What is Monochromatic Painting in Art?

monochromatic painting in art

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If you can inspire emotion or capture attention with just a few brushstrokes, you’ve leveled up as an artist. This is the lesson that monochromatic painting in art teaches its students.

Monochrome art’s lack of detail and specific subjects is off-putting at first, but that’s where its success lies. It grips the viewer’s attention immediately with no distractions – an invaluable skill whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional.

Monochromatic works are also an art movement. Let’s go on a journey to learn about this art form’s staying power and why you’ll benefit from learning it, no matter your style.

What are Monochromatic Paintings in Art?

Monochrome pieces are particularly fascinating since they’re both an art movement and a technique. Not only will you learn about other artists’ history, you’ll have a powerful tool in your painting toolkit.

what are monochromatic paintings in art?

Monochromatic paintings – sometimes called monochrome paintings – are an art movement roughly dating back to the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. This movement is similar to abstract art in its focus on a single color and very little to no detail. The viewer is automatically encouraged to create their own meaning in the absence of additional color or subject matter.

This type of abstract expressionism results in works that are both intense and quite subtle all at once. While you’ll sometimes come across object paintings or works that suggest a subject in monochrome, they’re quite rare.

What is the Purpose of Monochrome?

Monochrome artworks are intentionally vague to bring out the viewer’s own interpretations. Unlike story-driven art movements like Art Deco or Baroque, the emotions or message are entirely left up to you.

Some monochrome artists explicitly enjoy this movement for the instinctual emotion it invokes through color. Kazimir Malevich is one such artist that gravitated to the monochrome approach for its ‘pure feeling’.

What is the Importance of Monochrome in Art?

Monochrome paintings are vital for how they push the limits of art’s ability to connect with the viewer. With just one color and a few textures, you can still strike an emotional cord.

what is the importance of monochrome in art?
White on White by Kasimir Malevich

The fundamentals of this movement are also quite useful to a variety of other art styles. For example, they teach you how to narrow down a focal point to get the most powerful impact. One of the most powerful lessons I learned in community college was to focus on simple aspects first and save the finer details for later.

I like using monochrome art through the technique of grisaille for my underpaintings or thumbnails. Since I’m inspired by classical art movements and enjoy a high level of detail, monochrome paintings help me reduce clutter in my compositions early on.

Who Invented Monochrome Art?

While historians don’t believe any single artist invented the monochrome movement, they give a few artists general credit for bringing it to the mainstream. Below are some of the best-known so you can start learning from the masters themselves.

Kasimir Malevich

One of the main contributors to the monochrome painting art movement is Polish-born painter Kazimir Malevich. While he also painted in other genres such as Impressionism and Symbolism, he regularly returned to monochrome for its simple way of portraying emotion.

Aeroplane Flying by Kazimir Malevich

It’s impossible to talk about his body of monochrome art without mentioning Suprematism. Kasimir Malevich created this art movement in the early twentieth century, characterizing it by geometric shapes and limited color schemes. According to him, minimalistic art forms were a way to achieve artistic enlightenment through pure, unhindered emotion.

The above picture is one of his best-known works, using only white paint to represent emotion in what he considered spiritual purity. Below is one example of his Suprematism work, where you can already see the similarities to monochrome.

While it has multiple colors, its lack of detail and focus on shapes is a natural transition to monochrome.

Now let’s take a look at how he simplified this approach even more.

black square
Black Square by Kazimir Malevich

Despite the faded color from age, this piece is among the best-known black paintings in the art world. This is a good time to mention that monochrome also includes shades – not just one color value.

Robert Fludd

Robert Fludd was a fascinating artist who was a physician, cosmologist, and mathematician all rolled into one. While Malevich enjoyed monochrome as an expression of unfiltered emotion, Fludd viewed monochrome as a way of understanding the cosmos.

When you think about it, his connection between monochrome art and the vast reaches of space makes sense. So much of the starry expanse is still vague and left up to human interpretation. You could say monochrome is as close to the pure form of mystery as you can get.

Let’s take a look at one of his works, widely considered by historians to be among the earliest contributions to the movement.

Darkness (from the Utriusque Cosmi) by Robert Fludd

This square looks like a glimpse of the night sky, doesn’t it? In spite of all society’s technological advances, our understanding of space is still pretty limited – this work holds as much wonder today as when he painted it in the 16th century.

