The Blackest Black for Science and Art
An obsession with finding a shade darker than our language can effectively describe
How to make black printing ink: …An hundred pounds of nut or linseed oil being brought by boiling to the consistence of a syrup, and purified by throwing into it two pounds of coarse bread, and about a dozen onions: Then thirty or thirty five pounds of turpentine, are boiled apart, till such time as they find, upon its cooling on paper that it breaks clean like glass without pulverizing…
— A Concise History of Printing (1774), p. 149
I put on the cloak…the hue fuligin, which is darker than black, admirably erases all folds, bunchings and gatherings so far as the eye is concerned, showing only a featureless dark.
— The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe
There’s an obsession with how one can cover a medium with a black that is so intense it seems blacker than black. That seems an oxymoron: If black is our reference point, how can we see a black that is blacker than black? But you know intuitively this is true, because you’ve seen variations in adjacent blacks.
Something coated in black absorbs light across a broad spectrum so thoroughly that few photons vibrating at the right wavelengths to show color reflect off it.
Our eyes are designed to perceive black better than color. The retina comprises cells that looks like rods and cones, and which interpret light differently. The rods register monochromatic light (technically recognizing colors peaking near green), while cones receive light across the visible spectrum, with cells specialized to respond to peaks at red, green, and yellow wavelengths.
We have roughly 100 million rod cells compared to 6 million cone cells, and the rod cells are more sensitive as well. A very small number of photons need to fall onto a rod to register light. That combination of quantity and sensitivity lets us differentiate shades of gray in shockingly fine gradations and to see at night. (This is an effective trait evolutionarily for hunting and survival.)
But it’s also why we can perceive differences among a range of blacks placed side by side, while we might call them all black when examined individually.
A black blacker than black has implications for science and the military: stray photons in a telescope being absorbed by a background produces less noisy images of galaxies and distant stars; a plane painted in an ultrablack may become even more invisible to spotters and radar than today’s stealth fighters, which rely on a variety of techniques, including ways to deflect radar pulses.
Graphic designers and artists I’ve spoken to also want a blacker black: one that’s distinctly black and not grayish, like the ink used in so many printed works today.
A Black on Paper That’s Blacker Than the Black We Usually See
Those who put marks on paper often have a strong feeling about black in the work they print themselves or the work printed on their behalf. I had three conversations in the last year about black that centered around the ability to make an impression that had the right darkness, severity, or heft.
This arises partly because of modern inks used in offset lithography, the most common form of mass reproduction for newspapers, magazines, and books. That ink is more grayish than black for a few reasons. Yes, it may be called black and uses black pigments, but the sort of ink required for offset and the process by which it’s applied only allows for so much darkness.
The offset printing process transfers ink from a roller covered in ink onto a printing plate where it adheres only in the places needed to be printed — those areas are oliophilic, or “ink loving.” A water bath washes ink off the other oliophobic regions. The plate rolls onto a rubber blanket, “offsetting” the ink onto it, which then in turn rolls onto paper. The ink gets deposited in a very thin layer on top of the paper, which absorbs the ink a little or a lot. It’s called planographic, in that there’s no impression.
The whole thing happens very fast and with some amount of heat from friction and some added for drying. Presses may run as rapidly as 3,000 feet a minute using a continuous roll of paper, called a web. The ink has to dry essentially instantaneously. Even sheet-fed presses, which run more slowly — and can offer more control and quality in many cases — suffer from the same problem.
Pull a modern book off your shelf and look at that ink. Does it really seem black to you? If you can find a book printed before about 1950 (just to be sure), compare the ink color. The impression I mentioned is one thing: before offset, all printing pushed type or metal plates into paper, at least a tiny bit, creating a slight “debossing” or indentation. And even high-speed presses employed a black ink that was darker, possibly because of the method of applying it to paper.
This arose in an interview with Erik Spiekermann, a renowned type designer, graphic designer, ad guru, and thinker about design issues. He invented a technique with colleagues he calls “digital letterpress.” It combines a process that transforms digital output into rubbery plates that can then be used on high-speed letterpress equipment. (You can read my full story. And more about him in Hello, I am Erik.)
“We print with enough impression to get the deep black, but without the impression showing through on the verso [reverse],” he said. “The deep black is the thing that everybody notices and that is what we also tell everybody as the main difference between watery offset and letterpress.”
