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Updated: Mar 11, 2021

This is an article “The Power of Black and White” by Marc Primo Warren

Throughout ancient history, black and white have stood as an important marriage of monochromes that have helped shape the world we currently live in. Despite both’s common connotations—black being associated with darkness or class, and white of light or cleanliness—this pair continues to make significant dents in the world of art and design.

Marc Primo Warren Chess
Marc Primo Warren Chess

The huge contrast in black and white creates extremes for all of us and how we live our daily lives. We say things like “white as snow” or “black as night” to describe things we see, but ask to be given explanations in ‘black and white’ to understand more clearly. Since time immemorial, these monochromes have taken various social definitions on how the term ‘white supremacy’ is denounced and the slogan ‘black lives matter’ is supported. In the realm of art, though, both retain their value when drawing out contrasts that make every piece stand out.

The art of black

For the neophyte artist, white paper is always the preferred canvas to draw or paint on. For more experienced artists who seek to experiment, creating artwork on a black space can be more rewarding because of how light can be created out of complete darkness.

In 1963, American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt did a piece that seemingly presented a flat black surface on a frame. However, viewers can actually see various shades of monochrome upon closer inspection, with reddish tones on the edges, bluish tones on the vertical grids, and hints of green hues on the horizontal. This piece was seen as a revolutionary work of art in how it presented the timelessness and purity of abstract art, as well as how it made audiences aware.

Monochrome paintings like that of Reinhardt became more prominent in the art world during the age of avant-garde visuals throughout the 20th century. This started a new experimental trend in artists who focused on how color values change from a monochrome surface and expose new kinds of textures, emotions, and forms. However, this technique has long been practiced by other artists prior to Reinhardt. Russian Aleksandr Rodchenko introduced the first non-figurative monochromes in 1921 by painting blocks of solid primary colors for exhibition to strip art of all its complexities and serve as an antithesis to how so-called erudites portray art.

The art of white

When it comes to using white in art, the common artist would draw from its purest form than apply its values to bring out more texture and emotion. This is simply because white is the standard canvas that most consider a state of blankness, much like how it is on standard sketch paper. It truly is a clean slate waiting for other colors to invade its space to present something visually.

However, there are also different shades of white that artists can use to bring out shimmer and iridescence to certain pieces. Notice how certain things like pearls, milk, and snow have different hues but are all mostly considered white. Artists with a trained eye and an expert grasp of the color spectrum see beyond monochromatic values and are able to reflect certain shades visually as complementing colors to their pieces.

Though white has been considered as the color of cleanliness and purity throughout history, it’s actually the opposite for one particular hue called Lead White. The color was banned in the late ‘70s for how its pigment needed cow and horse manure, lead, and vinegar for production, which was deemed as poisonous. With the ban, monochrome artists such as the embattled Agnes Martin and the formal Robert Ryman turned to titanium and zinc whites instead.

Balancing whites on a canvas can bring out more luminosity by mixing other colors that harmonize with the monochrome such as yellow, red, green or purple among others. Doing this allows artists to bring out shadows and contours, and gives off a distinct glow to their work. If you want to find out more about Marc Primo Warren our services or just say hi, please reach out here.

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