An artful portrait of a man in black and white. He has his hand on his shoulder and a light beard.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who needs the blackest black of all?

Whether you see it as the sharp end of a spectrum, the absence of light or an abyss to metaphorically fall into, the colour black has been something of a fascination for visual creatives since time immemorial. But the pursuit of the perfect black isn’t at all straightforward – in fact, you might say that black is very much in the eye of the beholder.

But first, the science
The way we see colour is pretty complicated. If we look at an object and know that it is blue, what our brain is actually perceiving is only the object’s reflected light. When light hits its surface, some of it is absorbed by the object and the rest is reflected. This reflected light hits the retina (which is the light-sensitive lining that sits at the back of the eye) and is processed by millions of tiny photoreceptors, which then sends a signal to the brain via the optic nerve. The brain’s visual cortex then makes sense of this information and the outcome is a colour. In this respect, black as perceived in the same was as any other colour, but, intriguingly, there is a desire to create blacks that absorb as much light as possible but reflect very little.
There’s black. And then there’s super black
For those of us who took art classes at school, black was off limits. Black and white were not considered to be colours, more an ‘absence’ of colour. But centuries of fine artists, and now photographers, disagree. In fact, black has become something of a Holy Grail in art – and technology. Lately, the race has been on to create the ‘blackest black of all’. Our art teachers might have called it ‘the pursuit of nothingness.
One of these ‘super blacks’ is Vantablack, the ‘world’s darkest man-made substance’. It’s so black that it absorbs 99.9% of all the light that hits it, reflecting so little that the human eye perceives what is actually a ‘forest’ of carbon nanotubes, grown on an aluminium surface to be a black hole. And while it’s been widely in the news for inventor Surrey Nanosystem’s decision to allow BMW to paint a car with Vantablack, the reality is that its true purpose is in the field of science and exploration. Space telescopes, for example, are currently coated in a highly effect super-black material, but the tiny amount of reflection it generates substantially affects the visual data collected. In this respect, Vantablack can be considered a material technology rather than simply a colour (despite the somewhat controversial decision to license it for exclusive use to the artist Anish Kapoor).

Two sculptures of unicorn heads, one in white and the other painted so black that it’s impossible to see the detail.
By painting an object with Black 3.0 it absorbs such an immense amount of light that the human eye receives only a tiny quantity of reflected light. This is why the sculpture on the right looks like a black unicorn-shaped hole.
A bottle of Black 3.0 next to a sample of its colour against a standard black acrylic.
The basis of Stuart’s Black 3.0 is a pigment he calls ‘black magic’. It becomes an artist’s acrylic paint by combining it with a polymer vehicle, a flow medium and mattifiers. Each version of the paint has a unique smell – 3.0 is black coffee, 2.0 was black cherries.

The democratisation of black
Although a well-established and successful artist, Stuart Semple’s name has come to be synonymous with colour freedom. His response to Surrey Nanosystem’s exclusive deal with Anish Kapoor was to create his own highly desirable colours – and refuse to sell them to Kapoor or anyone affiliated with him. “I just fundamentally believe that all art matters and everybody should be able to express themselves, this then leads you down this route of, well, what tools do they have to express themselves with?” Stuart’s Black 3.0 has all the light-absorbing qualities of Vantablack, but, crucially, it is an acrylic paint and absolutely designed for use by artists in any way that the colour suits them. “Black is important. it's the base level of almost everything, so artists have been obsessed with that for thousands of years. Art history keeps coming back to it… Malevich’s Black Square, Rauschenberg’s Black Painting, even Caravaggio and Goya. There's a sort of love affair with black.” This obsession drove thousands of like-minded artists and art lovers to support Stuart in his mission to create a black for everyone, and the approach he took to its invention was as democratic as his purpose.
He used the first version of his black as the basis upon which to develop the formulation, sending it to a thousand artists for feedback. What returned became the recipe for Black 3.0. “But then I had this holy grail of a paint recipe, but I couldn't afford to do it. So, I went to Kickstarter and said to community, ‘look, I desperately need to raise £25,000 to make this thing. And three weeks later, we were up to half a million. It was the second most funded Kickstarter in history.” The money paid for the services of a chemical engineer, who perfected what Stuart describes as “an insanely beautiful recipe”, as well as a level of production that can keep up with the incredible demand. The art world has embraced Black 3.0 gleefully and Stuart receives thousands of messages from artists, showing how they’ve used the paint. “Someone painted a whole room – everything in the room. The speakers the stereo, the floor, the walls, the radiator. Everything.” Others have used it for performance art (“He painted his whole body with it!”) and many have taken more traditional approaches, using it for sculpture and on canvas. Photographers have embraced 3.0 for its qualities as a completely black backdrop, with fashion photography legend Nick Knight apparently a fan.

A black and white photo of a man in a helmet. He stands to the left of the image, with rain pouring down in front of and on him.
“In photography, we want as black a black as we can on paper, but we also want to control that black.” © Clive Booth

Detail in highlight and shadow – black and the photographer
From a photographer’s standpoint, the relationship with black is nuanced and highly affected by both the subject matter and printed output. Photographer and filmmaker, Clive Booth is a Canon Ambassador and contributor to Nick Knight’s fashion website, SHOWstudio. His love of print means that he views black as a spectrum and every variation in the spectrum holds equal value. “Yes, you’re looking for pure black in print – to be as black as you possibly can, whether it’s colour or black and white,” he explains. “Then, of course, what you’re looking for are the levels of black. I work a lot with Sir Don McCullin and if you look at Don’s printing, he likes his shadows to be really crisp. A lot of photographers like levels of detail and so Canon have produced ways of doing that with variable blacks and greys.”
Remembering that black is only as dark as it’s perceived reflected light, it’s a big challenge to create that perfect combination of ink and surface that does justice to work like Clive’s or Don’s. An absolute black like 3.0 or Vantablack would look entirely out of place in most photographic work. “Black is vitally important for photographers, but there is a limit to how black that black can be,” says Clive. “In print, we’re basically looking to control the black, which is why we add grey inks. It gives us a lovely smooth tonal range, which is so important in black and white printmaking. The dark areas are super black, but when you come through that tonal range, it’s smooth with no gradation.”
But why? The reason is simple
Among this mass of black, the challenge has always been to discover a way of representing what already exists, whether that’s a black hole, or a gentle shadow in dappled sunlight. The necessity to recreate something as abstract – and almost philosophical – as black in the quest for pushing the boundaries of both art and science speaks to the fact that humans are natural explorers, with a desire to both see the world and then present that uniqueness of vision to others. Whether photographer, artist or scientist, all colour is entirely as our eyes and brains process it and is simply our perceived reflection of what’s in front of us. Stuart Semple sums this abstraction up beautifully:
“We're actually not playing with colour. We're playing with light.”
And with this knowledge, every version of black is as useful, valid and necessary as the image it is trying to portray.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Related Articles