Black and White

I love idioms. You know, those little phrases that work their way into the language whether they make any sense or not. Here in the Midwest we have a few that are uniquely our own and which sometimes leave people from other parts of the country shaking their head in bewilderment.

“Black and white”, however, is a fairly well-known idiom, and I think it’s probably used worldwide. It denotes something clear-cut, something simple, something obvious. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the usage is based on the association of black with evil and white with virtue, making “black and white” a concept that dates back at least 2,000 years. In other words, there’s a very clear choice between good and evil.

As an aside, there are a couple other interesting little meanings for “black and white”, such as something considered official because it’s written down or printed, and police vehicles are often referred to as “black and whites” because most of them are, uh, yeah. Black and white.

In art and photography, of course, black and white has a very clear meaning. My definition is simple. “Black and white” is the absence of color. I personally think black and white is an art form all its own, and while I love drawing and painting with bold, vibrant colors, I think there’s a special quality in black and white that can’t be found anywhere else.

When I began learning to draw, I bought a set of graphite drawing pencils. Black lines on white paper. Day after day. Exercise after exercise. That’s how I learned the basics. For months, everything I did was black and white.

Finally, in January, after six months of black and white drawings, I began using colors for the first time. Occasionally I did quick sketches with pencil, but most of my drawings were the first step toward a colored picture or painting. I drew mostly with colored pencils, watercolor pencils, or pastel pencils.

In recent weeks, however, I’ve started using my graphite pencils again. I won’t subject you to the dozens of sketches of bones and muscles I’ve been making, nor will I force upon  you the “blind contour” drawings I’ve created. While studying figure drawing, I’ve sketched hands and feet, heads, and yes, even certain unmentionable body parts. All in black and white.

It was quite odd at first. I’d all but forgotten how to transform lines into forms, how to create soft edges, how to consider line quality as part of a drawing. Odd, indeed, but at the same time it was fun to re-acquaint myself with basic pencil skills.

Along with reviewing graphite techniques, I pulled out a few sticks of vine charcoal, then grabbed my little set of conte crayons. Here’s a recent sketch I made.

I've enjoyed revisiting black and white art. This sketch was done with a black conte stick.
                 I’ve enjoyed revisiting black and white art. This sketch was done with a black conte stick.

I  certainly would never want to give up my colors, but I do think it’s good to occasionally “desaturate” my art, put the colors aside temporarily, and get back to the basics of black and white.

We look at the world differently when we see it in black and white. Choices do become simpler, and our marks become more definite. Mistakes become more obvious, too, but that’s how we learn.

Yes, I like black and white and all that lies between.



  1. Nice drawing and interesting post. I often go back to black and white when i feel i am off track in painting, it is my version of “back to square 1” but it carries its own reward, as you drawing shows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Back to square 1…yep, that’s exactly how I felt when I grabbed my drawing pencils again. It was really a much-needed review, and I’m really enjoying it. I think black-and-white drawing gives a lot more character to portraits and the human figure.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I invariably do a black and white tonal sketch before starting on a painting, just to help me put the shadows in the right place. i use either water-soluble ink washed in with clean water or sometimes Paynes Grey watercolour which gives a nice blue-black look.
    How often do I prefer the black and white sketch to the finished article? Very often

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting observation. When I was doing a lot of photography, I learned how powerful black and white could be. Even with colors, the best works often have an almost monochromatic feeling about them. I especially like portraits and figures drawn in black and white. They seem more expressive, somehow. I think black and white leads us to see “character” within a face, where colors can often distract us. That’s true, too, for a lot of landscapes. Some of my favorites have very muted or neutral colors. I’d never want to give up working with colors, but black and white definitely has a lot to offer, both to the artist and to the viewer.


  3. Wonderful sketch and post! Thanks for sharing. I think it’s a good idea to start with a thumbnail sketch so the composition is set, etc., but I have to say I don’t do it. I’m just way too impatient. But I think in the long run it would work out much better and save time! There is nothing better than sketching with graphite or even ink for exactly what you’re talking about here. It can be so very meditative and peaceful. 💜

    Liked by 1 person

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