Around the same time, I spoke with Dafi Kühne, a Swiss artist, who often relies on letterpress equipment (among other places, see his book). He has a remarkably outfitted studio. He mentioned a poster he’d created where he wanted both an intense black and different intensities of it on the same page. He used overlapping circles. “The small circle is so intense, you could not do this with offset,” he said.
I saw the poster in November 2017 when he exhibited at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s annual get-together, a wayzgoose, and it’s impossible to capture photographically how black that five-hit black really is.
In August 2018, I was at TypeCon and caught up with Matthew Carter, a type designer of many decades, whose faces are used by a couple billion people a day. I first met him in the early 1990s, and have followed his career and occasionally interviewed him since.
Carter is in his 80s, and still a highly active designer and artist (and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant a few years ago), and had not long before completed a multi-year work with Jim Stroud at Center Street Studio. It’s a portfolio of aquatints of 26 letters — 25 are drawn from his existing type designs, and one is unique to the collection. A portfolio of all 26 is rather expensive and fully worth its price.
But when I asked Matthew about the project, he said he’d dragged his feet about it for a while — and black helped convince him. In an email follow-up with me, Matthew wrote, “[Jim] said: ‘Just do one letter. Do an “a.” How hard can it be?’”
Matthew said he completed an ‘a,’ and Stroud made a plate and printed it. He wrote:
When I saw it I had a “Did I do this?” reaction, mostly in response to its physical qualities, the texture of the handmade paper, the depth of impression of the bevelled etching plate in the paper and, above all, the superb velvety black that Jim gets from the aquatint process.
I live largely in a black on white typographic world but I seldom pay attention to the whiteness of the white or the blackness of the black of type at normal text sizes. But at the scale of the print the lustrous black was a revelation. I’m sure it had a major part in my change of attitude to the project’s potential from skeptical to enthusiastic.
These individual expression of interest in the intensity of black may explain a fight that involves a combination of science and art — and may some healthy rivalry.
A Black So Black It Defies the Eye
There’s a battle for supremacy to manufacture a material of the blackest black. Researchers are vying to produce a kind of superblack that absorbs as much light as possible shined upon an area of the color. An über-black, among other properties, generates a massive amount of heat as it absorbs light, and it also removes shadows, making objects seem impossibly flat even as they exist in three dimensions.
Several contenders exist, depending on the angle of light and other properties. The Guinness Book of World Records picked a black developed at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology that absorbs 99% of all spectra of visible light.
The records’ organization picked that over a key competitor, Vantablack, which can absorb 99.965% of broad-spectrum light. That’s because Vantablack reaches its maximum only for exactly perpendicular light sources. It’s comprised of carbon nanotubes. The makers of this color, Surrey Nanosystems, licensed it exclusively for art to Anish Kapoor.
It’s a sensitive material. It can be deposited on a range of materials, and a version can be sprayed on, but it has to be heated to over 800°F to bond. While it’s excellent at staying adhered, it cannot be touched and must not rub against other materials. It’s likely more expensive than diamonds and gold by weight.
Another two contenders aren’t quite as black, but they are commercially available, and both are suitable for artists. Singularity Black by NanoLab is about 99.76% absorptive (based on the company’s description). It’s about six times more reflective than VantaBlack. A liter is $900, but it’s available in much smaller quantities. However, one artist who experimented with it found that 15 coats were required to get the full effect. It must also be heated to 575°F to remove a binding ingredient and create the proper surface coating.
Black 2.0 is much more approachable. Stuart Semple, who also created a hyper-fluorescent pink, made this extremely dark black paint in response to Kapoor’s exclusive access to VantaBlack. It’s nowhere near Vantablack, but it’s supposed to be blacker than most blacks on the market, and is readily available and easy to use. At £11.99 ($16) plus shipping from the artist or $20 via Amazon, it’s affordable. Unfortunately, the Amazon reviews are quite divided as to how well it meets its promise.
Seeing Beyond Color
Black is an ideal that’s nearly impossible to find. The night sky on a moonless night far from humanity remains lit by pinpoints of stars. Deep underground or in a sealed room, it may be possible to experience darkness, but without a contrast of light, it’s meaningless.
The blackest black we can make only has value when it’s in relation to other colors. If black falls in a forest of darkness, we cannot hear it.
Glenn Fleishman is a tech, science, and typographic journalist based in Seattle. His latest book is London Kerning, a perambulation around London’s remarkable type archives.