Quest for the best black paint: Gouache, acrylic, india ink, pastel & more compared

Published by Nela Dunato on in Tips for creatives, Video

In this video I’m taking you along on a quest to find the deepest, darkest black paint for traditional mixed media drawings and paintings on paper.

I love adding black backgrounds, borders, or other large areas of black to my artwork. In the past I mostly used India ink, because it’s affordable, easy to use, and easy to find in stores. But now I’m curious if I can find something better.

Here’s the thing with black. When you use it for thin outlines, it will look dark and deep pretty much no matter what you use. But when applied to a solid surface, it’s easy to see the texture of the medium and uneven coverage. We notice if it’s lighter than jet-black, we notice the sheen… All those features get emphasized when scanning and photographing our work.

Evaluation criteria

  1. Darkest value – how deep is it?
  2. Even coverage – I’m looking for a flat black with no visible texture or strokes.
  3. Most matte – the less reflective the surface, the better because matte color is easier to photograph and scan.
  4. Ease of application – the less time and effort it takes to apply, the better.

I’ll use 2 layers at most because I’m not a patient person. If one layer doesn’t produce a perfectly even surface because of my shoddy technique, I want to give it a fair chance so I’ll do an extra layer to even things out.

I’ll compare the mediums I already have at home. I don’t have every option in existence, but I don’t want to go buy more stuff. I’ll work with what I have.

I use student-grade or artist-grade art materials that are available to me in the European Union. Different brands have comparable products. I’m testing different mediums, not variations between brands.

Best black paint, pastel, or pencil – testing and comparing 14 mediums

My surface is the Koh-i-Noor mixed media paper. It’s the cheapest mixed media paper I have, and I don’t want to waste my good paper on testing. For watercolor I’ll use Canson XL. The paper quality won’t make a difference for most mediums that I’ll be testing.

When I use mixed media, it’s usually a combination of watercolor, colored pencils, pastels, and ink on paper. I’m not talking about collage today, which usually involves a whole lot of acrylic paint. I’ll only include 2 acrylic based products that are the best for my needs, so don’t be surprised if I don’t mention your favorite.

Testing the materials

Dissolution - surreal ink, pencil and gouache drawing by Nela Dunato
I used gouache for the large black exploding blob on my mixed media drawing Dissolution

Gouache

  • Schminke Akademie Deep Black – student grade paint available at a decent price for a reasonably sized tube.
  • I add a tiny amount of water so it spreads more easily.
  • I tried another swatch with more water and there’s no visible difference.
  • It’s very even, one layer was enough to cover the surface with no gray areas.
  • Slightly reflective and has a warm satin sheen.
  • Very easy to apply, once you get the consistency right.
  • Great for painting precise edges around a drawing since it’s not too runny.
  • I used this technique a lot in my sketchbook lately and I quite like the results!

Watercolor – black pigment

  • Iron oxide pigment called Mars Black by Roman Szmal.
  • I knew going in that watercolor is not the best medium because it takes a lot of effort to get a dark, deep surface, I just wanted to see how it compared to others.
  • My first attempt was really bad, after two layers it’s still pretty light. So I gave it another go, this time using Canson XL watercolor paper.
  • Getting a perfectly flat wash requires heavyweight watercolor paper that won’t buckle, and carefully applying many light washes (at least 5-6 layers).
  • I remembered I had an old tube of Louvre Ivory Black, which is a non-granulating pigment, so I tried that as well just in case. It’s a bit more even, but much warmer in tone, and not noticeably darker than Mars Black.

Watercolor – chromatic black

  • The interesting thing with watercolor is that you can actually get darker blacks by mixing several transparent colors, than by using the common black pigments. If you want to know more about this, I’ll link a good explanation by Mind of Watercolor.
  • You can mix black using many different complementary dark colors. My favorites are mixes of blue and brown.
  • I chose Talens Van Gogh Ultramarine and Burnt umber because I have both in tubes, so it’s easier to get a large amount of a dark, intense mixture.
  • The first test that flopped, I used pans (blue + brown) so my mixtures were too weak.
  • You do need more than 2 layers to get a deep, dark black.
  • Another issue with this method is achieving a perfectly neutral black. I prefer this method if I want a blue-black like the night sky, or a slightly sepia toned dark.

