Paint it Black

Artist’s models are expected to pose nude. This is a given. If I had to put a percentage on it, I’d say that 90% of my posing is done in the nude, while the remaining 10% is clothed. I don’t include portrait sitting in the 10% because even though the model is clothed, it’s not a clothed pose per se. The artists are only painting the head and maybe the shoulders so the clothing is incidental and not a significant element of the composition. Models can show up for a portrait session and simply sit in their street clothes. But there are occasions when an actual clothed pose is expected.

I can’t speak for other models but I personally don’t enjoy clothed posing. This is not because I’m such a compulsive exhibitionist who must have my nude body gazed upon at all times. It’s because my wardrobe is apparently lacking in artist approved colors. I wear a lot of dark colors. If you were to look through my closet you’d see lots of black, dark blues, charcoal greys, and chocolatey browns. With my coloring these darker tones are most flattering on me. Even my bathing suit, which has been requested for modeling, is black. Hey, I like yellows and pinks as much as the next person. I just can’t wear them. Even red, a color I love, only looks right on me if it’s like cranberry or deep crimson. Orangey reds not so much. But I digress.

I pose weekly for a private art group that prefers clothed poses for painting. We recently finished a pose and have started making plans for a new one that we will begin in the new year. The lady who runs the group asked that I bring in clothing from my wardrobe so we could make a selection. Here’s the problem. I know these people. They like colors. Big, bold swathes of color, a la Matisse. Frankly, I don’t have anything like that except for a pair of purple sweatpants πŸ˜† So the lady and I were discussing this and I wanted very much to provide an appropriate outfit to please the group. She said to me, “We want it to be YOU, Claudia! Wear your favorite nice outfit, something you would wear to a special event or on a date.” A very nice sentiment and I appreciated it. However, with that description, the chosen outfit would be a black Calvin Klein cocktail dress. Friends, I love this dress. It rocks, and I rock in it. It’s a dress I splurged on at Bloomingdale’s. So I told her about it and she responded, “No, no, no, nothing black. We don’t want black.” See the dilemma? My second choice, in accordance with her description, would then be a dark grey silk dress. It’s very pretty with simple, elegant lines. Her response to that one was, “Eh.” I was O for 2.

So you see that clothed pose requests are, for me, a bit of a nuisance. I want to satisfy artists’ needs, but my wardrobe is my personal wardrobe. What am I supposed to do? Nude is sooo much easier. I take my clothes off and we’re good to go. It’s great. But my question for artists is this: what is wrong with painting black? John Singer Sargent used tons of black. Madame X is a notable example. And here’s another from Sargent, Mrs. John Chapman, from 1893:

It’s not just this art group which has caused me this wardrobe problem. I once showed up for a job that was supposed to be nude but at the last minute they decided to do clothed. Since I was given no prior notice, all I had was the clothes on my back. Guess what I was wearing? A black sweater. And predictably the group wasn’t thrilled. “Don’t you have anything else?” they asked, as if I travel around with a fuschia tutu on a regular basis.

The Birds, by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes:

I have a theory about this. I’ve observed that black, and darks in general, appear all over artworks from past eras. It seems that bright palettes came into popularity with the Picasso/Matisse Modernist period. Then abstract expressionists took color to an extremely prominent level. Something has changed with the collective eyes of painters in that they can’t find visual stimulation anymore without the presence of blatant in-your-face colors or patterns. Would anyone today create a painting like Whistler’s Mother? I wonder.

It’s a most bizarre phenomenon. One time, on my break, I was chatting with an artist at her easel. As I sipped my coffee I looked down at her well-organized palette and asked, “Where’s your black?”. She made an incredulous expression and replied, “I don’t use black!”, as if I was crazy to even ask such a question.

In this piece, James Tissot took on a black dress AND a black umbrella. A Widow,Β from 1868:

If someone can explain to me this black-aversion among painters today I’d really appreciate it. I hope it’s just a phase because I can’t afford a whole new wardrobe! Or else, I may have to stipulate that, as a professional model, I am “nude only”. πŸ˜‰

29 thoughts on “Paint it Black

  1. Ray says:

    I think Llight yellow would look good on you.

  2. The snow is nice!

    The not-using-black thing is very common – rarely use it myself, as mixing nice darks isn’t too hard and using black in lighter colours can end up dingy.

    Most of my paintings so far have been mainly of skin – but those that do have clothing, it is dark grey/black. Maybe I have stared at this gentleman a little bit too much!

