Flat Black in Picture Books and Art

Flat Black in Picture Books and Art

If you’ve ever heard advice to avoid black out of the tube when painting, this article is a good explainer for what that actually means in practice.

Below is a collection of art in which I think the black looks really great.

‘Absurd Alphabet’ illustrated by Walter Crane, 1874
Eric Fraser, 1951
The Brimful Book by Platt & Munk
Menu created by Margaret Macdonald (Lighthouse, Glasgow) 1911
An Arab Interior Arthur Melville 1881

BLACK WATER

The black of the water below is unexpected but hugely effective as a contrast against the yellows, greens and blues.

‘Garden-land’ by Robert W. Chambers. 1907. Illustrations by Harrison Cady

BLACK OF THE FOREST

I love that the forest below looks like colour laid upon black. The darkness of the forest ‘shines’ through.

Stories the Iroquois tell their children by Mabel Powers illustrated by W Fletcher White 1917

For the illustrations below, Harrison Cady uses flat blacks for the background line of trees, the foreground foliage and also on the characters’ clothing.

Thorton Burgess Animal Stories illustrated by Harrison Cady from 1942

James Whitcomb Riley (1849 - 1916) All the Year Round, 1912
James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916) All the Year Round, 1912

THE BLACK OF LINOGRAVURE (LINOCUT)

Certain types of art will naturally result in more darkness in the finished work.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866, Russie – 1944, France), Le Miroir, 1907, linogravure, 322 x 158 mm. The British Museum

Earlier printing technologies also meant a limited colour palette, so illustrations from the 19th century tend towards blackness.

Franz Wacik, Austrian. Born 1883, died 1938

Piero Bernardini, 1941
Roger Duvoisin, 1944

BLACK IN ART NOUVEAU

Black is especially useful to Art Nouveau because a flat black negative space balances out all the ornamental decoration. We find a lot of flat black in artwork from the 1920s and 30s. (Art Nouveau lasted from roughly 1880 until just before World War I.) Walls, skies, floors, clothing, animals — the artist can use a flat black for pretty much anything, as the composition requires.

These artists all had a similar look:

  • Kay Nielsen
  • Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
  • Margaret Clark (Australian)
  • Virginia Frances Sterrett (American)
  • Marjorie Miller [Estes]
  • Dorothy Lathrop’s work feels like these artists only ‘for kids’
  • Adrienne Adams (American) also illustrated for kids but her black-heavy works retained more creepiness than Dorothy Lathrop’s

Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931) USA, Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Sterrett’s black and white illustrations for Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Sterrett’s black and white illustrations for Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Virginia Sterrett’s black and white illustrations for Old French Fairy Tales c1920 by Sophie Ségur
Rosanie or The Inconstant prince, Kay Nielsen 1913
Rosanie or The Inconstant prince, Kay Nielsen 1913
Marjorie Miller [Estes] (1899 - 1995) 1931 Queen Of The Night illustration
Marjorie Miller [Estes] (1899 – 1995) 1931 Queen Of The Night illustration
Dorothy Lathrop

Incidentally, here is a similar palette:

The First Aid Fairy by Margaret Clark 1901-2001
Margaret Clark 1901-2001 Australian illustrator black

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite worked in both black and white and colour, and I think experience in black and white makes an illustrator especially good at tonal contrasts. She also made use of the flat black when creating her coloured fairy world illustrations.

Art by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1916) Fairy Islands
Fairyland 1931 Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Fairyland 1931 Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Fairyland 1931 Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Fairyland 1931 Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Fairyland 1931 Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
Dance of Winter and Gnomes Arthur Rackham, 1919
Adrienne Adams (American,1906-2002) – The Halloween Party, 1974

There are many black, starry skies in Art Nouveau and similar styles.

S.W. Reynolds — Vogue magazine — 1927
S.W. Reynolds — Vogue magazine — 1927
Johnny Gruelle, 1916
Art by George Carlson (c 1919) from the book, BELGIAN FAIRY TALES
Art Deco Illustration, Starstruck, by Erté
Edmund Dulac (1882 – 1953), The Ice-Maiden, watercolour and gouache, frontispiece of The Dreamer of Dreams by Queen Marie of Romania, 1915, Hodder & Stoughton, London, New York and Toronto
FABIANO, Fabien (Jules COUP de FRÉJAC, 1882-1962). ‘The Coquette’, “Shadowland”, Vol. 7, Nº 6, 1923
Descending the Stairs, J C Leyendecker, 1929
David Palladini for the Aquarian Tarot
David Palladini for the Aquarian Tarot
David Palladini for the Aquarian Tarot
David Palladini for the Aquarian Tarot
David Palladini for the Aquarian Tarot

Black is perhaps not a colour you’d associate with Tove Jannsen, but she used it, all right.

