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.

The Brimful Book by Platt & Munk
The Brimful Book by Platt & Munk
Menu created by Margaret Macdonald (Lighthouse, Glasgow) 1911 black
Menu created by Margaret Macdonald (Lighthouse, Glasgow) 1911

BLACK WATER

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

BLACK OF THE FOREST

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

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

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
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.

Piero Bernardini, 1941 chimney
Piero Bernardini, 1941
Fabio Faorzi, 1950 chimney
Fabio Faorzi, 1950
Roger Duvoisin, 1944 lion
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

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
Dorothy Lathrop

Incidentally, here is a similar palette:

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
Art by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1916) Fairy Islands
Dance of Winter and Gnomes Arthur Rackham, 1919
Adrienne Adams (American,1906-2002) - The Halloween Party, 1974
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 by George Carlson (c 1919) from the book, BELGIAN FAIRY TALES
Art Deco Illustration, Starstruck, by Erté
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
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
By Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)---Lady Ursula f. 'The Knave of Hearts'
By Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)—Lady Ursula f. ‘The Knave of Hearts’

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 black
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 dollhouse
Katie Country Mouse Goes to London by Philip Mendoza

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 mermaid
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
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
Elige Tu Mapa, Encuentra Tu Camino by Eyvind Earle

BLACK IN POSTER DESIGN

Kushida Mitsuhiro, poster for The Little Match Girl, 1967 black
Kushida Mitsuhiro, poster for The Little Match Girl, 1967

Below, black is used to offset typography.

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
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
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)
illustration for Adventures of Giaconia (1964)
illustration for Adventures of Giaconia (1964)

FLAT BLACK ANIMALS

Blacky Daw by Adelaide Palmer and illustrated by Dorothy Saunders, 1930
Blacky Daw by Adelaide Palmer and illustrated by Dorothy Saunders, 1930
illustration from- Aus Haus und Hof, by Konrad Müller-Fürer
illustration from- Aus Haus und Hof, by Konrad Müller-Fürer

BLACK ROOFS

BLACK IN NAIVE ART

SEASONS (1969) John Burningham
SEASONS (1969) John Burningham
Paul Klee, Strong Dream, 1929, moon
Paul Klee, Strong Dream, 1929
Michael McCurdy
Michael McCurdy
Caveman Dave Nick Sharratt
Caveman Dave Nick Sharratt

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