    One of the problems with black clothing is that the dark bits are, like, black. Most of us prefer our darkest bit of the painting to be at the centre of interest – like the eyes – and not the clothing. Also, you are left with a very narrow range of tones to express the form – if you look at your three only the Sergeant comes close to being three dimensional.

    Umm. Think I need to go think about this a bit more!

  3. Jennifer says:

    You raise a very interesting point! It’s certainly true that in my art education, black has been considered a no-no to have on the palette, but looking at the paintings you have presented, especially the Sergeant, you have to wonder if we have been deskilled in this area. I guess in the pre-Modern art era, the wearing of black for mourning etc meant that a painter had to be able to paint black. On the other hand, tubes of paints in the vast array of bright contemporary colours are mouth-watering objects (just bought two more new colours yesterday – do I need them, of course not!), but I’ve learnt the hard way over the years that it’s best not to chuck them all at the canvas at once. Anyway, hope you managed to solve the clothing dilemma πŸ™‚

    Hope New York not too cold – getting decidedly chilly over here!

    • artmodel says:


      Great comments, thank you! Your point about painters maybe being “deskilled” in black use is significant. Just in my experience modeling for classes, I have heard instructors flat out discourage artists from using black. Not sure if that’s wise or helpful. I really hope it’s not a dying skill.

      Unseasonably warm here in NYC, with temps in the 50s!!


  4. Lisa B. says:

    If the group doesn’t like your wardrobe, they should chip in and buy you a costume they’re happy with. Maybe they could send you to Hawaii for a week, and you could pick out a really colorful shirt for such occasions. πŸ™‚

    This was Goya’s palette.

    • artmodel says:

      Lisa B,

      Yours are the most kick-ass comments on Museworthy in recent weeks! Love it! Especially the part about the Hawaii trip πŸ™‚

      Thanks also for linking to Goya’s palette. Fabulous and fascinating. One of the great masters. DIdn’t know there was a “peach black”.


  5. Jennifer says:

    Four shades of black – wow!! That is most likely how they were able to ‘paint it black’. I’m beginning to feel we’ve lost something over the yeaers …

  6. Bill MacDonald says:

    My response would be that there is absolutely nothing wrong with painting black. Zero, zilch, nada.

    I just finished a head-and-shoulders portrait of a brunette model in which I deliberately changed the color of her sweater to black. And I darkened the neutral background, too. If anyone says anything, I just say, “Who shall we throw out first? Velazquez or Rembrandt?”

    In the words of the immortal philosophers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “Paint it black”. πŸ™‚

    • artmodel says:


      Thanks for picking up on my Rolling Stones reference! I was hoping everyone would get it. I was going to do the AC/DC route and title the post “Back in Black” but I’ve never been much of a fan.

      Love your prepared response to your painting. And throw Caravaggio in there for me πŸ™‚


  7. scultore says:

    I don’t understand why anyone would want to paint you clothed, you are beautiful nude, but there’s no accounting for the odd twists of the human mind. Maybe you could borrow Arthur Aviles’ red velvet dress!

    • artmodel says:


      I am still laughing about Arthur’s dress! πŸ˜†

      You are so sweet to pay me that compliment. Thank you, friend. Also, I know you are a hard core nude man, which is awesome.

      Last but not least, welcome home!!! Can’t wait to hear all about your India trip!


  8. Ron says:

    Claudia, keep it simple, wear the Calvin with a deep crimson lacy or silky shawl.
    You can wrap it around both shoulders or over one shoulder. The highlights on the shawl and on your skin from the shawl should make them happy.

  9. I agree with MacDonald’s comment.

    Having said that I have to admit I seldom have black sitting on my palette, -unless I’m doing sumi-e & then I eschew them new fangled reds, yellows and blues! πŸ˜‰

    • artmodel says:

      “I have to admit I seldom have black sitting on my palette”

      HA! YOU’RE BUSTED!!!

      Just kidding πŸ˜† Keep using those crazy reds, yellows, and blues. You’re great with them.

      Thanks Jim!


  10. I liked this post a lot- funny. I’m paraphrasing but I think Degas said something about how the artist’s job isn’t how many colors he can daub on his canvas but how much he can create the sensation of many colors…anyway, black IS a color- and a “black” object in reality isn’t really black straight out of the tube- it takes some of the characteristics of what’s around it- it may have a purplish cast, or blue or green ,etc. It could be a warm black or a cool black. And when you’re painting a “black” object, you’re not painting its color you’re painting surfaces…

    • artmodel says:


      So glad you made the point that black is just as diverse and variable as other pigments. I like the way you described it. Black is terribly misunderstood.

