Making black paint can seem complex. The simplest way to mix a true black is with equal amounts of the three primary colors blue, red and yellow.
To try and understand the concept it all seems a bit counter intuitive. In scientific terms black isn’t actually a color, it is the absence of color. However, when it comes to painting we simply don’t have the option to remove all light and color.
To mix true black is almost impossible. You could say that black is actually an impossible color. The good news is you never really have to. In the real world almost all dark colors you initially see as black are actually a very dark tone of other colors.
Making black paint from oil paints
The problem with the idea of mixing equal amounts of paint is that what you actually need is the same amount of real pigment from each color. That can vary a lot even in the same companies colors. Oil paints will show this more than acrylics and watercolors.
Some oil paint colors just need more oil in the mix to make them flow better, others have more pigment for the same amount of paint.
The combination I find easiest to use
There are several primary color combinations that will work but the one I find makes black easiest is by using Prussian Blue, Napthol Crimson and Medium Yellow. The dark tone of the Prussian Blue mean the base color is immediately darker. The high pigment content also means it makes color mixing a slower, more gradual process.
Next you should add the napthol crimson. Initially this will give you a very deep rich purple. Add the Red slowly and mix thoroughly after adding each small amount. Then just add a little medium yellow.
Add colors slowly
Don’t add too much yellow, if you do you will just get a brown. Add the yellow little by little and you will notice that initially the mixture will keep getting darker. It will reach a point where adding more yellow starts to make the mixture lighter again so be careful and add the yellow very gradually.
In time it will become more intuitive and you will be able to gauge the amount of each paint needed more easily.
Some people find it easier to start with an Ultramarine Blue or a darker red like Alizarin Crimson. Both can work. It is just a matter of finding the combination that works best for you and the painting you are working on.
Making black paint from watercolor paints
The names and colors of watercolor paints are mostly fairly similar to the colors you get from oil paints. This means you can use the same or similar color combinations to get the black you want.
You should start with the red and blue you are using and only add a small amount of the yellow. Because watercolor paint is transparent you will always see the color of the paper through the paint. Even if you create the darkest black, when it is painted onto white paper it will likely be seen as a grey color.
If you need to darken the color your darkest blue is the best color to start using. I do sometimes add a little Burnt Umber to help keep the tones darker too. If your yellow has lightened the mixed color too much the Burnt Umber can help to cancel its effect without making the mixed color too ‘blue’ or ‘red’,
Making black paint from acrylic paints
You may well notice much more variation between different manufacturers colors with acrylic paints. Because they are so versatile you will see colors that aren’t always available in oil paints and watercolors. Different manufacturers will have different names for similar colors too.
I do always find it easiest to start with the darkest blue I have. With acrylic paints this is often an Ultramarine Blue. My favourite red to use is a Deep Scarlet, but I do use Burnt Sienna sometimes too.
Using dark colors keeps the tone of the mixed color dark, so that adding the yellow you choose is less likely to make a more brown color. With acrylics I do often mix my own yellow using raw sienna and Cadmium Yellow. This is a personal choice I find easier than using Yellow Ochre or Medium Yellow.
As with the other paints, add the yellow very slowly and use your observation skills. Watch how the color of the mixed paint changes. It should get darker before it starts to get lighter. If it gets lighter immediately you may just have added too much at the start. Adding a small amount of the dark blue is usually the best way to remedy this. Sometimes you will need to add a little red too though.
Making black paint using complementary secondary colors
Another way to make black is by using one primary color and its complementary secondary color. This is much easier if you start with a dark blue and add its complementary orange, but can also be done using a dark red and adding its complementary green secondary color.
You will find it more difficult if you start with a yellow and its complementary secondary color purple, but it is possible. You will just need to start with a dark purple and add more of the purple to a smaller amount of yellow.
Using a dark blue with a strong orange like Vermillion will also give you great results.
Using color theory you will see that each of the secondary colors is mixed from the two primary colors you didn’t start with. This means you are still effectively using the three primary colors to make the black. You are just using someone else to mix two of the primary colors to give you the secondary color you want mixed ready for use.
Other ways of making black paint
There are a few more unusual color combinations that can help you make black and other useful dark colors. As I said above it is very rare you actually want a pure black paint. Most colors described as black will often have dark blue, brown or even purple tones.
These can be the most useful colors for shadows and other dark tones. Making it easy to mix them will allow you to paint faster and improve your painting.
How to use dark earthy reds
Burnt Sienna, Indian Red, Red Ochre and Venetian Red are all n warm dark earth colors that can be really useful. They can be used in similar ways and have deep red tones as well as a small yellow pigment. All of them can be quickly mixed with a dark blue to create a dark rich color you can adjust easily by adding more or less blue.
Understanding the effect of different blues
Each dark blue will give you a slightly different tone. Prussian Blue and Indigo will create the darkest colors. Ultramarine or Pthalo Blue will allow the warmer tones to show through more. Using these 4 blues and 4 earthy reds will give you 16 color combinations really easily. Adjusting the amounts of each paint gives you even more options.
You can see in the chart below the subtle differences that each color makes to the final mixed color.
How to use darker earth tones for deep shadow
Burnt Umber is another color I have used a lot. Mix it with the same blues and it will give you 4 more options for dark natural shadows. I use Vandyke Brown less, but it is another helpful color in certain situations. If mixed with Indigo it will create a very deep cool shade and if mixed with Ultramarine Blue it will help you mix a strong, warmer color.
Using Alizarin Crimson
Alizarin Crimson is a strong highly pigmented dark red paint that can be perfect for warm shadows in the foreground of a painting. You can mix it with Prussian Blue or Indigo and you will get a deep color with distinct purple tones. Adjusting the ratio of blue and red makes it easy to create a gradient of colors within a set dark spectrum.
Green is the new black
Well not quite, but some greens can be really useful. Cobalt Chrome Green is a color made by Winsor and Newton. It is a rich dark green and when mixed with Alizarin Crimson makes a deep rich amost black color. Adding a few streaks of Prussian Blue creates a fantastic color gradient that reminds me of the feathers of a magpie.
There is no one right or wrong way to make any color. It is a balancing act when mixing any kind of paint. Whether you paint in oil paints, acrylic’s or watercolors, mixing a black paint is something you will need to do at some point. Gradually you will find the color combination that works best for you.
Take some time to experiment and practice using different colors to make your black paint. Knowing different ways to make the same mixed color will make your painting easier. This is something you will find most useful when painting wet on wet with oil paints or watercolors.
Use your observational skills and imagination to perfect your ability to mix the colors you want quickly. Create paint charts using the different combinations of colors you have tried and try to learn from each mistake you make.