Black: alternative to burnt umber mix

Alternatives to burnt umber?
My go to black is French ultramarine and burnt umber. It's easy to pull it warm or cool, I like it. Current tubes of both are Gamblin. This latest painting has a lot of darks and so everything has that dull umber flatness. It feels horrible. I don't want to oil out all the time, and I don't use retouch varnish for technical reasons. So I have to live with it for now.
Does anyone know a good alternative to burnt umber?



  • edited December 2021
    @Abstraction. I most often mix a black from quinacridone crimson and Ultramarine blue because, as you said, the umber tends to dry flat. This mixture makes a violet so dark it is black. It can be cooled or warmed. Quinacridone crimson and Phthalo green will also give you a black that I sometimes use for the darkest darks beneath vegetation. These blacks don't dry flat like BU and UB. I use Langridge paints. 
  • @tassieguy I just started using Langridge and have their quinacridone magenta so it might work. I was about to try it with ultramarine to glaze a decanter of red wine.
  • Abstraction

    For a toned/stained surface I use a grey or rust red tinted water based metal primer.‘The rust red is used
    here on my combo palette/bridge/mahl stick.

  • edited December 2021
    @dencal Denis that's very interesting. It's a lovely colour. What is the brand and primer? And do you paint on wood or canvas?
    I paint on hardboard - for a while I used Rust-Oleum 2x Ultra Cover Primer - it sealed and primed in two quick spray coats ready to go in hours. Then when I learnt about the risks with zinc I contacted Rust-Oleum technical department. They said the less than 1% zinc is too small to result in saponification - zinc soaps - as zinc is reactive to alkyds. But they recommended their Zinsser Cover Stain as more stable for my purposes.
    As I did more research in conservation I couldn't really fault the Zinsser Coverstain but there's a lack of long-term evidence. But I had a problem develop with the oil ground I used and in many ways wish I'd just used the zinsser on my current painting.
  • dencaldencal -
    edited December 2021

    I used to use Rustoleum but the fumes were a knockout (outside with a mask).switched to this no odour water based, tinted metal primer.

    I only use aluminium composite material now.


  • Ok, personally I would not use that primer in white as it seems to be zinc oxide and zinc phosphate - zinc being prone to forming soaps and cracking over time. I couldn't find the other ingredients. Personal preference for me to stick with conservation evidence now as far as possible.
  • A good Ultramaringe black mix is Rembrandt's Transparent Red Oxide. A great all around neutralizer. add some W&N AC Permanent it's a very passable black. So is Ivory black with any color. 
  • I use Zinnser shellac then Zinnser sealer/primer for paperboard and hardboard. I just don't like acrylic gesso, too plastic-y.

    Red and Phthalo green makes a very "dark", without being an abyss on the canvas. Or Red and Paynes gray.
  • Zinc soaps are only an issue in oil paints, not in acrylic or modified acrylic water based coatings.
  • @Richard_P Oh, I thought Denis was painting in oils. If he is - then if the very first layer of oil is upon acrylic infused throughout with zinc oxide - is that very minute acrylic coating between pigment particles on the surface and the oil sufficient? I don't know the answer.
  • According to conservators I've talked to it's not thought to be an issue as the zinc is part of the acrylic paint film and doesn't react with the oils. But I understand the concern.
  • "COLOR GETS ALL THE CREDIT . . . VALUE DOES ALL THE WORK."  A statement worth remembering.  Often times the need for a very dark value can be anything but black.  Also, using dark values other than black puts some color in those dark passages.  There are several suggestions in this thread for black substitutes, and I'm sure there are more.  There are times and places for plain old black, but there are also times and places where a dark value other than black is better.
  • I'm one of those painters who would start with black and then mix other colour in to alter the hue, value, etc. Especially as I like opaque paint and Lamp Black or Mars Black are very opaque. :)
  • I'm like Richard on this one. I mix my blacks for most uses from colours, but I also use blacks for mixing. Ivory black is used to substitute blue in the zorn palette, for instance.
    But agree @broker12 that it's rare at all that anything - even if it's coloured black - will appear that way - there is always air, light, reflections, reflected light... it's warm or cool, with variations.
    On the other hand, we don't truly copy values. We copy the distance between the values. There is no way to put sunlight in a tube of paint. So to generate that impression we darken the other tones so that our brightest white (for me titanium) sings when we put those final highlights in. So I don't paint pure white until the highlights to leave room for them. But I do use white paint all through - mixed. In a similar way, I start with mixed blacks but never the darkest point. That gives me somewhere to go for darkest accents - usually still warm or cool.
  • Richard_P said:
    According to conservators I've talked to it's not thought to be an issue as the zinc is part of the acrylic paint film and doesn't react with the oils. But I understand the concern.
    Good to know, thanks for clarification. As I said - my look at Zinsser coverstain - along with the simplicity, speed of process and perfect texture for painting on - makes me tempted to use it. All ingredients look pretty stable, etc. There are just a few aspects of the forms of additives that I don't comprehend and don't want to gamble on.
  • @dencal @Richard_P The reason I decided to not use commercial non-artist grade products was research into conservation implications. I looked for the ingredients of Dulux Precision and couldn't find them. Do you either of you know the full list of ingredients? It may be perfect for aluminium panels, I don't know. Below are two sides to an interesting question from the same source:
    "Even though we tend to advise folks to steer clear of most industrial products, sometimes there are certain instances when one actually SHOULD turn to industrial products to ensure the longevity of their work and with ACM this can certainly be the case. DTM Bonding Primer by Sherwin Williams has been tested and found to be a suitable primer for ACM, a primer that can then be covered with a layer of acrylic gesso (followed by acrylic or oil paints)." MITRA (
    13) If it is a product made for the outdoors and for industrial purposes it must be long-lasting and it is appropriate for fine art purposes…
    Industrial materials made to withstand outdoor (and even indoor) conditions were formulated for very different purposes than traditional art materials. There are many choices that paint manufacturers make that affect the outcome of a given product and paints produced on an industrial scale often use additives that are relatively economical and/or are the easiest to incorporate into the paint formulations. These additives can aid in creating a more workable paint and helps the paint film to withstand severe weather conditions and extreme exposure to light; however, these additives (i.e. antifungal agents, wetting agents, rheology modifiers, dispersants, anti-freezing agents, driers, thickeners, de-foamers, small additions of toxic solvents, etc.) can potentially lead to problematic consequences when these paints are used to create fine art that is intended to last for decades and centuries rather than a short time in a very hostile environment (i.e. 7-15 years).
    Some of these additives are known to eventually migrate out of these commercial paints after a certain period of time, industrial products are not recommended as suitable materials for grounds, paint layers, and/or varnish coatings. Additional research is required to assess whether these additives can form potentially deleterious complexes with pigments, create a hazy film on the paint surface, impart brittleness, and/or create a paint film that is more sensitive to solvents. As little is presently known about how these materials will age over extended periods of time, industrial products are not recommended for use. If artists choose to use such products, they are encouraged to record the brand, material, and date of purchase (commercial manufacturers may change their formulation often without notifying the consumer) of the product on the back of the artwork.         
    MITRA (Materials Information and Technical Resources for Artists) University of Delaware.
  • I find mixing your own black can really help your color mixing skills overall and as people have mentioned, you often don't need something truly black. My favourite black mixture is French Ultramarine, Cadmium red and cadmium barium yellow pale. You can get beautiful greys out of this mixture too when you lighten it. You start to really notice the warmth/cool aspect to the black when you mix it yourself as well. Also, when you use the same mixture for the darkest areas and then lighten it for shadows/background etc. it helps unify the painting….
  • Folks