Acrylic ink

  • Talens Amsterdam Oxide black
  • I mixed in a drop of water to try to avoid that plastic acrylic shine.
  • It’s still a very dark black, very even.
  • It’s just barely lighter than gouache and has the same amount of subtle warm sheen.
  • I went over on one half of the swatch with another layer and it did nothing. One layer or two, it looks the same.
  • I didn’t compare tube acrylic paint since it’s harder to brush on without texture, and it contains the same pigment so there’s no reason why it would appear any darker. If anything, it’s probably more shiny.
Mermaid ink drawing by Nela Dunato
I most often used India ink in the past, including this mermaid drawing from my 2019 MerMay challenge

India ink

  • Pelikan ink – basic elementary school india ink. I don’t have any fancy India ink, so I don’t know if that would make any difference.
  • As I mentioned, this is the medium I’ve been using a lot since I was a kid.
  • A bit of water offsets the strong warm sheen of shellac binder, but you might get some unevenness and visible brush strokes.
  • Perfectly opaque flat surface means more shine, less shine means your layer might be too thin, so it’s a balancing act.
  • It’s definitely shinier and warmer than gouache.
Castles - surreal acrylic and pastel drawing by Nela Dunato
I used a black water-soluble pastel to draw the silhouette of this surreal portrait Castles

Water-soluble pastel

  • Caran D’Ache Neocolor II Black
  • It applies very easily, and if you put on a thick layer, the marks should not be visible once you go over it with a wet brush.
  • It’s dark and quite matte, but not as flat and even as inks and gouache paint.
  • My test swatch looks darker and more even than watercolor.
  • I tried applying a second layer, but it actually started lifting the first layer, so it’s better to just do one layer, and try to make it as thick as possible.
  • I don’t like it for large uniform areas, but it’s great for adding gradual shadows or vignettes, especially over watercolor. I also use it to cover up watercolor mishaps.

Charcoal

  • Derwent compressed charcoal stick, Dark
  • Turned out the lightest of all the mediums!
  • I don’t think a second layer would have helped on this paper, more grit may be needed to get the most out of charcoal.
  • Requires a fixative, and even then it will smudge somewhat.
  • Produces a ton of dust that gets all over your workspace and your hands, which I really don’t like, and that’s why I rarely use it.

Soft pastel

  • Koh-i-Noor Toison D’Or #12, it’s an affordable student grade soft pastel.
  • Immediately after application it’s the deepest, most velvety non-reflective black.
  • BUT it requires a fixative, and fixative will create a reflective film, depending on how much you use. It’s very easy to make a mistake, like I did. My resulting swatch is visibly coated with the fixative, making it the most reflective in the end.
  • I don’t have enough experience with soft pastel to know if this is something I can avoid, and if there’s a way to keep that deep matte black.
  • Like charcoal, it produces a ton of dust that you don’t want to get all over your precious drawing. It’s messier than I’d like.
  • An alternative to soft pastel is pan pastel, which is applied using sponges. This method is less messy, but I don’t have it.

Pastel pencil

  • Conte a Paris #9
  • Basically a hard pastel, or a dry pastel. Hard pastels also come in sticks which is easier to use on larger areas, but I don’t have any.
  • Very similar to soft pastel, just a bit more scratchy.
  • The results look almost the same.
Care - surreal watercolor pencil drawing by Nela Dunato
I used watercolor pencils quite often before switching to other mediums, as in this 2010 drawing Care

