Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black

black meaning history design tips

Mysterious, dramatic, and timelessly cool. Here’s why black’s deep and inky hues are indispensable for creating designs with depth.

Here, discover black’s fascinating history and the color theory behind this endlessly useful “non-color,” as well as three cutting-edge black color palettes to use in your designs at the end of the article.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Timeless FashionImage by contributor DKSStyle.

Hungry for more color? Discover a whole spectrum of beautiful colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

Where is Black on the Color Wheel?

Black doesn’t feature on a traditional color wheel. It is generally considered to be a non-color, as it absorbs all the other colors of the visible spectrum. This creates an absence of visible light.

Like white or gray, black is an achromatic color, meaning it is technically without hue. However, black is often treated by designers as a color in itself. Black is able to bring distinct psychological and aesthetic traits to a design.

Diluted with white, black is transformed into gray, a paler achromatic color which carries some of the traits of both black and white.
Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Color Wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Types of Black

“True black” is a phrase often employed by designers seeking an authentically dark and inky black color. However, in print design, a deep inky black called Rich Black is considered the most desirable black color for printing. Designers can achieve this by mixing solid black ink with one or more other colors in the CMYK range.

Mixed with small amounts of other colors, such as cyan or magenta, black can take on a subtly different character. Designers often employ this technique to create either cool or warm black.

A warm rich black might have a typical value of C=40 M=60 Y=60 K=100, while a cool rich black like C=60 M=50 Y=40 K=100 will include more cyan.

For web design, a hex code of #000000 will achieve the equivalent of true black, but some designers favor blacks containing small amounts of red, green, or blue light to create a black that’s a little easier on the eye. Try out #0e1111 to create a soft, deep black for websites and apps.

Mixing small amounts of other colors with black achieves a number of off-black shades. The mood of the added colors can also characterize the black shade. For example, Resene Indian ink (sometimes called midnight blue) includes a small amount of blue to create an ultra-dark, inky-blue off-black.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Midnight BlueImage by contributor Korionov.

Other variations of black include:

Jet—Named after the banded variety of the mineral chalcedony, this extremely dark black contains hints of blue or purple.
Onyx—Also named after a mineral, onyx is a deep, dark gray-black.
Charcoal—Named after the dark gray color of burned wood, charcoal contains some green. The result is a softer and more subdued shade of black that looks beautiful in interior schemes.
Ebony—a very dark black color, named after the wood of a south Asian tropical tree.
Caviar—sometimes referred to as roe, this shade is named after the prized delicacy beluga caviar. Caviar is grayish-silver with a hint of black.
Vantablack, or its more recent incarnation, Vantablack 2.0, is currently considered to be the “world’s blackest black.” Developed by a British nanotech company, Surrey NanoSystems, the material is made from densely packed carbon nanotubes in a special high-heat chamber. The resulting dark pigment is incredibly non-reflective, absorbing 99.96 percent of light that hits it.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — VantablackWrinkled aluminium foil with an equally wrinkled portion coated in Vantablack.

Discover how you can use a variety of oranges using the Shutterstock color tool. Explore palettes and images related to a range of black and off-black hues, including gun metal gray, dark slate, and charcoal gray.

Black’s Complementary Color

Black is not strictly a color, so it doesn’t sit opposite a color on the spectrum. Its opposite is white, and high-contrast black and white schemes always look effective and striking.

Teaming black with gray creates a monochromatic scheme that is subtle, chic, and easily adaptable for a range of designs.

Because black is a non-color, it can be treated as a neutral and paired with a wide range of colors. See tips below for designing with black and off-black shades.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Complementary Color
Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

The Meaning of Black

Black is a psychologically powerful color, due to both its visual impact and cultural significance. Traditionally a color for representing contrast to white, it has historically been associated with darkness in opposition to light, and mystery and evil versus purity and goodness.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — The Meaning of BlackImage by contributor frankie’s.

Black has the power to stir strong emotions, conjuring feelings of fear, mystery, strength, defiance, and aggression, but it’s also often associated with neutrality, formality, and authority.

With its social neutrality and slimming properties, black is favored by fashion designers. The Little Black Dress is a cultural symbol of elegance and sophistication.

Because black represents the absence of color, it is also often associated with mystery and the unknown. As a result, it has also been long associated with magic, witchcraft, and spirituality.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Black CatImage by contributor sarayut_sy.

To design with, look at or wear black is to increase a sense of potential and possibility, but in excess it can stimulate feelings of gloominess and sadness.

The Origins of Black

“As black as night” summarizes black’s origin as a color representative of darkness and nighttime. Particularly in ancient times, in which light pollution was almost non-existent, blackness would have characterized half of a person’s lived experience.

Historically, black pigment could be created easily by burning wood or bone, producing charcoal. Charcoal pigments were used in some of the earliest cave paintings, such as those at Lascaux in France.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — The Origins of BlackImages of animals painted on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the Vezere Valley, France. Image by contributor thipjang.

In many early cultures, black was symbolic of death and the underworld. In Ancient Egypt the guardian of the underworld, Anubis, was a black jackal, while in Ancient Greece the worlds of the living and the dead were separated by a black river called Acheron. Hades, the king of the underworld, was seated on a throne made of black ebony. In German and Scandinavian cultures, the goddess of the night, Nótt, crossed the sky in a chariot drawn by a black horse, and Hel, the goddess guarding the kingdom of the dead had black and red skin.