    Apologies. I don’t know what question I was answering above but it wasn’t asked.

    Here is a better answer…


    Black is a commonly used paint color, but you may not have any on hand or you may want a black that leans slightly toward another color. Black paint can be made with equal parts red, yellow, and blue paint mixed together on a palette. You can also mix complementary colors such as blue and orange, red and green, or yellow and purple. Mixing blue and brown can also result in a rich black.

    The link provided demonstrations of these combos.


  • Alizarin crimzon red also makes a good mix of black with ultramarine blue. But you have to be careful with the amouny you put in.
    Burnt umber is really a dark orange. So red and a small amount of yellow makes sence.
    Also if you like to use another black, use (Ivory black).
    It is a cool black and you can warm it up with red.
    I use that all the time for my portraits.
  • Thanks. I don't use alizarin any more because it fades longer term. I've substituted with quinacridone magenta which achieves pretty much the same results in mixes as a cool red.
  • edited February 1
    @Abstraction I like to mix my blacks and rarely use black straight form the tube, unless I’m after a quick grey.

    I have never used burnt umber in my mix though, and as in some of suggestions above the colurs I use depend on if I want a warm or cool black.

    The background in my last posted painting of a pair I mixed Ultra Marine Blue and Transparent Red Oxide.

  • MichaelD said:
    The background in my last posted painting of a pair I mixed Ultra Marine Blue and Transparent Red Oxide.
    I have both of those - I'll experiment with that.

  • @Abstraction

    PS. I dont use Geneva, have tried them by they are not for me, particularly as I often work in layer/glazes.
  • tassieguy said:
    Quinacridone crimson and Phthalo green will also give you a black that I sometimes use for the darkest darks beneath vegetation. These blacks don't dry flat like BU and UB. I use Langridge paints. 
    I bought phthalo green. Interesting that with my quinacridone magenta it produced a violet which was close to black, but still violet. So... Langridge's magenta must be cooler than their crimson. So no go.
    But then later I thought about it and mixed transparent gold oxide with the green and magenta and bingo: black. Can pull it in three different directions. It's a great black that as you say doesn't dry flat.
    So are Langridge's Phthalo and quinacridone crimson perfect complementaries? When you mix white do you get a neutral gray? I'm interested in complementary colour pairings.
  • I think they are pretty close to perfect complementaries @Abstraction. The phthalo green is a little stronger as a mixer than the Quinacridone crimson so you would add just a touch more Quinacridone than Phthalo. They make a great black and, in the right ratio, they make a beautiful neutral grey when mixed with Titanium white.  You can also get lovely cool or warm  greys by slightly adjusting the ratio of Phthalo to Quinacridone. Ultramarine and Burnt umber make  good black and greys, too, except for the tendency to dry a bit flat. But, of course, this can be overcome by oiling out and varnishing.   :)
  • A very good black mix that dries slowly and doesn't sink in, but is semi-transparent is:
    PBk31 (Perylene Black) and PBr25 (Benzimidazolone Brown) - W&N Artist oils have both pigments in their line.

    PBk31 is a very dark green (near black on it's own) and PBr25 is like a Burnt Umber that tints with white to a red iron oxide type colour (so more chromatic than Burnt Umber). Mixed together they make a very good black and as both colours are naturally low in chroma it's easy not to overshoot like when using a Phthalo.

Sign In or Register to comment.