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What are dark colors called in art?

What are dark colors called in art?

In art, colors are often categorized into light and dark groups. The dark colors are those that absorb more light and appear deeper, muted, or somber. Some common dark colors used in art include black, brown, gray, deep reds, greens, blues, and purples. Dark colors evoke certain moods, emotions, and themes in art. They can symbolize mystery, sophistication, elegance, power, and more. Understanding the different types and uses of dark colors is important for artists in mixing paints, developing color schemes, and conveying meaning through their works.

Definition of Dark Colors

Dark colors are those that absorb more light wavelengths, making them appear deeper in tone. They fall on the darker end of the color spectrum, opposite light or bright colors like yellow and pink. Dark colors are created by mixing a hue with black, gray, or the hue’s complementary color. For example, navy blue contains more black than regular blue. Burgundy has more gray and brown mixed in compared to red. Dark green includes blue and black shades added to the primary green pigment. The exact definition of a dark color is subjective, but they generally absorb 50% or more light.

Major Types of Dark Colors

Here are some of the main dark color varieties used in art:


Black is the darkest color, absorbing almost all light in the visible spectrum. It is traditionally made from charcoal pigments or soot but today is usually derived from carbon black. Black represents power, mystery, sophistication, and fear in art. It contrasts well with bright colors.


Browns are dark, earthy colors made by mixing complementary colors like orange and green or red and green. They include shades like chocolate, chestnut, mahogany, espresso, and more. Brown symbolizes nature, earthiness, utility, and autumn.


Grays are muted, neutral colors made by mixing black and white. They represent subtlety, neutrality, and sophistication. Different shades like charcoal gray and silver gray are possible.

Dark Reds

Dark reds like burgundy, maroon, and oxblood have more brown, purple, or black mixed with red. They symbolize power, elegance, anger, and passion.

Dark Greens

Dark greens include hunter green, forest green, olive green, and others with black or blue added to the green hue. They represent nature, renewal, toxicity, and wealth.

Dark Blues

Navy blue, dark teal, indigo, and cerulean are some deep shades of blue containing more black or green. They symbolize wisdom, stability, power, and sadness in art.

Dark Purples

Dark purples and violets like amethyst, eggplant, and plum absorb more red wavelength, making them appear richer. They represent magic, mysticism, and royalty.

Dark Color Shades Meanings
Black Jet black, charcoal Power, mystery, sophistication, fear
Browns Chocolate, chestnut, mahogany Earthiness, nature, utility, autumn
Grays Charcoal, silver Subtlety, neutrality, sophistication
Dark Reds Burgundy, maroon, oxblood Power, elegance, anger, passion
Dark Greens Hunter, forest, olive Nature, renewal, toxicity, wealth
Dark Blues Navy, indigo, cerulean Wisdom, stability, power, sadness
Dark Purples Amethyst, eggplant, plum Magic, mysticism, royalty

Uses of Dark Colors in Art

Dark colors serve important purposes in artwork:

Adding Contrast

Dark shades contrast with light ones, making elements stand out more. This creates visual interest and vibrancy. For example, a dark blue background makes yellow motifs pop.

Conveying Mood

Dark colors portray somber, elegant, scary, or mysterious moods based on context and culture. A dark, noir crime novel cover uses black and gray shades.

Receding Objects

Since dark colors absorb light, they seem to recede in space and make objects appear farther away. Artists use this to show depth and perspective.

Drawing Attention

Darker objects stand out against lighter backgrounds, focusing the viewer’s eye. Velazquez used a dark cloak to frame a lit face in his portraits.

Emphasizing Subjects

Backdrops or borders in dark colors spotlight lighter main subjects. Rembrandt often used this chiaroscuro technique in paintings.

Defining Sections

Changes between dark and light zones help define sections and composition. This establishes organization and visual flow.

Dark Color Schemes and Harmony

Artists combine dark colors in schemes to create certain impressions:


A single dark color like navy blue painted in different shades and tones. This unity evokes moods like melancholy.


Dark colors next to each other on the color wheel, like red-violet, blue-violet, and green-violet. They convey a rich, elegant feeling.


