Why All These Black Paints?

Posted: August 11, 2020
Black paint

Lamp, Ivory, Mars and Bone Black – What’s the difference?

There’s nothing more confusing than going in an art shop, looking for what seems like the easiest thing in the world, simple black paint. Upon request we are faced with sometimes many different types of black and the question arises – why are there so many types when they all look the same? Which one should I choose?
Be it subtle, there is a difference in all of these blacks. And here is the answer.

Why Does it Matter?

Choosing the “right” shade of black is more important than it seems. For the best results, your black should always have the same color temperature as the colours you are mixing it into.

True black doesn’t exist

That’s right, technically black and white are not colours, they are the absence of colour. Scientifically speaking, all colours are an expression of light; all objects reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light that we perceive as different colours. This way, when an object reflects nearly all light we see white and when it absorbs nearly all light we see black.

To translate this to art, when we use black paint they are never truly black. The paint the got the closest to real black is the so-called Vantablack by artist Anish Kapoor, that absorbs so much light it makes 3D objects appear completely flat.


As you will see below, black pigment is one of the oldest pigments around, but it hasn’t always been the favourite of artists. For impressionists, black was completely unheard of! Instead, they used dark greys, browns or blues.

Blue Water Lilies (detail; 1916–19), Claude Monet

Most Impressionists like Monet, believed that using black paint made the work flat, so they refrained from its use. Except, that’s not always a problem and can lead to interesting effects like Edouard Manet’s painting below.

Luncheon on the Grass, Edouard Manet, 1863

Types of Black Paint

Mars Black/  (Iron) Oxide Black

This pigment was named after the alchemical name of iron, Mars as it was traditionally made from iron oxide.  It’s  a very opaque pigment, with a high tinting strength producing matte black with a warm brown undertone. Due to its strength it’s really good for frescos, concrete tinting or for underpainting. Recommended to use with titanium white for good neutral greys

Mars black is heavily featured on neoexpressionist Anself Kiefer’s paintings.

Nigredo-Morgenthau, 2012
Emulsion and acrylic on photograph on canvas
190.5 × 380.4 cm

Ivory Black

Ivory black is named after its traditional processing method, as it used to be made of roasted elephant tusks. It’s a semi-transparent black with a slightly warm brown undertone. It’s about three times weaker than Mars black. It’s good for mixing greys and creating coloured shades.

Lamp Black/ Carbon Black / Charcoal Black/ Vine Black

This particular black has many names essentially meaning the same; traditionally, it was made by collecting the residual soot of oil lamps. It’s made of pure carbon, and is one of the oldest pigments. It’s a semi-opaque black with a cool blue undertone.

Virgin and Child, Giovanni Bellini, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Since carbon absorbs light so well, it appears dark with infrared reflectography imaging, revealing artists’ sketch under the painting.

Bone Black

 Bone Black is made from animal bones. It has a warm undertone and is a semi-transparent pigment. This makes it excellent for glazing applications.

Rembrandt, 1635 Portrait of Philips Lucasz
“Studies of several paintings by Rembrandt using the technique of neutron activation autoradiography have shown the widespread use of the bone black in the initial wash-like sketch over the ground layer. Unusually, unmixed bone black pigment was used to paint the darkest parts of the clothing in the portrait of Phillips Lucasz. ”

Black or no black?

There is no right or wrong when it comes to art– as we’ve seen, artists throughout history to the present have used black pigments for different effects, or missed it out completely. Will you?