Friday, November 4, 2011

Making Oil Paint: Ivory Black

I received some genuine ivory black pigment from a friend who makes it from scratch, using mammoth ivory. No elephants were harmed to obtain this pigment. Ivory charcoal was made using a traditional method, and then milled into pigment form. The pigment from the ivory bark produces a black that is very similar to bone black. The pigment which derives from the inner part of the tusk is very different than bone black, and when mixed with white, produces a grey, which leans blue.

The pigment is not uniform in particle size, and is initially coarse. This black is very versatile, and makes a very oil rich paint. Since this amount was only 150 mg, I used a couple of glass dishes, and a large palette knife. For larger amounts a glass muller and slab are better suited. The oil is cold pressed linseed oil, which is very good for those who make their own paint. It wets the pigment very well.

The ivory black pigment is placed in a glass container, and linseed oil is added in small amounts, and mixed with the pigment. This forms a slurry, and is the precursor to paint. At this point, the particles are not encapsulated in oil, and there are agglomerations throughout. Again, the particles are not uniform, and will be broken down in size while mulling progresses.

Initially it is very loose, and oily. It will drip right off of a palette knife, and is in no way a paint at this point.

The oily slurry is placed on a glass dish, and ground out with a palette knife. It is initially very course, despite being loose and oily. This is ground, and thickens up, as the particles are broken down and smashed into the oil, so that each little particle is fully surrounded by linseed oil. If this doesn't happen, problems with the paint can result, later in the life of the painting. In this picture you can see the course pigment, and the small amounts of linseed oil that I have added with a dropper. The additional linseed oil is mulled into the mix.

In this picture you can see that the material has been worked a great deal, and there is quite a bit more oil in it. It is smoother, but still requires work.

This is further along, and quite a bit smoother. I tend to stretch this out quite far, and work it until it appears to dry out. Then add more oil, and work that in until it feels very smooth, with not the slightest gritty feel. When it is ready, despite having a great deal more oil than at the onset, it is very smooth, and firms up, so that it has body.

The end result is a very smooth, highly pigmented paint, that has body but is more loose than modern tube paints. This particular color is very rich in oil, and therefore not good for underpaintings. It is better when used in later layers, and is excellent for mixing with most other colors. At the end of this batch I added a very small amount of baltic amber varnish that I made, which adds a bit to the body, and provides several other advantages. When I finish mulling the paint, I place it with a small palette knife into empty aluminum tubes specially made for this. Although time consuming, as with anything else, the more that one does something the quicker it becomes.


  1. Wow very interesting. How do you compare it to other blacks? is it superior or superior specific? Or a modern black is comparable in every way?

  2. Rory,

    I have found this pigment (when made into paint), has slightly lower tinting strength, than the modern commercial versions of ivory black. Most commercial versions of ivory black are not made of ivory at all, but rather, made with charred animal bones. Although indeed black, charred animal bones are not the same in many respects. They do not produce a paint that is comparable to genuine ivory black.

    I would never advocate for a return to actual ivory black, as it involves the slaughter of elephants. Not another elephant should ever be killed for any product. However, the paint which we see at the art supply store, labelled as ivory black simply is not the same, and does not behave in the same manner. It really should be labelled as "Ivory Black Hue," as any other hue color having similar colors, yet different source, and properties (i.e. cadmium red being labelled as vermilion hue).

    I have found no modern black to perform exactly as genuine ivory black. Almost all of them tend to dramatically reduce the chroma of any other color they are mixed with. For lack of a better way of saying it, most other blacks deaden colors, in mixes. I have not found this to be the case with genuine ivory black. Again, it has lower tinting strength, but is also has a blue undertone (most blacks have some sort of blue undertone, but this is hard to see readily) With the genuine version, there is a beautiful undertone, that when combined with a lower tinting strength, does not severely alter the chroma of other colors, in mixes. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the old masters paintings looked more lifelike, despite a great deal of black being used. In the world today, we often hear of disagreements as to whether or not the use of black is valid, with the notion that the impressionists dispensed with it, being given as reason to discontinue it's use. I will be honest with you, in considering the use of most modern blacks, I would agree with the impressionists.

    Now, if you are looking for a black that will approximate genuine ivory black, it is only an opinion, so take that for what it is worth, but my experiments have concluded that there is a black that will perform in similar fashion, when considering tinting strength, chroma, opacity, etc. However, it would involve a mix. Again, this is opinion, yet I have found that if I take a good quality burnt umber, and add a good quality ultramarine, in small amounts, until a black forms, and continue to do so, until the black is of similar appearance to bone black enmasse, then add a small amount of a good quality raw sienna. The end product will perform very similar to genuine ivory black, when mixed with whites, or any color for that matter.