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I've had at least two art teachers tell me that black does not naturally occur in nature, so using pure black makes your designs look synthetic. I do not understand this. Aren't the following black things natural?

  • Asian hair
  • The darkness
  • Panther's fur
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Vantablack –  SaturnsEye Sep 25 '14 at 10:09

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

By "pure black," I guess you and they are referring to a completely neutral black. Of the three things you ask about, only one potentially has that quality: darkness. "Black" animal fur and natural (not dyed) human hair are actually very dark brown, as a close examination will tell you. (I don't necessarily recommend close examination of a panther, except through a good 400mm or longer telephoto lens. At the very least, don't try it at home.)

Neutral black occurs naturally in charcoal, soot (once known as "lampblack" and commonly used as a pigment), graphite, some types of coal, certain types of marble, granite and basalt, and probably many other minerals I'm not immediately thinking of. What your art teachers are referring to, I think, is living nature, specifically plants and mammals. I've not delved into aquatic or insect life as regards color, so I can't say categorically there is no neutral black in either of those, but I would be surprised if there's a genuinely charcoal/soot black.

So yes, if your design includes a natural, non-mineral element that is supposed to look natural, avoid a totally neutral black, otherwise you will break the illusion. Very few designs would fall into that category, it seems to me, and not that many illustrations.

In designing for print, a "pure" black would be what's called a "built," or "rich" black, composed of 100% coverage of black ink overprinted on carefully-selected percentages of cyan, magenta and yellow. "Carefully selected" means the exact percentages required would depend upon the type of paper and the particular ink manufacturer. Black ink, even at 100% coverage, is a very dark gray on white paper, not black, and often is not entirely neutral.

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Another thing worth pointing out is that neutral white/black points vary depending on the lighting. Many inks may be designed to be neutral black in specific lighting conditions, but if you view them under sunlight vs. fluorescent lighting, they might not seem so neutral. Similarly, depending on the surrounding color choices, an off-black black may seem more neutral as well as more natural/realistic. –  Lèse majesté Jan 16 '12 at 8:19

The concept of color is a somewhat muddy area of science as much of it is psychological, and there are many contradicting definitions in the words we use to describe color.

For instance, sometimes people use "color" to refer to hue or chroma or colorfulness or saturation, but these are all technically distinct concepts. For this reason, you'll often hear people say things like "black and white are not colors, they're the complete absence/presence of color" or "black and white vs. color" or "greyscale vs. color".

Our concept of color is so closely tied to human perception in fact that many scientists view it as a purely human construct, a psychological phenomenon rather than an objective characteristic of the world around us. And there's a lot of evidence to support this, such as:

  • Our perception of color is largely caused by our having 3 types of cone cells, giving us a specific flavor of trichromatic vision. If we had 2 or 4 types of cone cells instead, or the absorption spectra of their respective photopsins were different, we wouldn't recognize our traditional color perception of the world. And when we watched TV, which are also trichromatic and designed specifically for the normal human color perception, the colors would fail to match up with the physical world.
  • There's a lot of evidence that our mental model of color is shaped by culture. This is most dramatically seen when looking at the Himba, an African tribe that scientists have found to have a unique color model which contrasts with what most of us are used to.

    The Himba don't have specific words for large blocs of our own color spectrum, and yet they break, what is to us, an extremely narrow range of shades and hues down into several named colors. Their physical color associations also seem bizarre to us (just as ours seem equally bizarre to them). For instance, most people would say the water and sky are both blue. The Himba however say the water is white and the sky is black. And they really do see the sky and water as having as contrasting of colors as black & white are to us.

    The differences in color models are believed to be caused by the fact that most cultures typically have 11 words to describe color while the Himba have half that amount. But their color categories are very alien to us. One color might include shades of green and blue, but also reds and brown; another color might include the majority of dark colors in all different hues, etc. This gives them an exceptional ability to see very slight differences in 2 different shades of green that would be imperceptible to us. However, it also means they fail to see differences in certain colors that are very obviously different to us.

  • Even our mood changes our color perception and ability to distinguish different colors. A study was done where participants were put into two groups, one which would be manipulated to feel powerless, and the other to feel powerful. When color researchers tested each group, the "powerful" group showed much more accurate color perception than the "powerless" group.

So all of this tells us that color perception isn't universal or as objective as we often like to think. Your teachers' color perceptions are likely colored (excuse the pun) by their own experiences/upbringing and preconceptions. They may associate black with "unnatural" just as some cultures associate red with anger/evil while others associate red with happiness/luck. I suppose you'll have to ask your teachers to elaborate on what they mean.

Of course, another possibility could be that they're talking about pure black. Pure anything is rarely found in nature or natural vision. Most things that seem black or white are usually a slightly off shade or hue. For example, the night sky usually isn't perfectly black, and neither is black hair. But then again the same can be said of perfect red, perfect blue, perfect yellow, perfect green, etc. —but as discussed earlier these "colors" are all relative to our own arbitrary color models / colorspaces.

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I won't give you the the science lesson but here you go

Our brain is actually interpreting light quality because our brain functions like that. Our eyes are broken up to see light in 2 ways. Brightness and quality or as we call it color.

If our preceptors for color didn't exist then we would be seeing a black and white film all day and night. We will sense, kind of like Spidey-sense, the color quality or hue but won't see it.

Mixture and brightness of the hues make us sense white grey and black or achromatic but in essence it's not part of the spectrum or quality of light we call colors.

Black is full absence and white is a combination but not it's own. In the real world you take inks, paints, clay... anything and mix it you get black.. once again the key word is mixing.

Over and out...

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What everyone else has posted is exceptionally accurate. I can't really add much to their definitions. But it is interesting science... the eye does not see color, it sees refracted light.

Red objects appear red because they don't absorb red light and bounce it back. Our eyes pick up the reflected light which is from the red spectrum of light and we therefore interpret it as red.

A truly black object in nature would reflect, or refract, no light whatsoever and, to the human eye, would appear as a complete hole in space. As if nothing was there are all because all light would be absorbed and nothing would bounce off the object. Basically "true black" in nature would be a perception problem in humans - the rods/cones would get NO signal at all and I'm not sure what the brain would perceive that as. It would "itch" ... similar but different from what the brain does when the fovea (spot on the retina where there are NO rods or cones) is where the object of interest should be ... the brain stitches the perceived image from nearby information.

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Actually it would just look really, really black: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vantablack . The interesting thing about the photo on that page is that the Vantablack is just as crumpled as the surrounding aluminum foil... but it's so black that you can't see the wrinkles. –  Jander Jul 24 '14 at 20:19

There's no such thing as brown, everything is simply light black (if closely examined).

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#ThingsJadenSmithSays –  SaturnsEye Sep 25 '14 at 10:10
What do you mean? Can you explain? –  Kurt Sep 25 '14 at 12:02
Please explain what you mean with facts. –  Matt Sep 25 '14 at 13:50
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  Scott Sep 25 '14 at 16:08

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