Charcoal Black

charcoal black

Origin, History and Characteristics

Used throughout history, carbon or charcoal black is easy to prepare and has excellent hiding power. Since carbon absorbs light so well, it often appears dark with infrared imaging, revealing an artist's charcoal sketch under the painting. The name carbon black is generally used as a generic name for those blacks that are made from the partial burning or carbonizing of natural gas, oil, wood, vegetables and other organic matter. It was once made of elephant tusks, walrus tusks, carbonized hartshorn, or animal bone. True ivory black is said to produce the best black.

Throughout the history of painting, charcoal black has been used extensively as a coloring agent. Carbon-based blacks all have bluish undertones, and when mixed with whites will produce useful blue-grays. Charcoal black is easy to prepare and has excellent hiding power covering everything beneath it.

Today's painters generally avoid using black to darken pure colors since the mixture tends to appear somewhat dirty. The Great Masters however did not exclude it for toning down other pigments even flesh mixtures. Black pigments were combined with red and yellow (including red and yellow lakes) to create a variety of useful browns. The resulting shades are immediately distinguishable from shades of raw umber because they appear cleaner and less chalky. Vermeer seems to have used these mixtures to make browns in more than one work.

Charcoal Black in Vermeer's Painting

Charcoal black was used to portray the black marble tiles seen in many of Vermeer's interiors. Since charcoal black has a strong brownish undertone, the artist added a touch of natural ultramarine to render the bluish cast of the marble itself.

Vermeer also used charcoal black to reduce the chromatic intensity of natural ultramarine in the deeper shadows of the blue tablecloth which appears in a few of his works.

However, one of the most subtle uses of charcoal black is found in various white-washed walls which appear in his interiors. Painters of the time used black, often with umber, to render the shadows of white objects. However, Vermeer's walls convey a pearl-like luminosity not to be found in similar depictions of white-washed walls of painters working in the same genre such as Gabriel Metsu or Pieter de Hooch.

In Vermeer's best works, the viewer does not have the impression of seeing lighter and darker shades of gray pigment but rather a perfectly white wall which receives more or less light. Charcoal black was used to tone down the lighter areas of the wall painted with heavy impasto white lead. In the deeper shadows, umber dominates over black in the dark gray mixture since excessive quantities of black lends the shadows a sullen effect.