Water-soluble pencil

  • Stabilo All is the darkest and most intense black watercolor pencil I own so that’s the one I tested.
  • The results look very similar to water-soluble pastel.
  • I usually use the two together, the pastel for the larger areas, and the pencil for details.
Raven studies with a black carbon pencil
Sketching with a carbon pencil is very satisfying, but it’s labor intensive to fill in large areas

Carbon pencil

  • Charcoal mixed with a waxy or greasy binder. I have a few, and they’re very similar to black colored pencils.
  • Staedtler Lumograph black 8B is the most matte black pencil I own (after the pastel pencil).
  • Like with any waxy pencil, the texture of the paper will show through. Even though this paper is quite smooth, you can still see the white specks where I haven’t pressed as hard.
  • It’s a hassle how long it takes to cover the area with it, my hand hurts from pressing hard. I don’t like this method for large areas.

Colored pencil

  • Derwent Drawing Ivory Black is the darkest and softest black colored pencil I own so I used it for this test.
  • It performed pretty much the same as the carbon pencil: same white flecks, hard on the hand.
  • It has virtually the same amount of shine, even though the carbon pencil is more dry and crumbly so it has less filler and should be more matte, but I don’t really see that much of a difference.
I used a combination of colored pencil and solvent on this 2021 drawing The Shadow

Carbon & colored pencils with odorless mineral spirit

  • Odorless mineral spirit (OMS) is a medium used in oil painting that dissolves the binder in pencils so you can move the pigment around with a brush—just like watercolor pencils dissolve with water.
  • This removes the texture of the paper and there’s no visible pencil marks.
  • I used this method in my colored pencil drawing “The Shadow”. Check out the video process to see how I did it!
  • I’m not a fan because OMS is toxic to inhale, I’m terrified of using it in my studio.
  • The result is great. It’s even, it’s dark, it’s matte because the waxy film is gone so it does the job. I just don’t want to breathe that in.
  • It still takes a lot of effort because you really need a thick layer of pencil on that area before you dissolve it, otherwise it will look gray, and you’ll need to do another layer.

Acrylic gouache

  • Lastly, I completely forgot while filming my test that I had another medium that’s a good contender for the comparison!
  • Turner acrylic gouache Jet black – it’s a sample tube I received as a gift from an art supply store. Normally it’s quite expensive and I don’t know if I’ll buy it when I run out of this tube.
  • Dark, very matte acrylic paint that’s made with a different black pigment, not the iron oxide or carbon black like the other mediums I tested.
  • One comparison I found online demonstrated that it’s darker than Stuart Semple Black 2.0, I’m not sure how it compares to Black 3.0.
  • It is the darkest and most nonreflective of all the mediums I tested!
  • But it’s thick so it takes effort to apply evenly, and when watered down a bit the brush strokes are visible, definitely needs some trial and error to get the right consistency. 
  • I’d really like to try the liquid matte acrylic, but I can’t find a store in Europe that sells it.

I didn’t use black gesso in this test!

Should I have? I’m not sure.

Raven studies with water-soluble pastels on black gesso
Black gesso is a great surface to draw and paint on with light colors because of the grit

The reason I skipped it was because I knew it was a bit lighter in value than acrylic paint or ink. It’s a lovely surface to draw on with white and light pens, markers, and pastels, but on its own… I didn’t expect it to score the highest, and I’ve had enough acrylic mediums as is.

Nela’s Choice

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that gouache and acrylic ink scored the highest based on my criteria. They’re more shiny than soft pastel and acrylic gouache, but are much easier to use.

I’ll be using gouache to cover large areas of my drawings on paper, unless I specifically need it to be waterproof. If I want white or metallic accents on top, acrylic ink is more reliable.

Acrylic gouache is very promising, but I may need the fluid type for large flat surfaces. This thick paint is not ideal for what I need.

Other mediums will come handy in other circumstances. I’ll still use my pencils and pastels, but these seem better for gradual shading, not for big flat areas.

I have another video on my favorite black art supplies and how I use them. There’s a few I haven’t mentioned here so if you love black like I do, go watch it to get inspired.

Nela
Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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