Black is the colour given to the night-time, death and evil. It conjures up images of magic and the gothic, and notions of formality in fashion.
As Halloween is celebrated across the world, we’re exploring the cultural significance of the colour most synonymous with the dark.
Chinese ink sticks from the Winsor & Newton archive
In many ancient European languages, from Old Norse to Greek, the word black comes from ‘to burn’. Early humans utilised charcoal or ground charred bones to decorate their cave dwellings in black paintings. Then, because it was easily readable and contrasted well against light backgrounds such as white parchment, black became the primary colour for transcript or writing. Black ink for writing purposes was invented in China during the Neolithic Period, possibly as far back as 4,500 years ago. The ink was made from ground soot combined with animal glue shaped into solid sticks or ‘cakes’ and was used for calligraphy and painting.
The Greeks began to use black ink similarly at this time and developed a painting technique used to decorate fine pottery. Black-figure artwork, of which there are many well-preserved examples today, originated circa 700BC. Glossy clay that turned black after firing was used to paint ornamental shapes and figures observed in scenes such as battle, with intricate details incised into the black. Many vases were inscribed with a signature by the craftsmen themselves, believed by many to be the first signed pieces in the history of art.Attributed to the Medea Group, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Death and darkness
Jan Brueghel the Younger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Early civilisations established black’s relationship with death, decay and the afterlife. Halloween derives from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of summer and the darker nights to come, during which the souls of the dead were believed to visit their familial homes. In the Roman Empire those who were in mourning would wear black – a tradition we’ve seen last through to the modern day – in the form of black togas. And in Ancient Egypt Anubis, the god of death, mummification and the afterlife, is illustrated as a semi-human with a black jackal’s head. To the Egyptians, black represented the colour of decay, including that of corpses after the embalming process, but also rebirth, as it was the colour of the Nile River’s fertile soils.
Greek mythology is rife with representations of the underworld. Separated from the living by the black waters of the river Acheron, and shrouded in darkness, it is assumed to have been inspired by that of underground caves because the underworld was set deep within the earth. Later artists would seek to evoke this with rich black landscapes contrasting against pale figures or shards of light, as illustrated in Jan Brueghel the Younger’s 17th century Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld.
Forces of evil
The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The ‘evil eye’ superstition – a stare which will bring bad luck when unprotected – is widespread across the world. In India and Pakistan, black is the colour most often connected to evil, but it can also be used to ward against it, especially in the case of the evil eye. In Hinduism a black ointment known as kajal has for centuries been used to decorate a tiny black dot on the forehead of infants as a mark of protection from its powers.
The European Middle Ages and early Renaissance also attached black to all things evil, and that included the devil. People turned to the church in response to huge waves of disease, famine and war – in particular the Black Death, which wiped out millions of civilians across Europe, and the devil was the figure in which all blame was set upon. In Latin the word for black, ‘ater’, was closely associated with evil or monstrosity, and in medieval paintings the devil is often illustrated in a jet-black coat.
By the early modern period, the focus shifted to those believed to be associating with the devil and evil spirits – namely in the form of sorcery and witchcraft. The term ‘black magic’ was attached to those thought to be in cahoots with wicked spirits for evil purposes. Women were often persecuted, as there were many female pagan practitioners who were seen as a threat to the church, and also because women were seen as likely to be seduced by the devil and turn to sin. Witches were portrayed in dark attire, and often accompanied by a black goat; the devil in disguise. Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ (1821–1823), made up of a limited palette of ochre, gold, brown, grey and black, illustrate the devil as a huge deep-black horned goat looming over covens of witches. Critics believe the series represents Goya’s opposition to the 17th century Basque witch trials during the Spanish Inquisition.
Authority and formality
Philip the Good, Art Institute of Chicago, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Black later gained status as a colour that represented power and importance. Prior to the 14th century it was difficult to come across good-quality black dye, so it was only when a new dyeing method was invented – a blend of indigo undertones with a top dye of red – that the colour became a uniform for the wealthy and superior. And due to laws that stated only coloured cloths could be worn by the nobility, high-quality black clothes became the next best thing. The wealthy middle class, from government officials to bankers, began to wear black as a sign of affluence and importance. Ironically, this had a reverse effect, as black became one of the most fashionable colours for royals to wear throughout the late Renaissance period. Noblemen of northern Italy, Spain and France – notably Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy – began to wear black, making it a popular colour of choice in the court. Therefore, while 15th century portraits display powerful men donned in brightly coloured costumes, 16th century examples show many courtiers and kings wearing black gowns and headwear.
A black revival
Bryan Ledgard, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Black dipped out of fashion for some time until it saw a resurgence when, in the early 19th century, British ‘dandy’ Beau Brummell brought into vogue the black Regency-era tailored three-piece suit that became the mode of the modern man. Later, during the Victorian era, respectability was highly desired, and a black wardrobe often settled this. By the 20th century, black jackets, waistcoats, bowler hats and umbrellas became the norm for business attire. The ‘black lounge’ suit or ‘stroller’ became popular in the UK, US and Commonwealth nations, showcased most memorably by British prime minister Winston Churchill. For women at this time, black had become an acceptable colour for evening wear. The ‘little black dress’ trend owes itself to Coco Chanel’s 1927 series of black suits and dresses in American Vogue, and is considered a wardrobe staple to this day.
From the 1970s black was redefined again by youth culture and music scenes, from goths to new romantics and punks, popularised by artists such as The Sex Pistols, KISS and Marilyn Manson. Steampunk-themed dress plays with vintage Victorian and industrial-style wear such as corsets and waistcoats teamed with contemporary accessories such as body piercings and heavy black eye-makeup. These subcultures blended into popular culture, with dark gothic themes in fashion, hair and beauty, cinematography and costume emerging in films that would engage a cult following, such as those directed by Tim Burton, from Beetlejuice to The Nightmare Before Christmas. A new generation had given way to the modern-day association we see with black that befits darker themes from earlier centuries, challenging the respectability black had garnered with an alternative rebellion.
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