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Illustrating the darkest black (aka the Gene Wolfe problem)

The brilliant and often underappreciated writer Gene Wolfe coined the world 'Fuligin'.

'Furthermore, 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.

The good people of Alzabo Soup in their commentary about the book talked about how the book covers failed to convey the concept of the darkest black - a shade so dark that it reflects no light. Here are two front covers of the book. One of them is more abstract than the other. In the more realistic illustration below, one can make out the dimensions and folds of the cloak. In doing this, the illustrator probably chose to represent the phemonemon of darkest black in more relatable terms and let the text guide the imagination of the reader.


In my rather crude paintover, I eliminated all the folds and presented the cloak as experienced by viewers. However, pursuing this option means that people who are unfamiliar with the experience of darkest black will find the painting odd and may even fail to discern that it is a cloak. I suppose one can accept this fact realising that the text will explain away the strangeness.


Abstraction does not seem to provide a satisfactory solution either. In the cover below, it seems to me that the abstraction of the fuligin is no different from an abstraction of a more 'normal' black.


 


There is a real world counterpart for this known as vantablack. It is very eerie to look at since one cannot make out the dimensions of the object. 



Video about Vantablack on youtube - http://bit.ly/2DxHZkm

Vantablack and other artificial dark substances (e.g. Black 2.0) appear to be real world solutions. Though neither solves the phenomelogical issue - how do you convey a colour (without words) to one who is unfamiliar with the issue?

A dark version of the complementary colour of the background - in this case a dark purple - looks a little darker than pure black. A comparison is provided below. I refrain from mentioning which the dark purple is lest you be subconsciously influenced!

                                        

Another option is to infuse the illustration with symbolism (thank you Sam Nielson for this idea): anything that communicates the idea of darkness, evoking the feeling of a 'helpless void', may convey the concept of the theoretical black.

It got me thinking of black holes. I am not sure if people have a mental image of a black hole, but some depiction of it on the cloak without it looking like a texture may elicit the response evoked by the fuligin.



I suspect until there are more objects in the world with such 'impossible' colours, it will be a struggle to convey experiences unfamilar to the common phenomenology.

A big thanks to Tom Scholes, Sam Nielson, Murry Lancashire and Nathascha Friis for taking time to provide their thoughts on the subject.

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