Complementary color pairs like purple and yellow or red and green, with one dominantly dark. This contrast is eye-catching and vibrant.


Three equidistant colors on the wheel, like dark red, green, and violet. The contrast is bold and lively.

Split Complementary

A dark color, its complement, and the complement of that. For example, copper, teal, and crimson. This offers color richness.


Two pairs of dark complementary colors, like maroon and teal, navy and orange. This creates vibrant and complex contrasts.

Color Scheme Example Combinations Mood Created
Monochromatic Deep purple shades Mysterious, melancholy
Analogous Mauve, Eggplant, Violet Elegant, sophisticated
Complementary Copper and teal Vibrant, contrasting
Triadic Plum, olive, navy Bold, lively
Split Complementary Gold, crimson, and azure Rich, nuanced
Tetradic Burgundy, slate, lemon, and viridian Complex, vivid

Dark Colors in Painting Techniques

Painters use dark colors to produce certain textures, styles, and techniques:


Contrasting deep shades and bright highlights to create a three-dimensional, dramatic effect. Used by Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio.


Deep shadows dominate the majority of the painting, with a few light accents on focal points. Developed by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.


Laying down initial thin, transparent dark colors to map out the composition. Layers of light paint are added later.


Thick, almost 3D application of paint, including dark hues. Used by Van Gogh and Rembrandt for textured effects.


Soft, smoky, blurring of dark pigments to subtly blend edges and transitions. Made famous by Leonardo da Vinci.


A thin, translucent layer of darker paint glazed over existing dried lighter paint. Creates a hazy, ethereal effect.


Multiple transparent layers of dark washes painted over lighter undercoats. Intensifies color and luminosity.

Selecting Dark Paint Pigments

Painters have many options when picking dark watercolor, acrylic, oil, and gouache pigments. Here are some top choices:

Ivory Black

A neutral, dense black made from charred ivory. Provides a blue undertone and mixes well.

Mars Black

A synthetic black made from iron oxide with a red bias. Useful for mixing dark purples, greens, and browns.

Dioxazine Purple

A rich, transparent, and staining purple. Can create tones ranging from pink to deep violet.

Phthalo Green

An intense, high-tinting green blue shade perfect for deep greens with yellow bias or teals.

Indanthrone Blue

A chemical process blue with excellent tinting power. Mixes vibrant dark blues and greens.

Raw Umber

A natural clay earth pigment that produces soft neutral browns. Use for underpainting and shading.

Pigment Type Uses
Ivory Black Neutral black Mixing dark tones, underpainting
Mars Black Warm black Dark purples, greens, and browns
Dioxazine Purple Purple Vivid violets
Phthalo Green Blue-green Dark greens and teals
Indanthrone Blue Blue Deep blues and greens
Raw Umber Brown Underpainting, shading

Famous Artworks Using Dark Colors

Many iconic paintings demonstrate creative and meaningful uses of deep hues:

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali (1931)

This surrealist painting relies heavily on shades like black, brown, and gray to create an eerie, dreamlike mood. The black backgrounds make the melting clocks pop visually.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937)

Picasso employed mostly gray, white, and black to depict the horrors of war in this cubist anti-war piece. The dark colors add solemnity and weight.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Klimt contrasts gold leafing with black backgrounds and accents to create striking, gilded imagery with an Art Nouveau elegance.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1498)

Da Vinci used chiaroscuro with shadowy browns and blacks to dramatize this famous mural scene and characterize the subjects.

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau (1897)

This dreamlike painting uses thickly rendered deep greens and midnight blues to portray a nocturnal setting and sense of mystery.

Café Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1888)

In this scene, Van Gogh employed dark blues, greens, and black against bright yellow electric lighting to convey night vibrance.


Dark colors occupy an important place on the artist’s palette. Shades like black, brown, gray, and deep hues of red, green, blue, and purple appear muted, absorbed, or somber due to absorbing high amounts of light. When used skillfully in painting, dark colors add contrast, convey moods, develop form, and define space and composition. Through color theory pairings, underpainting, glazing, scumbling, and other techniques, artists harness these deep tones to deliver powerful visual impact and meaning. Masterful works by da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, and other creative luminaries demonstrate the evocative wonder of darkness.