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Good Question of the Week: Do you really use Ivory Black?

August 12, 2013

I get a lot of questions in my inbox and the blog comments these days, I think every so often I’ll post a few to the main page here, so everyone can benefit from the discussion.


S.T.: Marc, I just read your list of colors and am rather surprised to see black! Why not Indigo, or Payne’s Grey? Just curious and always interested in learning. Thanks.

Marc: So in fact, that is a great question. For that particular class supply list we’re discussing, I’m trying to keep the number of colors down to a minimum. It can seem like a lot for people to purchase in one go (though, really it’s not – painting is a cheap activity compared to almost anything else. Golf? Skiing? Drinking?!)

But other than that here’s my thing:

In my approach to watercolor I’m working larger-to-smaller, lighter-to-darker. (Like everyone I think?) By the time I get to the darkest dark parts of the image I am A: wanting to cover color that has gone down before, and B: doing very small embellishments. The darkest darks are usually done with a #0 or #2 round. So honestly – we are mostly talking about opaque-ish dots and dashes :) (See this old worksheet that I plan to update soon).

But, yes, you need a sturdy dark that does the job.

Sometimes, I’ll use Ivory Black. But just as often I’ll use a thick mixture of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna, or Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson.

Occasionally I’ll use a few special effects colors (that I didn’t call for in the basic color list) – Prussian Blue (my version of Indigo) and Shadow Green (Holbein). These are strong, dark, transparent pigments. Good alternatives IMO to Ultramarine, as a mix with a complement like Alizarin.

But when there is a true black going on – like a velvet dress, or raven hair – I’m quite willing to use liberal amounts of Ivory Black. I’ll even use black gouache (mixed into other watercolors) to be even *more* opaque.


RE: Payne’s Grey: In my (admittedly limited) experience, this is the one color that changes the most when it dries. Payne’s is always going lighter than I expected. Add to that the fact I work a lot ‘on the run’ – sketching in the field – carrying all my supplies all day – I’m always trying for the smallest possible kit that still gives me results. Thus – Mr. Payne’s Grey gets the boot.

Also, here’s a completely unrelated story about a bad experience with Payne’s Grey.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2013 2:06 PM

    Great explanation! I’ll have it to try it one of these days…

  2. Sue permalink
    August 12, 2013 6:26 PM

    Thank you for using whatever it takes to produce a good picture and meet your needs. It give the rest of us courage to go beyond what we may have been taught by other well meaing teachers but has ended up limiting us.

  3. Susan T permalink
    August 12, 2013 7:10 PM

    Mark, thank you for answering my question. Very informative and always good to hear the thought process. I personally don’t “get ” Paynes grey and have a love of indigo. One more question (if you would indulge me)… so I am understanding you are using moist fresh squeezed paint from the tube. Do you allow the leftover/ unused portions to dry and reuse, or are you only using moist as it arrives out of the tube? I allow my paint to dry on the pallette and spritz with water and some glycerine to reactivate.

    • marctaro permalink*
      August 13, 2013 10:02 AM

      I’m the same in that respect – I let the leftovers sit in the trays, and just fill right on top as I need it. If its dry, spritz. If I’m doing something important, I’ll put out fresh – or if I’m working large. But many times I’m just ‘waking up’ what’s there.

  4. August 13, 2013 6:02 PM

    Fascinating post! I am finally taking watercolor classes, after many years of ruining perfectly good sketches with my clumsy attempts. Thank you so much for you insights!

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