The “30-50% Black Paint” Rule (And How To Use It)

Although I’ve briefly mentioned the “30-50% black paint rule” before, I thought that I’d talk about it in slightly more detail today.

This is because it’s a rule that can really help you to make paintings and comics that look a lot more vivid (although other things, such as digitally altering the brightness, contrast and/or colour saturation levels can also help too). Following this rule can also give your paintings or comics a really cool 1980s or 1990s-style look too.

The rule itself is pretty much exactly what the name suggests. At least 30-50% of the total surface area of your painting or comic should consist of solid black paint. It’s that simple.

This rule works best with bolder colours, since brightness and colour in most works of art is a relative thing. In other words, colours look brighter or darker in comparison to the other colours in the picture (eg: if you’re painting a sunrise or a sunset, the only white area in the picture should be the centre of the sun). So, by using a reasonable amount of black paint, every other colour in the picture will look even bolder by comparison.

Yes, following this rule takes a bit of practice to get right – and knowing how to paint realistic shadows and lighting can really help too. But, of course, there are a lot of fairly sneaky ways that you can include it in your art (and get the desired effect) without it being too obvious to the untrained eye.

The first way to do this is simply to add film-style “letterboxing” bars to the top and bottom of your paintings (if you’re making square paintings). Not only does this “frame” the picture slightly, but it also means that 10-20% of the painting’s surface area is already filled with black paint. It looks a bit like this:

Note the film-like “letterboxing” bars at the top and bottom of this digitally edited painting (“Backstreets [without rain]” By C. A Brown)

If you’re making comics, then a simple way of doing something similar is to just use black “gutters” between each panel. This has a similar effect as the letterboxing bars, whilst also giving your comic a “1990s gothic comic” or “manga comic” kind of look too. Like this:

“Damania Resized – Nostalgia Cycle” By C. A. Brown

Interestingly, the “30-50% black paint” rule can also be used for “bright” paintings and comic updates that are set during the day too. This is a little bit more challenging, but you can do this by including characters who wear dark clothing, by including silhouetted objects in the foreground, by including a lot of shadows etc…

For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a comedy horror painting that will be posted here in January. Although the painting is set in a bright seaside resort of some kind, the Grim Reaper’s robes (and the two “letterboxing” bars, the shadows etc..) help to ensure that there is enough visual contrast in the painting.

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will appear here on the 7th January.

Yes, this rule might not be right for every artist and it might not work for literally every type of art out there. But, if you want to give your paintings a bold and vivid look, or if you want to give your art a slightly “retro” look, then it’s certainly worth following 🙂


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