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Is black a color or a neutral?

Black is a complex color that often sparks debate. While some argue that black is a color, others insist it is a neutral. In this article, we’ll explore the science, design, and cultural perspectives on black to help settle the discussion.

The Science of Black

From a scientific perspective, black is the absence of light. When no visible light is reflected off an object, it appears black to our eyes. This means that scientifically speaking, black is not considered a color, as colors are determined by wavelength and frequency of visible light.

However, black can be created by combining other colors. In the RGB color model, which is used for computer screens and TVs, black is made by mixing equal parts red, green, and blue light. In the CMYK color model used for printing, black is created by combining cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. So while black itself is not a color, it can be created using colors.

Black in Art and Design

In art and design, black is generally considered a neutral along with white and gray. Neutrals do not dominate a color scheme but instead provide contrast and balance when combined with colorful accents. Black enables other colors to stand out and makes lighter colors seem brighter by contrast.

However, some argue that black can also be used as a color in art and design. When combined skillfully with other saturated colors, black can take on expressive qualities. Mark Rothko’s massive black abstract canvases and Anish Kapoor’s colorful voids incorporate black as a color with depth and personality.

As a neutral As a color
Provides contrast Has expressive potential
Balances colorful accents Conveys emotion
Fades into the background Draws attention

This table summarizes how black can function as both a neutral and a color in different contexts.

Black and Culture

Beyond design and color theory, black also carries cultural meanings, associations, and symbolism. Here are some of the contexts where black takes on significance:

  • Mourning – In many cultures, wearing black clothing signifies grief and loss.
  • Elegance – Little black dresses and tuxedos evoke sophistication and glamour.
  • Power – Black suits and outfits can suggest authority and strength.
  • Rebellion – Black leather jackets, dark ripped jeans, and heavy metal attire often represent a rejection of mainstream values.
  • Mystery – Black cats, black magic, and black cloaks signify the occult and unknown.

So while black may not technically be a color, it has deep cultural meanings attached to it. The context and use of black can shape its interpretation and impression.


Black’s status as a color or neutral has been debated for decades. From a scientific perspective, black is not a color since colors are defined by light wavelengths. But in art, design, and culture, black takes on meaning and symbolism far beyond a simple neutral. So while physics may define black as an absence of light, our human perspectives give black nuance, feeling, and significance.

Perhaps the richness of black comes from its contradictions and complexity. Just like black is created through combinations of colors, its identity encompasses both neutrality and colorfulness. Rather than definitively labeling black one way or the other, we can appreciate and explore its multifaceted nature.