Faith Ringgold: Black Light Series
Ad Reinhardt once defined colour “in its purest sense as multiple possibilities of black”. Black itself can be suffocating, and overpowering, swallowing up the eye where the fields of non-colour lay, but black can also be used as a conduit for colour and for light.
Faith Ringgold’s Black Light series, consisting of twelve paintings made from 1967 to 1969, exemplified her desire to use black as an illuminator. Being a Black woman and a coloured woman simultaneously, her art was inspired by ideas about race and the Black identity. She understood how the Black label and the black colour can both be limiting, and noticed the bias towards lighter colours in joyful, happy Western art that depicted white joy in all the pastels of the rainbow. Ringgold made her own oil paints, using burnt umber as a base instead of the traditional white base. She wanted to better represent dark skin tones and allow them to be better observed and admired by, as Ringgold herself said, “placing equally dark colours directly adjacent to one another, the various hues… stand out as independent and assertive tones, emphasising their contrast and idiosyncrasy.”
Faith Ringgold, #11: US America Black, 1969, oil on canvas.
Ringgold’s eleventh painting in this series, US America Black, 1969, shows her colour theory in action. The eight-way portrait of Black Americans features a variety of blue and brown tones adjacent to each other, varying in hue but each staying a deep and rich tone. The shadows on each portrait are rendered in the same ultramarine blue, unifying the disjointed composition. The blue is placed alongside equally dark browns and oranges, pushing the viewer to focus solely on the difference in hues. Ringgold is using these dark colours to paint rich, warm portraits of Black Americans, and using the paint’s darkness to allow us to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of these tones.
Faith Ringgold, #7: Ego Painting, 1969, oil on canvas.
In #7: Ego Painting, 1969, colour disrupts the geometric symmetry of the piece. The colour-coded pinwheel is unevenly red, blue, and black, colours vital to the Black American identity. The black of skin and of reputation, the blue of blues music and of bruises, the red of blood, these colours provoke visceral reactions and hold symbolic weight in the Black community. The text on the painting honours the multifaceted artistic culture of African Americans; Ringgold is using fine art to nod to literature and lyrical music. The colour coding allows us to read the nonlinear piece, with ‘BLACK AMERICA’ legible from right to left along the bottom, linked by their colour composition. Colour unites this shattered image, but also prevents symmetrical harmony, and obscures understanding.
Faith Ringgold, #1: Big Black, 1967, oil on canvas.
The first Black Light painting, #1: Big Black, stares out at us. The colours here break up parts of a whole, splitting his face into a nine-piece patchwork. The ultramarine is back to outline and shade his features. Big Black confronts us as well as himself, his eyes reflecting only black light as he floats on an undefined background. He is composed of recognisable features, in the same colours Ringgold uses to so realistically depict Black Americans, but his resemblance to a human face is uncanny and dissociated. Big Black is shattered like Ego Painting, the variations of colour and tone preventing him from unity.
Ringgold’s use of colour to unite, to divide, to describe, and to obscure, speaks to her personal rich understanding of colour as a Black woman in segregated America. She takes colour and the application of it seriously, using it expertly both for technical purposes and as a symbolic tool.
It is popularly believed that red, yellow, and blue are the primary colours, with no doubts or room for variety. This RYB colour model was originally derived in the seventeenth century and popularised by Franciscus Aguilonius, who concurred with his peers that red, yellow, and blue were the most useful colours for paint mixing. Theoretically, from mixing these and black and white in various ratios, one could derive all the colours in the world. This is untrue. You can’t get electric yellow, or gold, or magenta from these primaries. RYB was useful for the practice of oil painting, and in that context, they can generate almost all the colours you want. But the tiny world of oil painting cannot be the standard for colour, a medium so intrinsic to life and so universally beloved. So what is a primary?
Primaries are fundamental colours that order the world. Primary itself means ‘first’ or ‘most important’. Linguistically, we can look at primaries literally. In the sixties, Kay and Berlin of UC Berkeley figured out what the universal ‘first’ colours were. In almost every language, the first words for colours developed are words for light and dark, and then red. After red comes green or yellow, and then the rest come later. This is exemplified in the medicine wheel, a way of ordering the colours found in Native American societies. The Ojibwe wheel features black, white, red, and yellow as the fundamental colours, and attribute to them the four cardinal directions, the four sacred medicines, the four seasons, and the four stages of life. Each facet of life fits into this primary scheme. However, ordering the world through colour is not intrinsic to every language - the Canoshi people of the Amazon do not have any colour terms, and instead describe an object’s colour by calling it another object of that colour, or calling it a texture term. In this way, the world orders colour, instead of colour ordering the world.
Practically, we derive primaries from systems of thinking about colour. In Medieval Europe, colour was thought of as a scale from light to dark, with the midpoint being red and green. This system gives us four primaries: white, red, green, and black. The Hanuno’o people of the Philippines think of colour as two scales, one from light to dark, and the other from fresh to dry, generating five primaries: light, dark, fresh, dry, and the neutral midpoint. The way we think of colour post-Newton is as a light spectrum, each shade represented by a certain wavelength. This system gives us the RGB colour model, which mixes light (additive) instead of pigment (subtractive).
Primaries help us make sense of the chaos that is colour. They show us which are important, which to look for, and which are products of the others. In the early twentieth century, the Bauhaus school assigned shapes to the RYB model, they decided that the yellow triangle, the red square, and the blue circle were the fundamental primaries. Tying colour with other sensory experiences, like the perception of line and form, or wet and dry, is a huge part of how we experience colour. It is never an abstract concept, it is always tied to form, an object, a picture plane, or a beam of light, but it is almost always the first thing one sees. Colour is the most easily experienced part of a larger whole, and through that lens it becomes a universal language.