In the early Middle Ages, black came to be representative of evil in Christian culture. In paintings of this period, devils and demons are often pictured in black, as opposed to the red that developed in popular culture later.

By the 14th century, black experienced a cultural revision. Partly as a result of high-quality black dyes being more widely produced, magistrates and government officials began to wear black as a sign of importance and authority. The choice of black also visually separated officials from the other classes, who favored either bright colors if wealthy or were limited to drab, indistinct colors if poor.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, black was adopted by Protestant reformers as a sign of purity and humility, in opposition to the rich red robes worn by the Pope and his Cardinals.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, black fell from favor as a fashionable color. Instead, bright pastel and jewel tones promoted by Parisian couture houses trickled down into fashionable society in Europe and America. In the Victorian period black became strongly associated with mourning, with the famous example of Queen Victoria choosing to wear black for the remaining forty years of her life following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861.

 Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black— Victoria in MourningVictoria, Queen of England (1819-1901), pictured in mourning clothes three years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Image by contributor Everett Historical.

In the 1920s Coco Chanel elevated black to the status of high fashion, declaring:

“A woman needs just three things; a black dress, a black sweater, and, on her arm, a man she loves.”

Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries black has been repeatedly revisited by fashion designers, with the color prized for its chic and figure-slimming properties.

In the 1950s black became a symbol of rebellion and social anarchy, with the color adopted by members of the Beat Movement in New York and San Francisco. Black is also the color of choice for many other counterculture movements and groups, such as the goth and punk subcultures and motorcycle gangs.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — CountercultureImage by contributor Roman Sibiryakov.

Black is also associated with the African-American civil rights movement. The Black Power movement of the 1970s coined the slogan “Black is Beautiful.”

How to Design with Black

For a technical non-color, black is surprisingly adaptable and striking when used in design projects. Because black represents the absence of color, it is especially effective when teamed with contrasting colors or neutrals (such as white), creating a visually dramatic result.

Teaming black with white is a classic approach that has timeless style. Try creating a geometric or pattern-based design, as in this book design example by Studio Lennarts & De Bruijn, to channel 1960s psychedelia.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Designing with Black

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Geometric PatterningBook design for Eindspelkunst by Studio Lennarts & De Bruijn.

This clever packaging design by Backbone Branding makes the most of the timeless contrast between black and white. Unwrapping the originally completely black bottle reveals a quirky cow hide pattern across the bottle.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Black and WhitePackaging design for UNBLACKIT Milk by Backbone Branding.

The mystery and morbidity of black has been explored by designers looking to give their designs a dark or gothic character. These engrossing animated illustrations by Russian illustrator Oleg Smirnov render anthropomorphic characters in charcoal black hues.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — MorbidityA series of animations entitled BLACKDOGS by Oleg Smirnov.

Black doesn’t have to be morbidity and darkness, however. Black’s ability to absorb some of the characteristics of other colors allow it to have a flexible identity. To make black more palatable for interior design schemes, try pairing it with soft pink, dusky blue, or pastel yellow.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Black and PastelsImage by contributor
What Colors Go With Black?

As a non-color without hue, black can be treated as a neutral, allowing it to be paired with almost any other color. Black will also adopt some of the traits of paired colors, creating a scheme with a particular mood and aesthetic.

For example, pairing blue with black creates a calming, low-energy scheme, while pairing black with red creates an energized and anarchic palette.

Black can also be used to offset the mood of certain colors, creating an interesting and unexpected dynamic. Romantic pink is given a punk twist when paired with black, while a yellow and black scheme is reminiscent of the warning coloring found on wasps and bees, giving designs an instant look-at-me edge.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — What Colors Go With BlackImage by contributor nevenm.

A monochromatic black color scheme uses paler tints of black (gray) to create an entirely black-gray palette. This is a subtle and elegant way of using black, giving designs a vintage feel.

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with black, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic and contrasting color palettes for a variety of black and off-black shades. Try a scheme with zinc, cool gray, or Resene Indian ink.

Below, discover three trend-led color palettes for black.

Palette 1: Deep Tropics

Black is the perfect temper to bright or neon colors. This palette combines punchy coral-red and violet, taking inspiration from the bright colors of tropical seabeds. Nature-inspired pale wheat and coal black are the balancing acts.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Deep Tropics

Palette 2: Pistachio and Gold

A beautiful palette for introducing black into interior schemes, pale pistachio green is teamed with gold and pale gray for a palette with retro-industrial flavor.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Pistachio and Gold

Palette 3: Modern Macaroon

This palette takes inspiration from 1980s illustrations, which tended to favor charcoal black and bright pastel colors. With all things Eighties making a comeback in design, this scheme is a contemporary way to tap into the trend.

Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black — Modern Macaroon

Ready to discover more beautiful colors to use in your designs?

Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life.

Cover image via contributor Volodymyr Burdiak.

The post Back to Black: History, Theory, and Palettes for the Color Black appeared first on The Shutterstock Blog.

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