The Power of Black and White

By Lilly Green

“Before launching into the full spectrum of color, stand at its edge with white and black, the beginning and the end. Black and white provide a frame though which we more clearly see and understand color. Side by side on paper, the contrast between black and white calls each more fully to life.”
~ Ann Pelo

Black and white, the darkest and the lightest colors that exist, are often forgotten when thinking about the study of color. Some great artists’ most profound works are in black and white. Picasso’s famous “Guernica” from 1937, for example, is a monochromatic painting that depicts the horrors of war. He evokes a powerful message and strong emotions with only the use of black, white, and shades of grey in between. Picasso’s feeling was that stripping his art of color allowed him to intensify the drama for a more powerful message.


Before we even think about the other colors on the spectrum, we must try to understand the relationship between black and white. These two colors, when mixed, can create an infinite number of shades in between, and they are also tools that can be used to create a palette. Black makes colors darker, and of course, white makes colors lighter. These are things that adults know from experience, but I wondered how much the children, knew about these two colors.

Oak side children, some of whom had their very first introduction to paint last month, had several opportunities to explore black and white tempera paint with their hands. They spread the paint between their fingers and seemed fascinated by the way in which black and white mixed to create different shades of grey. Some children, like Zelda, even found it a challenge to create the perfect shade of grey.


Zelda hypothesized that adding white to grey paint will turn the paint “grey… dark grey.” We tested her theory and after adding white, the color lightened. “Oh! But it’s supposed to be dark grey!” I asked how we might make that happen and Zelda responded “maybe put black?” After the color became a bit darker, she said “actually, I want it to be in the middle grey. I need white now.” Then she said “I need more black. Uh oh, it’s getting a little too dark now. A little more white.” After much experimentation, Zelda was finally able to make “just the right color grey.”

On the Olive Side, children had a similar opportunity to explore black and white paint, but these children used brushes on black and white paper. I was interested to see which children gravitated toward white paint on black paper and which children were more inclined to paint with the black paint on white paper. And some even chose to paint with black paint on black paper. We discussed the different effects that each of these had and that the same color grey could look different on black paper as it did on white paper. Through this experience I was most struck by the way in which several children spoke, without provocation, about the way these two colors make them feel.

Olivia stated that black is her favorite color and makes her feel “so happy.” In contrast, Isabella then noted that black makes her feel “nervous, surprised, and scared.”


While in the midst of painting, Olivia said “Hmm, I wonder if I put the white in the black what will happen? (Gasps) Oh! It changes the color! Black is very powerful. It made my whole painting turn dark grey.”

I was interested in the way Olivia described black as a “powerful” color. Not only is she correct in the sense that black does have power over all other colors (when mixing colors, a small bit of black goes a long way), but it made me think back about Picasso and his idea that black and white certainly are powerful in the way that they contrast to create such strong, powerful images in a way that other colors cannot.

Going forward with this exploration of black and white, I would like to see how children’s representational art changes when stripped of color and they are only offered materials such as black and white oil pastels on black or white paper. And I wonder which children will enjoy the power of black and white and which children will be eager to move on to our next step and work with a more diverse palette of colors.

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