This past winter I was hired for my first art commission. The client wanted a cow for her living room wall. I was eager to try something new, but had no idea how I would create the effect of shiny black fur using acrylic. As anyone who has ever painted anything in acrylic knows, using pure black doesn’t give the effect you want it to. Adding more black doesn’t make it darker, and trying to lighten it just makes it flat and grey. For anyone else who has struggled with this, allow me to share with you a little trick I learned while working on two paintings of animals with shiny black coats.
Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner big enough for full sized canvas paintings, so I have to use my iPhone to take pictures of them. It’s pretty much impossible to get a true representation of any painting using an iPhone, even in the best light. The problem is when the phone adjusts the focus it tries to compensate for the brightness/darkness in the focal area, and that can really mess with the contrast and depth of the colours in the photo. If anyone has some advice for dealing with this, please let me know!
So having said that, here are two examples of paintings I did over the holidays which taught me a lot about painting in black.
The first is Sadie, my mom’s Boston Terrier. I painted this as a Christmas present, and it doubled as a practice run for the calf below, which was the commission project. It was super convenient that both paintings had exactly the same colour palette.
The key, I learned, is to use actual black very sparingly. Only for the deepest darkest pure black areas like a pupil. Often in any kind of painting, I find that it’s the surrounding area that brings out the thing you want to emphasize, rather than the thing itself. It might be difficult to see in the photos, but I used a slightly lighter colour in the iris immediately surrounding the pupil to add life and dimension to the eye, as well as bring out the deep black in the pupil itself. Since the pupil is a small area which is truly black, absorbing all light, it is ok to use just a pure black paint straight from the tube.
To cover large areas, you can actually mix black as needed using ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I had no idea blue and brown would mix black, but it worked perfectly! Thanks Google! Of course what you will make is not really black, but that’s the point. Pure black is flat, but with a mixed “almost black” you can adjust it to add subtle variation and shine, which creates depth. When you want to add life to something like an animal with a shiny black coat, use different ratios of blue and brown to adjust the “temperature”, and play with it to get the effect you want.
For the most part the ratio is flexible. More brown makes it warmer and blue makes it cooler. Experiment to see what works for your painting. A small amount of white helps lighten the mixture enough to bring out the shiniest parts without having it look flat and grey.
Hope that is helpful for anyone who has been struggling with using black in acrylic. It’s easier than you might think 🙂