      Thanks for your comments!


  11. Fred says:

    If that group wants to paint people wearing bright colors, they’re in the wrong city. Black and near-black is the New York style, and has been for many decades. We use color as an accent, not a base!

    Before the 19th century, all the old masters had to work with was basically blacks, whites, and various earth tones, but they were able to do a lot with a limited palette. Salvador Dali, a modern painter steeped in the craft of the old masters, claims that the secret to becoming a great colorist is to practice painting using a palette of only blacks and whites – a warmer and a cooler version of each.

    Advances in organic chemistry 150 years or so ago made available a wide range of highly vivid colors, and some influential painters came up with this idea of omitting black from the palette, feeling that darks made by blending complementary hues were richer, or that a composition that was all color and light escaped from the heaviness and overseriousness of the academic style. Not a bad idea, but with some teachers it became dogma, and you will still encounter a lot of painters who’ve been taught that black is to be shunned.

    I’ve always found that black pigments, mostly forms of carbon, have wonderful properties that cannot be matched by blended colors. There’s a good reason that process color printing uses primary colors (magenta, yellow, cyan) AND BLACK. A little black sharpens and grounds an image. There’s no substitute for it.

    The examples you’ve chosen to illustrate this post show very well the power of black in figurative art!

    • artmodel says:

      “We use color as an accent, not a base!”

      Ain’t that the truth! It’s also appropriate that my rejected dress is a Calvin Klein, a fashion designer (my favorite) who is known for a “palette” of mostly blacks, browns, greys, etc. Very NYC urban sophisticated and minimalist style. No bright screaming colors from Mr. Klein.

      Thanks for the background about black usage in art. Really interesting, Fred!


  12. Bill MacDonald says:

    True story — I once attended a presentation by Robert Gamblin (the paintmaker). Gamblin, among other things, was pitching his 3 “Portland Grays” as agents to tone down the chroma of overly vivid colors. Well, all these artists in the audience objected — no, you can get a richer result by mixing the paint with its complementary. A spirited disagreement followed — finally Gamblin grabbed a few tubes of paint and mixed 2 small batches — one with the complementary, one with the gray — and challenged anyone to show him the difference. And no one could.

  13. CBrown says:

    When I’m drawing clothed models, I’m looking to study the folds and drapery of the fabric. It’s easier for me to see that, and the value-contrast of the shadows created by the folds, with lighter colored fabric. I’m usually drawing in black and white, so I don’t care what the actual color is. In fact, I don’t even care what the clothing is, as long as it’s drapey. So while I’m sure your cocktail dress is awesome, I wouldn’t be so interested in it unless it gives me that dynamic in the draping. Some baggy pants and a big shirt would be better for my purposes.

    Some of the models I’ve drawn at clothed sessions have some truly strange garments – as in, there’s no terminology in the English language to even describe what the thing is. They just keep pulling these weird random conglomerations of fabric out of a big duffel bag. I can’t imagine they ever wear these things for anything other than those drawing sessions, and probably picked it all up from a Goodwill for $10.

    • artmodel says:


      I didn’t even consider the draping element of clothing choices. Thanks for bringing it up. Fabric is often set up for draping effect as backdrops, as you know. And I’ve even seen that become an issue in some classes!

      Yes, some models have bizarre treasure troves of clothing/costumes. Those who are dancers or theater performers are especially well-supplied with interesting odd garments. I, however, am not one of them. I have my nude self, black dresses and not much in between πŸ˜†

      Thanks for your comments!


  14. Gavin says:

    We’ve got a great model who poses in a sari (which I think is discrimination as they won’t let me pose in a kilt! πŸ˜‰ ) and I was teaching a class of VIth Formers (High School) and the model didn’t turn up, so they ended up posing for each other clothed, and they preferred it! I’ve also got a few friends who are into the whole medieval reenactment scene, and I’d love to get them in in full armour to pose. So I’m not averse to the occasional clothed session, it’s all drawing.

    On black, I think I approach it from a different perspective as I learned to draw to do comics, and all that time in Japan looking at the prints and manga made me appreciate the use of big blocks of black space. I can see the classically traned artists’ point of view, but rules are there to be broken.

    • artmodel says:


      Your sessions sound like great fun! I really like the medieval reenactment idea. Your openness to new ideas is refreshing. I wish we could work together.

      Thanks for your comments!


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