It’s the kind of art piece that makes you consider your own existence. Without any other details or subject matter to draw your attention, you’re left to draw your own conclusion.

concetto spaziale
Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana

Lucio Fontana

Monochrome art already went against the grain for its emphasis on a ‘less is more’ approach, but Lucio Fontana took this philosophy to another level. Not only did he create brilliantly simple works, he would also cut into his paintings – a first in the art world.

The above work, Concetto Spaziale, is an intriguing work of art for its roaming patterns and commitment to a pure yellow color. My mind immediately comes up with comparisons like animal tracks in the sand or dotted islands in a watery expanse. What do you come up with?

Whatever you think of, you’re technically correct – monochrome art puts its meanings in the hands of the viewer.

concetto spaziale, attese
Concetto spaziale, Attese by Lucio Fontana

The above work is another fascinating example of the diversity you can find in this movement. Despite so few details to work with, the artists of the past found ways of making their work unforgettable.

Modern and contemporary art both have a lot to thank in the monochrome art movement. Let’s take a look at other art movements and how they overlap with the fundamentals of simple colors and shapes.

first abstract watercolor
First Abstract Watercolor by Wassily Kandinsky

Similar Art Movements to Monochrome Painting

Monochrome art’s simplicity makes it easy to overlap with other art movements. However, some movements have bigger similarities than others, so let’s take a look at the most obvious.

Abstract Art Movement

Unsurprisingly, abstract art is one of the most similar art movements to monochrome art. It shares many of the same fundamentals such as little to no detail, fewer colors, and a broader emotion.

Wassily Kandinsky is one of the best-known abstract artists, though he also dabbled in other techniques such as pointillism. His focus on abstraction was born from his desire to give voice to the most spontaneous and sincere parts of his soul. When you think about it, this approach is quite similar to monochrome art’s focus on pure emotion, isn’t it?

squares with concentric circles
Squares with Concentric Circles by Wassily Kandinsky

This abstract painting uses different shades to form more complex shapes, yet the work still veers toward simplicity and expressiveness. You can likely think of some modern art that looks similar to this piece, such as the bold text on magazine covers or playful shapes in children’s books.

These shapes and primary colors are practically building blocks to craft your own ideas.

Dansaekhwa Art Movement

dansaekhwa art movement
Park Seo-Bo, a well-known Dansaekhwa artist, working in his studio

To truly understand monochrome art’s appeal, you need to study all of its different approaches across the world. Dansaekhwa is a term that loosely translates to ‘monochrome painting’ and refers to a South Korean art movement that emerged in the 1970s.

This art movement was never technically approved by an artist collective or art institution, yet its influence is undeniable. Dansakhwa emerged as a response to Japanese occupation and provided emotional relief during a state of unrest, violence, and grief.

burnt umber
Burnt Umber by Yun Hyong-keun

Yun Hyong-keun’s Burnt Umber piece is one of many abstract paintings he created after the Korean War, experimenting just as much with paint application as he did with composition. This piece alone required several layers of paint applied over many months.

famous monochromatic art
ECRITURE(描法) NO. 120501 by Park Seo-Bo

Park Seo-Bo is another very well-known Dansaekhwa painter who incorporates geometric shapes and subtle texture into his paintings. Similar to other artists in this monochrome art movement, his work was heavily inspired by Japan’s occupation of his homeland.

one color paintings
IKB 191 by Yves Klein

The Modern Reality of Monochrome Paintings

Monochrome art has had an undeniable impact on the modern art landscape. You can find its influence just about everywhere not just in the portfolio of your favorite American painter, but also in unexpected places like marketing or film.

Let’s break down this influence a little more to situations in your day-to-day life. Think back to the time a pamphlet or a poster caught your eye. Your attention was likely captured due to the use of bold colors and sharp contrast, helping you learn about a product or service very quickly.

Web design regularly uses these principles, too. Web designers actively make sites accessible with sharp color contrast and simple shapes so people can navigate easily. Much like monochrome art’s ‘less is more’ approach, visual detail is kept to a minimum so visitors aren’t confused about where to click or why.

Several recent artists have contributed their own style to the movement. The pure blue color you see in the painting above this section is from none other than Yves Klein, a French artist with a particularly intense style.

la grande anthropometrie bleue
La grande Anthropométrie bleue by Yves Klein

Not only did he generally lean toward only one color, but he also had a very unique way of creating his monochrome art. This painting is from a series where he hired models to drench themselves in blue paint, and then press themselves against the canvas.

