As an artist, you’re expected to know color theory. But sometimes the simplest questions keep us wondering. For example, if black is a color or not.
Technically black isn’t a color but it’s the absence of light. Therefore black is a value and not a color. However, all sorts of items have the option to come in black suggesting that black is indeed a color. When it comes to pigments, black can be sourced from organic materials like carbonized wood and oil.
So, black is both a color and not a color? Let’s explore the first reason why black isn’t a color.
What is black?
Black is the absence of light. Our eyes cannot see a black hue because it simply doesn’t exist. The hues we can perceive are violet, cyan, yellow, red, blue, green, and orange. What we do see when we see black, is simply the absence of light, meaning that black is a value (or a shade).
This means that any hue can turn black. The less light reaches an object, the darker it becomes. Resulting ultimately in black.
The ball below is completely red. Even the part that rests on the table. But that part we perceive as black because the light simply cannot reach that part.
So no, black isn’t a color but it’s a value.
The image below shows which colors we can perceive. Ultra-violet and infrared are invisible to us in real life, but for the sake of showing up on the image, I colored it black.
But we can still have items that are black. How come?
The black theory we just talked about only goes for light (additive color theory). Physical objects that are black have pigments (subtractive color theory).
Is black a physical color?
Here’s the reason why black is a color:
Black is a physical color when we talk about pigments and not light. When we see an object with a certain color, some colors are absorbed and others are reflected back. In order to see an object that is black, all colors are absorbed and nothing (or very little) is reflected back.
When we see red for example, all colors are reflected back except for cyan. But when cyan isn’t reflected back to our eyes we see the color red.
When we see the color blue, all colors are reflected back except for yellow. To figure out which color needs to be absorbed in order to see a certain color you can use this handy formula:
In order to see red, cyan must be absorbed. In order to see cyan, red must be absorbed. To see green, magenta must be absorbed, and so forth.
You get a black color when all pigments are mixed together. Then, when we look at the newly mixed color, every color is absorbed which results in black.
So according to what we just learned black is a color when it comes to pigments. After all, we can buy black pigments and see the color black.
……Or is it?
The second reason why black isn’t a color
So does this mean that black is a color? Still no, because black does not exist as a color.
Technically black isn’t a color because even though we see what appears to be black paint, we actually see nothing. We see by using our eyes and in order to see, our eyes need wavelength information. Black absorbs every wavelength. So when there are no wavelengths being reflected back to our eyes, we see black.
This makes sense because the color black does not sit in the visible spectrum of light. We merely perceive the color black, but we don’t actually see it.
So, again, technically speaking when we see the color black we see a lack of light.
But don’t be confused: A black object does reflect some amount back to our eyes. Because if not, we would see a void.
The blackest black
A few years ago the darkest black was invented by Ben Jensen. It’s called VANTA black. This man-made black absorbs 98% of light making anything that’s covered in this black seem almost fake.
As you can see here, Vanta black is as black as it gets. Below you see two objects that are exactly the same and in the same light conditions. But one is covered in VANTA black.
Unfortunately, we as artists are unable to buy it. According to Surrey NanoSystems, the company that now sells VANTA black does not sell the paint to individuals.
Plus the company wants to know how the paint will be used before they sell it to anyone…
How to make black?
To make black paint you must mix red, blue, and yellow together. These primaries, which make secondary and tertiary colors, make every color. When all of these pigments are mixed, it results in a black color.
This is because in order to see a color, other colors are absorbed and others are reflected back to our eyes. When we see red, cyan is absorbed. But when we see cyan, red is absorbed.
When eventually all colors are absorbed we see black. Therefore we need every color mixed in to see black.
However, it’s more likely that your mixture will turn out dark gray. This is because red, blue, and yellow don’t produce true neutrals when mixed together.
Cyan, magenta, and yellow do, however. You can learn more about these colors in my color theory guide.
But still, those colors aren’t dark enough to get black. If you really need black you should buy a ready-made paint tube.
Reasons why color is black vs reasons why black isn’t a color
To sum up:
- Black is not a color but a value
- Any object with any hue (root color) can look black due to the absence of light
- Think of an object sitting on your desk. The area where the object hits your desk gets darker and darker due to the absence of light
- Black is a color because black pigment can be sourced from organic sources
- By burning wood (and other materials) and then powdering the carbonized remains
- These pigments can then be used to make paints
- Black is not a color because it’s not a color that sits on the visible spectrum of light
- Even though we use and see black pigments our eyes actually see nothing because the wavelengths are being absorbed which results in a black ”color”
- However small amounts of light are being reflected because if not we would see a void. The closest pigment that comes close to 100% absorption of light is VANTA black
So if you would compare the reasons to each other, black being not a color wins out. Simply because we see with our eyes, which use light. And when it comes to light, additive color theory rules.
The most commonly asked questions about whether or not black is a color
To sum up, here are the most frequently asked questions about black, simply answered.
Is black no colors or all colors?
Black is all colors combined when it comes to pigments like paint. But when it comes to light, which is what our eyes use to see, we perceive black when no colors are returned. Instead, all colors are absorbed.
Is black the absence of color or white?
Black is the absence of color and white is all colors combined. This only goes for light. When it comes to pigments, black is when all pigments are combined. You cannot make white with pigments yourself.
Why is black the absence of color?
When light isn’t reflected back to our eyes we see the ”color” black.
Is grey a color?
Grey is simply a color that is stripped of its hue. Gray is made by desaturating any color. To desaturate a color you add the opposite color to it. Saturation is one of three components of a color. The other two are value and hue.
I hope this made sense to you and now you know why everyone gets so confused about whether black is a color or not.
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