When illustrating the dark, it’s not always the sky that’s black.

BLACK IN PICTURE BOOKS

Tove Jansson Sleeping in the Roots, 1930s
Tove Jansson Sleeping in the Roots, 1930s
This illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) for ‘St. Nicholas an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks’ includes a self-portrait in the lower left corner
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza
1923 Boys and Girls Of Book Land by Nora Archibald Smith Illustrated by Jesse Wilcox Smith Publisher David McKay Co

BLACK OF THE DISNEY ARTISTS

Perhaps we don’t associate flat blacks with Disney animations, either. But look at the concept drawings of the Disney artists and the blacks pop.

Concept art for Disney c.1950s by Mary Blair The Little Mermaid
Mary Blair river night lantern
Mary Blair
Eyvind Earle (1916-2000) American artist, author and illustrator, noted for his contribution to the background illustration and styling of Disney animated films in the 1950s
Elige Tu Mapa, Encuentra Tu Camino by Eyvind Earle

BLACK IN POSTER DESIGN

Poster by Gian Rossetti, 1949 toothpaste advertisement
Poster by Milton Glaser, 1977
‘The Call of the Wild’ Cover by Roberto Lemmi, 1966
illustration by Ralph Weir, 1925
Poster for Fromme’s Calendar (1899) by Koloman Moser
A Comet’s Journey, 1844 JJ Grandville 1844
Poster Art Agriculture c. 1930-1936
Leonetto Cappiello
Achille Mauzan, c.1920
Jean d’Ylen, 1920s
Mario Broggi, 1922
Kushida Mitsuhiro, poster for The Little Match Girl, 1967

Below, black is used to offset typography.

Gert Sellheim, 1937
Henry Clive 1923
Leopoldo Metlicovitz, 1918
Harry Richardson, 1920
Poster by Boccasile, about 1950
1918, during the First World War
From Yellow Submarine (poster) Heinz Edelmann 1968
The Man Who Laughs Cover by L. Andreotti, 1907
Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr The Visitor exhibited 1905

THE BLACK OF FOLK ART

Since folk art is so often either woodcut, linocut or made to look like that, it frequently black as a base.

from The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs, illustrated by John Alcorn, compiled by Marie Winn and adapted by Allan Miller, published in 1966 by Simon & Schuster, New York
John Ross and Clare Romano Ross woodblock illustration for storybook ‘Manhattan Island’ 1957 written by May Garelick
Oskar Kokoschka, Sleeping Woman (Schlafende Frau)
Oskar Kokoschka, Sleeping Woman (Schlafende Frau)
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke - Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)
Carlos Marchiori Illustrations for Edith Fowke – Sally Go Round The Sun 300 Songs, Rhymes and Games of Canadian Children (1969)
illustration for Adventures of Giaconia (1964)
The Cat At Night by Dahlov Ipcar cover
Kathleen Lolley
Brian Larossa

FLAT BLACK ANIMALS

Jacques (Lehmann) Nam, 1911-Illustration from Le Smile cat
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars He felt a sudden darkness above his head, and a cold terror crept over his skin
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars
Blacky Daw by Adelaide Palmer and illustrated by Dorothy Saunders, 1930
illustration from- Aus Haus und Hof, by Konrad Müller-Fürer

BLACK ROOFS

1957 illustration by William Dugan Songs We Sing, Little Golden Book
by Roger Duvoisin (1900-1980) 1951
Jan Pienkowski. 1975, Haunted House

BLACK IN NAIVE ART

SEASONS (1969) John Burningham
Michael McCurdy
Caveman Dave Nick Sharratt
Adrienne Adams
Adrienne Adams
Adrienne Adams

Header: LES MÉTAMORPHOSES D’ALADIN OU COMMENT IL FUT PASSÉ AU CAVIAR (1912, 2006) Lucien Laforge and Jean-François Martin

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Those who tell the stories rule the world.

Native American Proverb