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Several years ago I was asked to paint a portrait of a friend’s two pets. One of them was a black poodle and I struggled both with finding a way to make the eyes appear from the black face and the fact that I had not used black watercolor before. I read about the use of blacks in books and found that much of what was said was to use black in conjunction with another color.  That is what I did, here.

Later, I learned about using primary colors to create black. That is what I did to create the above image of a holstein cow.  I allowed the three colors to mingle on the paper as well as mixed it in my palette to create the effects above.

Then I read a blog post about an artist who only worked in black and white watercolor. Try as I might, I have not been able to locate that post or artist through googling but he rendered incredible scenes using black and white watercolor. They were mostly night scenes, many of which were of highways and cities.  I forgot about this artist until Eva posted a watercolor in black, here. Thank-you, Eva. You sent me on a journey that has been very rewarding and informative for me.

I chose a the above blacks made by Winsor Newton, ivory, lamp, mars and neutral tint to create my black paintings. For white, I chose American Journey titanium white.

The first painting I chose to do was from a photo of clouds that I had taken. I learned that black watercolor worked very well to create a monochromatic painting. I was able to create depth and manipulate the different blacks to achieve just what I had in color, before. It did not look flat if handled like any watercolor.  I will say that had I only used ONE of the above blacks, I would not have been able to build up the values as well and this may have appeared much flatter. I also was intrigued with the difference of mood a black watercolor brought across. Very somber.

The next image I chose was a photo taken by Bigsurkate. Thank-you, Kate, for allowing me to work from your photo!  I had noticed that when I added the titanium white to the black, I came up with a foggy and opaque gray. I worked the background behind the crow in wet and wet with ivory and mars black (very diluted) and allowed it to dry. I then went back in with the titanium white, wet-in-wet, and created the foggy appearance.  I really like the contrast of that opaque white with the rail the bird is perched on as well as the whites I left on him.

For my last study I chose a photo reference that Carol and her husband sent  after I inquired about what a big snow looked like in New York City.  Kaiya, their dog, was not in the photo. I added that from another photo. Thank-you, Carol and husband, for the references!  What prompted my wanting to try this was a little original watercolor card that my sister had sent me a year ago. That artist had painted a snow scene in black of skyscrapers in the background and park bench in foreground. On the park bench was a Christmas gift and it was the only thing in color. I really was impressed with the contrast. Thus, the inclusion of Kaiya, in color, to see if I could achieve the same effect. I used no white in the city scene. The white is the white of the paper.

What this involved study showed me was that we are not limited, at all, by what to use to create.  Even though I like the richness of the blacks that other colors make, I also am intrigued with the somber scenes created in black and white.

To all my students out there that I have warned about black and white!  Have fun! See what you can do with it!

And Henn! That goes for Paynes gray, TOO!!!!!


  1. Oh, my Leslie. I love what you did with that crow! Just gorgeous. But I must say, the study you did from Carol’s photographs is just wonderful. The contrast between the naturally b&w world and the tan dog with a red leash is a delight to look at! You were absolutely right to include the dog. It made the painting. In photography, this is referred to as a “cut-out.” One “lifts” the color portion to another layer, then turns the original layer to b&w and then combines the two layers. Really makes a subject pop!

    • I made a painting “cut-out” by hand then. Fabulous. I chose the crow to use as one of my practices with black because I wanted three distinctly different images to work with. I intend to use “your” crow reference again. I have seen some really neat paintings with crows and your image lends itself to many directions. I think some color would suit him well, don’t you? Thank-you, again, Kate. 🙂

  2. This is something that I’m still working, mixing colors and especially with black. It seems you blend colors with such harmony, it looks easy when you do it but it takes a touch to get a clean look. The cow is still one of my favorites.

    • I think we will all be working with color and value as long as we paint. As soon as we think we’ve learned all we can, someone will come up with something new! The cow was a huge lesson in color for me. Thank-you, Ryan.

  3. OMG!

    What you have achieved is amazing. I know that I am biased, but the street scene with Kaiya is absolutely out of this world. You’ve captured the wrought iron on the brownstones. I love the negative space of all the tree branches. And of course, Kaiya waiting to be walked is just adorable.

    The cloud painting is very dynamic and the crow is moody.

    These are all so fantastic. I already want to try one.

    • Hi Carol. Thank-you for your excitement over this. I like your description of all three. I couldn’t agree with you more that black watercolor can be used for all sorts of different reasons. Black with color just grabs you and blacks ,solely, imparts a very different mood. You are right about the negative space! The steps were all negative space. I had to render them one space upon one space and relate them to the rails by drawing a few plumblines. Just think, I would never have had the opportunity to try this challenging scene had you not contributed. Thank-you for that!

  4. These are wonderful Leslie. As you know, I love black and white. What I especially like about this watercolour approach is all the subtle tones of colour that have appeared in the work.

    • Thank-you, Kirsty. I stared at your last black and white with the big sky for so long. I noticed that, too. Had I wanted to spend more time with each of these, there is no telling the shades I could have achieved. I know I will be doing more of these.

