Monochrome Paintings: Definition, Technique & Artists

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How many colors do you need to create great art? Sometimes, just one. In this lesson, we'll explore monochrome painting and check out some artists who use it.

Monochrome Painting

When you ask people what they love most about great works of art, one of the most common responses is the color. Artists have long noted that color can be used to evoke strong emotional responses in people. For artists like Van Gogh, this prompted masterpieces filled with a range of colors. Other artists, however, think differently. They seek to create the same kind of response by using only one color.

A monochrome painting is a work of art that consists of a single color. In fact, the word monochrome literally means ''one color.'' It's a different approach to art, but one that's used more widely than you might think.

Technique

So, how do you create a painting if you're only using one color? The key to this is remembering that blue and green are different colors, but dark blue and light blue are not; these are just values of the same color. From the base color, a hue can be tinted by adding white, making it lighter. Theoretically, you can continue doing this until achieving almost pure white. At the same time, a color can be shaded by adding black. Thus, artists can paint an entire piece consisting of lines, shapes, and figures in various shades and tints that are, technically, only one color.

Why Artists make Monochrome Art

This is interesting, but the obvious question is: why? Why go through the effort of trying to create a masterpiece with only a single color? Isn't that like running a race with only one foot? There are actually a few significant reasons artists create monochrome art.

Abstraction

In the early 20th century, avant-garde artists became obsessed with the idea of abstraction. By separating subject and form from art, they felt they could explore the very nature of art itself, in its purest and most objective sense. Monochrome painting has been, for decades, part of this tradition. By reducing a painting to a single color, the artist reduces it into its simplest form.

One of the first artists to make this connection was Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935,) a Ukrainian artist and early proponent of abstract art. Malevich was one of the first artists to dedicate himself to breaking art into its simplest forms, embodied in his movement of suprematism.

Around 1913, Malevich started by creating paintings of simple, geometric shapes, rather than identifiable objects. In 1917-18, he created his first set of monochrome paintings, each composed of a white square (the most neutral of colors and shapes) on a white background of a slightly different shade. It was one of the earliest works of pure abstraction, which Malevich saw as a reflection of infinite space that the viewer was invited to share.

White on White, by Kazimir Malevich
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Malevich was one of the first to see the value of monochromatic painting in abstraction, but he certainly wasn't the last. At the opposite end of the spectrum (literally,) we find American painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967.) While Malevich's first abstractions were in white, Reinhardt painted in black. For him, it was the black end of the spectrum (painted onto perfectly square canvases) that provided the purest form of abstraction: non-figurative, non-representational, and purely objective.

Spiritual Connection

As abstract artists broke representational art into the simplest expressions of form and color, they realized just how deeply color tapped into human emotion. Monochromatic paintings became powerful ways to provoke deeply personal experiences, further motivating artists to explore emotion and spirituality through monochrome art.

One of the most famous painters associated with this idea was Yves Klein (1928-1962.) In the 1950s, he committed himself to a set of 11 identical, blue canvases. Viewers were inundated in a bright blue color that Klein developed himself, now known as International Klein Blue (IKB.) Klein believed art like this helped dissolve material thinking, opening the mind and spirit to oneness with the infinite universe.

Klein wasn't the only one to see inundation in a single color as a pathway to spirituality. Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was one of the greatest abstract expressionist painters who worked with fields of varying colors. He did, however, occasionally create monochromatic masterpieces as well.

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