The World in Black and White

Every once in awhile, it’s nice to let your hair down.  Instead of vibrant purples, singing reds and glowing blues, I turn to the most primitive of art making supplies – a stick of charred wood, more commonly known as charcoal.  We’ve been scratching with burnt sticks on the ground since the first campfires.  After someone got the bright idea to add pigments from the earth to the mix and draw on stones, humankind embarked on a love affair with drawing materials.  (And now we will pause for a moment to go look with fresh eyes at the famous cave paintings from Lascaux.  And, as always, I’m blown away by the sensitivity and energy that emanates from these most simple and elegant drawings.  Ahhhhh.  Thank you, Google.)
One of my college professors told us that black and white is the hardest palette to work with in the world.  Color allows you to cheat a little, to play with moving the eye around, to call attention to certain details and leave out others.  Black and white is stark, harsh, beautiful.  There’s no room to cheat.  It either works, or it doesn’t.
The past few weeks, I’ve been living in a black and white world.  Coming back from surgery, I wanted desperately to do some art, but didn’t have the strength to pull out the oils.  Enter the india ink wash, a technique I’ve seen done many times but never really done myself.  Working with just three values diluted from full strength, out-of-the-bottle black, I built up the painting with layers of washes.  It required a bit more concentration and planning than usual (see, color is a crutch!) but I’m very pleased with the results, and I look forward to doing more with this technique.
Patience, india ink on board
On the heels of that experiment, I decided to try charcoal washes on gessoed paper, another technique I’ve seen done but never tried.  This was a full watercolor sheet piece, full of charcoal dust and water.  And even though I broke down today and added white acrylic to the mix to pull out the highlights, there isn’t a scrap of color to be found.
Strictly Ballroom, mixed media on paper
Finally, I’m finishing up another commission sketch.  Once this is approved, it’s on to the full 24 x 36 oil painting.  Full body traditional graphites are not my strong suit, but I am pleased with how this is turning out so far.  Just a few minor details to finish up and it’s off to the client for approval.  Once she signs off on it, I can pull out my box of crutches and get started.
Joker, graphite on bristol, work in progress
Each of these pieces has a different look, a different feel, a different medium.  But in all three, I was forced to rely solely on value, light and shadow to render a three dimensional (equine) object.  I didn’t set out to learn or reinforce a lesson, but it’s pretty nice to look at them lined up together as a body of work.  Almost like a black and white universe.  Simple, huh?