Conception, my boy, fundamental brain work, is what makes all the difference in art. –Dante Gabriel Rossetti
As someone who loves color, I was majorly disappointed when I walked into my first oil painting class and was told we would spend the first two weeks painting only in black and white. I had just bought all these exciting new colors, actual artist quality colors, not just cheap grocery store paint. Even their names were beautiful: viridian green, cadmium red light, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, madder lake deep, quinacridone gold, dioxazine purple. My inner painter loved the color and my geeky brain loved the chemistry, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
But not those first two weeks. Those first two weeks, I was stuck with titanium white and mars black.
Of course, my professor knew exactly what he was doing. By the end of those two weeks we all made leaps and bounds, we were much better prepared to enter the world of color, and I found I really loved painting in black and white.
This is what working in black and white does for you:
It helps you see values as they actually are. When you have a reference photo that’s in full color, it can be hard to tell which areas are lighter and which are darker. We have natural biases about color value; we assume that cool colors are darker than warm colors, we assume that if colors are the same intensity they’ll be about the same value, we assume ares of the same color will have the same value, and so on. Take this parrot for example. Just looking at the colored image, I might assume that the entire red area was basically one value, or I might assume that the white eye area was lighter than the yellow feathers. But looking at the black and white image, it becomes easy to see the shadows in the red feathers, and it’s clear that the eye area and the light feathers are in the same range. Even if you intend to work in color, reverting an image to black and white helps you compare value easily.
It moves much faster. Color is complicated. You have to constantly mix up new colors, clean out your brushes, clean out your water cup, dig through your pile of colored pencils for the right one. Working in gray-scale, you don’t have to deal with any of that, so you can bust out pieces in a third of the time.
It removes distractions so you can focus on form. Remember these balls and cubes that we all had to draw at one point? It shows how light and shadow form around objects, and it is very obvious in black and white images. It’s just simpler: pure light is white, deepest shadow is black, things with light on them are lighter gray and things with less light are darker gray. The end. This helps you see the form of what you’re drawing, and also helps it read easier to others looking at your work. Everyone wins!
It improves your ability to work with colors. This seems backward, but it works. You can see values better, work faster, learn how to show form and patterns of light, and master the basics without worrying. One you have that down, adding color is much less daunting. Even if you’re a skilled color artist, working in black and white helps you remember those fundamentals.
I recently rediscovered my enjoyment of working in only black and white, and plan to do it much more often, especially now that my life is getting busier.
Is there anything you initially hated about learning your craft, but now use regularly? I’d love to hear your stories!