Black and White


ANY survey of the effects of Colour would be incomplete without some consideration of the influence of black and white. A reference to Nature reminds us of the magnificence of great white clouds above a deep blue sea, of sheets of white daisies on fields of glowing green, of the dancing flicker of white butterflies in a garden, or of the spangled silver of white flowerets in the hedgerows. We think, too, of the splendour of black cattle on the skyline of a moor, of the flashing sables of a magpie as he shoots like a black meteor across our path, or of the sombre grandeur of a mountain tarn hiding its black depth in the shadow of overhanging crags.
Evidently we cannot afford to neglect black and white, and indeed we know well the force of them in practice, for the black robe and the black horse have touched man’s imagination for ages, and “white as linen,” or “snow-white,” are household words.
Many painters and designers have recognized the value of masses of black and white in giving value to their pictures or decorations, for black and white form an admirable foil for colours. The change to either of them after some positive colour is so great that the eye returns from it refreshed to find the colour brighter than before. The familiar Union Jack owes much of its brilliance to the presence of white among the reds and blues. The red, white, and blue of France, and the red, white, and green of Italy, are pleasing for the same reason. So great is this influence, and so effectual is white when separating opposing colours, that even a group of jarring tints can be redeemed to some extent by fencing each of them with white ; indeed, it has grown to be a proverb that “white harmonizes all things.”
Black also is wonderfully effective as a foil. It was much used in the Pompeian decorations, especially as a ground for schemes of light colours. At the present time it is used freely as an outline in cotton printing, and although this is done first of all to cover the overlapping of colours, or the flaws where they fail to meet, yet great reliance is placed upon its effect in making the design appear more brilliant.
By way of a test the student should take a colour-scheme in which some feature lacks the importance which it ought to have, and, cutting out a white or black patch of suitable shape, he should fit it round the weak spot. The immediate isolation of this piece will give it an unexpected importance which may even transform and redeem the whole scheme.
The outlining of small patches of colour with white or black tends to make them more jewel-like, provided that too many of them are not packed together, for if this be done the outlines will tend to merge into the patches and the whole effect will appear dulled by the black or thinned by the white. An excellent example of the right use of a black outline is to be found in the leading of a stained-glass window.
This tendency to merge can be utilized to great advantage where one has to produce a variety of effects with very few colours. In colour-printing it is necessary sometimes to use only one colour with black on a white ground, but experiment proves that with these three we can get several other tints.
If we begin with red, white, and black, we can use red spots on white, white spots on red, red lines on white, and white lines on red. Then red spots can be edged, barred, or dotted with black, producing three distinct effects and changing the apparent quality of the red in each of them. Already we can count ten varieties of surface, and by reversing the positions of black and white we can make still more. Even the variations of bars, rings, fine lines, dots, and so on, of white upon black, or of black upon white, tend to produce a sensation of colour. The change of surface quality produced by varying the pattern of white, black, and colour, laid one over another, seems endless, and its possibilities have not been exploited nearly to the extent they deserve. The variations in the quality of a colour when edged, laced, or dotted with white or black are both interesting and valuable. It will be remembered that to mix white with a colour in painting not only lightens the colour, it also changes the tint. Vermilion and white produce a rose tint; rose madder and white produce a purple tint. In the same way fine lines of white alternating with vermilion produce a tint not merely paler but more pink. All this may be summed up by saying that the presence of white among colours, particularly at very short intervals, tends to cool as well as to lighten them. On the other hand the presence of black, even though it may not add much warmth, produces far less coolness than white. To the weaver and the house decorator experimental knowledge of these matters is essential.
Black and white together, in quick alternation, produce a glitter owing to the sharp contrast between them, and this glitter may be used to give a welcome relief from the glare of a solid mass of colour. It can be used with brilliant effect as a border, but, like other good things, it may be easily overdone. It must never be forgotten that black and white, in common with all neutral tints, are very liable to be affected by reaction from bright colours when placed side by side with them. Thus a patch of white surrounded by violet-blue tends to look yellowish, but if surrounded by golden yellow it will turn towards blue. Black in the midst of green-blue becomes quite rusty, and, although by reason of its depth it is less sensitive than white, there is no doubt ‘that any strong colour will affect it in some degree. If we wish to avoid this effect, the white or black must be slightly tinted with the surrounding colour. The result will be the restoration of the natural appearance of black or white.
The experiments suggested in this chapter, and indeed throughout the whole book, are very far-reaching in their effect, and the student will discover a wealth of new ideas if he will but carry them out; but the casual reader who does not test the suggestions for himself will gain little. Words read are easily forgotten, but experience gained lasts a lifetime. Moreover, each experimenter brings his own personality to bear on the problem, with the result that, however old the experiment, new beauties are constantly being discovered, and the joy of discovery is beyond price.