Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The white and the black

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110 by Robert Motherwell

The chemistry of the pigments is interesting: ivory black, like bone black, is made from charred bones or horns, carbon black is the result of burnt gas, and most common whites—apart from cold, slimy zinc oxide and recent bright titanium dioxide—are made from lead, and are extremely poisonous on contact with the body. Being soot, black is light and fluffy, weighing a twelfth of the average pigment; it needs much oil to become a painter’s paste, and dries slowly. Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal’s bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture. A captain on the Yukon River painted the snow black in the path of his ships for twenty-nine miles; the black strip melted three weeks in advance of spring, and he was able to reach clear water. Black does not reflect, but absorbs all light; that is its essential nature; while that of white is to reflect all light; dictionaries define it as snow’s color, and one thinks of the black slit glasses used when skiing. For the rest, there is a chapter in Moby Dick that evokes white’s qualities as no painter could, except in his medium…

Only love—for painting, in this instance—is able to cover the fearful void. A fresh white canvas is a void, as is the poet’s sheet of blank white paper.

But look for yourselves. I want to get back to my whitewashed studio. If the amounts of black and white are right, they will have condensed into quality, into feeling.

Robert Motherwell, The Writings of Robert Motherwell

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

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