  5. Leslie, it’s interesting how you relate your thoughts and painting experiences in regard to black–and white. I hope the unexpected journey has been good to you. Thank you.

    • The unexpected journey was fun and I learned quite a bit. Thanks to your painting of Wounded Knee and the feeling it imparted, I had the impetus to try.

  6. Thank you Leslie. Your work is very beautiful and encouraging. I like using black and white. I think that’s why I like the Sumi-e pieces and am interested in that sort of painting. I have been thinking about doing my watercolor sketches in sepia or paynes gray. I like both of these neutrals and think I could learn more about values and have fun at the same time.

    • Thank-you, Linda. I have used ink in black and white but not tried the black watercolors other than to mix them with other colors. Thay lend quite different results. Sepia is wonderful to work with as a single color to render something monochromatic. Have fun with it!

  7. Thanks for the series of three, I enjoy seeing varied examples and they all are great in their contrast!

    • Thank-you, Nancy! I tried to select three things that were varied to help me understand what I could do with black in different situations.

  8. You sure come up with the darndest ideas !! I love it !
    I love the crow, and the snow, and of course the cow !! She is most endearing ! So… if I mix 3 primaries, I will end up with black ?? Where have I been ?? Thank you so much Leslie!

    • Hi Isabelle! Thank-you. Yes. The three primaries I used for the cow painting were permanent rose, prussian blue, and transparent yellow. If I allowed them to mingle on the page, the mix worked best if I applied the yellow first. It made a difference. Another way to get black is with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.

  9. you tackled the challenge head on and came out with some really good results,
    Great job

  10. This is so strange Leslie – I was trying to write a poem the other day about Black and White heat….lol
    I think these black and white pieces are amazing! I like the tip about using other colours in conjunction with the black (as with the cow) Black lends itself to watercolour very well indeed giving a kind of richness to the pictures 🙂

    • 🙂 Ha! We must have been channeling across the North Atlantic, Lynda! Wouldn’tthat be cool if we’d posted the same day? The black comes out stronger and not as subdued when mixed from other colors is what I learned. Thank-you, Lynda!

  11. Love the snowy stairs and cow. Like them all, but especially enjoyed looking at those two. Your paintings continue to amaze me. cheers

  12. Hi Leslie! Nice as always. The raven/crow is my favorite.

  13. What a fantastic and informative post, Leslie! I have never worked with black in watercolor so far, mainly because of the bad reputation black watercolor pigment has, seemingly undeservedly. The examples and explanations you have here are extremely useful for me as I love black and white imagery (I think you may know that :).) A fine teacher that you are warrants recognition!

    And I love the crow and winter scene, both as illustrations for the topic and as independent sketches/artworks. Carol’s dog is just perfect!

    • Hey, you hit “the nail on the head” with your comment. I had stayed away from exploring black exactly because of what you said, above. The black is definitely made more vibrant and colorful by mixing it with other colors, but I rather like the soft compositions that came of limiting myself to black and white, opting to mix it in with a color, use ink, or just combine other colors to make black. I posted this because I think if all we do is follow the book or listen to what our instructors tell us, we lose out on the blessings of part of the journey. Sometimes, while following the pull of trying something new, we stumble on something we can use! Thanks, Alex!

  14. Wow, what a treat to see all these studies in black and white. My favorite is the new york snow scene. I just couldn’t quit looking at it. Thanks for a great post, Leslie! 🙂

    • Thank-you, Beth. That snow scene was one of those things where I said, “Wonder if I can do that?”. 🙂

  15. I’ve worked with black watercolour pencil… but usually over something like graphite pencil, to add deeper tonality.

    My digital painting is mostly done first in black and white first and then I add colour over the top and blend it in.

    Love the crow and the clouds. Very nice!

    • Your digital painting is phenomenal. Do you work in in black and white in order to “see” your values? I think many oil painters lay in monochromatic composition and then add color, also.
      How come I knew you might like the crow? Something special you and your husband are; feeding the birds and tending to habitat! Thank-you, Val. 🙂

        • Val Erde
        • Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:15 am
        • Permalink

        Many thanks to you too, Leslie.
        I partly work in B&W to see the values, although when it comes to bringing out highlights I do most of it in the colour stages of the work, but it’s also because apart from my watercolours I have a personal style (in other words, not known much by other people, not shown as much in public) of working in graphite pencil. I cross-hatch and/or then smudge with my finger or a tissue for the shadow areas and use an eraser and smudging for the highlights. I seem to be able to perceive what is about to come into being, better in monochrome than in full colour.

      • Thanks for answering, Val. Perhaps that is why a value sketch is so important to many of us. We see better what we want to build and create in color, then.

  16. I love your journey in art, I’m enjoying the trip.

    • Thank-you for that, Richard. Your comment has made my day, today!

  17. Each one has been a joy to look at! I loved the cow and the last study most.. intriguing effect with the different values.. now you set me on to black and white!

