?

Avoiding black altogether, and following the Impressionists' school of thought (that in nature, all colours are mixed) could be holding you back from creating strong artwork. I'm not a big fan of using pure black paint, though you will find areas in my work that look as if they are pure black, but this is usually an illusion created by the relative colours next to it.

Creating contrast is the key, so using colours that are very dark or close to black are essential in helping to create visually compelling artwork. But mixing colours that come close to the same tonal value as black can be a challenge without ending up in the mushy brown zone with offbeat colours, which is sometimes inevitable when mixing lots of colours together in an attempt to darken areas in a painting.

Pure black has the capacity to literally suck the life out of an otherwise vibrant piece, partly because it's often used as a kind of antidote to bright colour. But without harmonizing it in some way to the existing colour palette, black areas can appear superimposed and unrelated. These areas then become the prominent feature in the painting, rather than a receding and supporting element that helps to create a soft visual depth.

Mixing a very small amount of pure black with the primary colours (red, yellow, blue) can create colour harmony, but you don't need much and achieving a satisfying dark that relates to your painting will depend on the colour palette you are using.

In my current collage work I needed to explore options for creating 'darks' that didn't require lots of heavy layers of paint, or pure black. I tried Payne's Grey, but this had it's limitations and needed to be applied so thickly that I was losing the layers beneath and along with it the effects of the printed paper collage. So I knew I wanted to retain an element of translucency in the dark areas but also keep an eye on creating areas of strong contrast.

Using my Gelli plate I began playing around with using pure black, creating marks and impressions on the plate using a variety of tools and found objects. Printing from the gelli plate allowed for all kinds of interesting and random, painterly-but-not-painted effects to emerge and I knew I wanted to preserve these effects to enhance my collage work.

So I then experimented with using acrylics mixed with glazing medium in various quantities to use over paint the black and white prints. The effects are quite stunning, my favourite glazing colour so far is Pthalo Turquoise! The marks and impressions in the print have not been lost and I have been able to effectively harmonise the dark areas with the rest of the artwork by glazing the printed paper in a colour that I have used in other areas of the painting.

As they say, 'necessity is the mother of invention', and as creatives we get to invent solutions to self imposed problems all day, every day! Pushing the boundaries of our creative experience to resolve practical and visual problems is my favourite part of the job of being an artist. Along the way there will be failures, ideas and solutions that don't work, and things that don't go according to plan, but seeing what the dark side has to offer can lead to new and exciting discoveries and help us to create stronger and more compelling artwork.

Looking at the dark side
Looking at the dark side

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