    • Quite a different look than ink I think, Padmaja. The cow with the mixed colors is so bold and the studies with just the blacks come out so soft. It was interesting and I think by working with just the blacks has helped me to understand them well enough to use them from time to time in paintings with color. Thank-you for this comment.

  18. My favorite is the street scene. Very well done! Goes to show you, less is more.. always

    • 🙂 It doesn’t surprise me at all that the street scene was your favorite. I chuckled a little on that just because yours are so fantastic. Thank-you, Frank.

  19. I love the dogs and the holstein cow.I’m very interested in the three colors to make black. When creating a solid black for lithographic or digital printing I always include 20% Cyan. This gives a darker weight to the finished job. I also use it when painting in watercolours, although I add more Cobalt Blue. Love this post- so interesting. Thank you for sharing Leslie.

    • For the cow I used transparent yellow, permanent rose and prussian blue, but other primaries can do it. Don Andrews uses a lot of cobalt blue. He said he uses burnt sienna and ultramarine blue for his black. I guess there are tons of ways we could approach this, all lending to a different effect. Thank-you, Keith!

  20. Lovely pieces Leslie, I especially love the cow, so much detail, it’s fantastic.

  21. a beautiful exploration of black and white Leslie. the cow is still one of my favorites.

    the bird exploration is cool, to me the rail feels reflective and the background “fog” opposing that has lots of possibilities (imo).

    your snow scene is terrific. you have a great feel for snow. for me there is a stark separation between the color and the rest of the work – as if it’s two different works – which if i understand you right may be part of the intention. somehow i’d like more transition at least in some places i think, so that the areas feel like they interact more… relate more to each other in some way. i may just be missing your intent tho.

    • Thank-you, Wrick. I love your statement about the background fog. I was totally impressed with the difference between the white paper and the opaque look of the white watercolor. It made me think of fog and a slippery wet surface and how this could be used in a color painting as well. The rail did not look so wet until I did the opaque white background. Oh yes. The dog in color is supposed to provide stark contrast. Thanks for your push to do the trees better! I will work on it. They were so hard! 🙂

      • yeah. it’s not the color – or even value – that makes an area zing as much as the colors and values of areas around the area that can pop it out. i think that is what is happening with your white fog and the white paper – they each make the other area… zing. and that’s always special. cool.

      • Thanks, Wrick! 🙂 Just as an added thought, have you ever visited ECHOSTAINS? She has posted a post about UPC code art I thought you might find interesting here:
        I just thought it might interest the stamp artist a bit.

  22. Fascinating! What you did with the cow is absolutely amazing. Very beautiful!

  23. Oh, these are fantastic Leslie! They are so moody. This is the first time I’ve seen an achromatic watercolour painting, and they look amazing. I also love how you’ve used the variations in black to achieve depth. Fab!

    • Just for you, I wish I could have found that other watercolor artist who painted night scenes in black and white watercolors. If I ever find him again, I will send you a link. They were very abstract and I think you would have really liked to see them, Heather. I agree with you. These are moody. That was my final conclusion about them, also. Now I know what to do for moody. Thanks for this, Heather.

  24. This proves that black isn’t always just black! I like the addition of the dog in the snowscape.

    • Thanks, Al. I won’t be so afraid to work with black, in the future. Thanks for that about the dog!

  25. Leslie, these are wonderful! I thought the cow was my favorite until I saw the New York City scene with your friends dog. Just beautiful. You’ve captured these animals so well and each seems to have their own unique personality showing through. Wonderful!

    • Thank-you, Kathleen. I chuckle about the dog in the snow scene. Means a great deal to me that I am passing on a little personality with my animal paintings. Thank-you for that. 🙂

  26. You are always so gracious. These all illustrate such good watercolour. I love the cow. My own preference is to mix darks from the colours on my palette but your black paintings have a life all their own.

    I thought that was Kaiya as soon as I saw the painting – (o:

    • Thank-you, Stephen. I, too, prefer to mix black from other colors but do like the moodiness that black by itself creates. I would love to try some night scenes of highways and the like with it if I can find some photography on wet canvas that lends to it…..aaaah, to have the kind of time to do all that I want to explore. That’s Kaiya! Just waiting for her walk! LOL 🙂

  27. I love the snow-covered steps.

    — Judson

  28. Hey Leslie – The crow is fantastic! Really nice black and white watercolor.

  29. My two favorites are the one with the dog and the cow. The one with the dog is so beautiful thats a painting I would hang in my room, and the cow looks so real. Great job as always Leslie you inspire the creativity in me. But I have to admit I have been busy, settling in my new country U.S.A. But I have plans for my blog as soon as I have enough time I will start to gather some materials.

    Again great work have even a greater weekend.

    • Welcome, Alonso! I had no idea. No wonder you have not posted much. Thank you for the comment. 🙂

  30. What a lot you’ve been doing since I last got round to visiting your blog! I really like the clouds – in fact I don’t find them sombre at all – the contrast & composition makes it seem quite dynamic.

    • Thank-you for mentioning the clouds, Sonya. I think I learned a little by doing them in black and white. I am forever practicing elements of landscapes. You made me day with this comment……Thanks.

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