His commitment to this particular hue also gave rise to the famous international Klein blue. This color is a very distinctive and saturated blue first mixed by Yves Klein in 1960. He collaborated with a paint supplier to use high-quality materials that could keep the color’s unique intensity.

Yves Klein wasn’t the only artist heavily inspired by the elegant simplicity of monochrome art. Frank Stella is another artist who adds his own flair to this world of vivid colors and simple shapes.

haran II
Harran II by Frank Stella

This whimsical painting is the happy union between monochrome art’s straightforward approach and abstract art’s love of different shapes. This piece was a departure from his previous works where he focused on simple, black paintings – in other words, his creative evolution.

Frank Stella would later focus on stylistically unfinished canvas paintings, celebrating harmony in both angles and colors.

from line
From Line by Lee Ufan

The Advantages of Monochrome Painting

By this point, you’re no doubt considering the impact monochrome art could have on your own craft. Let’s take a look at why you should consider trying out monochrome or monochromatic painting.

Creating Particularly Dramatic and Striking Compositions

Have you wondered how you can create a composition that pops out at the viewer and is impossible to forget? Monochrome art’s focus on one color is a straightforward way of creating a piece that people can’t look away from.

Although I enjoy rich detail in my work, I still appreciate the principles of monochrome art when crafting preliminary materials like thumbnails and rough drafts. The focus on a single color and less detail makes sure I come up with a focal point that snatches attention. I can always add lovely little details after I cement a strong foundation.

red curve vi
Red Curve VI by Ellsworth Kelly

This happy, bold shape by Ellsworth Kelly is a stellar example of how easy it is to apply monochrome principles to other work. This shape might inspire you to come up with dramatic shapes for art such as a fictional character design or the shape of a beautiful skirt.

Picking a single hue like a pure yellow color or pure blue color can be one of the easiest starting points for a new piece of art.

Painting With One Color Can Help You Focus Better

Do you sometimes get intimidated by the amount of details you have to put into a painting? Many artists enjoy monochrome art because it helps them focus and complete their work more easily.

Whether you prefer oil paintings or want to get into acrylic, you can apply this principle to create a smoother painting experience. For example, check out this progress video by Shelly J Cox for a monochromatic portrait painting of a cowboy.

It’s understandable to be a little intimidated by the sheer amount of detail in his scruffy beard or the fine wrinkles around his eyes. As such, you can always try crafting paintings in a single color to focus on other elements.

Trying your hand at monochrome works gives you breathing room to focus on a person’s likeness and slowly build up your skills in fundamentals like anatomy or value.

Once you’re feeling confident, you can then try a more realistic painting with multiple primary colors.

Monochrome is Great Practice When You’re Low on Supplies

Sometimes you run low on supplies – it happens. Monochrome works allow you to still create some very memorable paintings on a limited budget.

Below is a fantastic art vlog from PearFleur showcasing all the brilliant pieces you can create with just one color. These blue and white paintings run the gamut of mountain studies or scenic snapshots of a backyard.

As the saying goes: limitation breeds creativity. What works of modern art could you create if you gave yourself just one color and allowed your mind to approach it from every possible angle? Your next landscape painting may only need one color.

blue, green, red
Blue, Green, Red (EK 950) by Ellsworth Kelly

The Disadvantages of Monochrome Painting

All art movements will have their ups and downs. Let’s take a look at why you may not want to try monochrome art for your oil paintings or mixed-media collages.

Artists Who Enjoy a Variety of Colors May Find This Style Stifling

Do you enjoy complex and subtle colors in your paintings? You may find monochrome to be a little too stifling for your creative vision, which is more than understandable.

Sometimes all black paintings or all red paintings don’t get across what you’re feeling. These limited palettes can also be off-limits for industries that value complex color, such as game design or animation.

Fans of Realistic or Classical Styles May Not Enjoy the Abstract Element

Let’s continue on the subject of art style and why monochrome may get in the way of what you’re trying to achieve. If you take a lot of inspiration from classical art such as baroque or romantic, you won’t be able to achieve the same effect with a limited palette.

Another appeal of these styles is how they blend realism with a fantastical approach. Since monochrome is about a simplistic result and a vague interpretation, you lose the ability to tell a specific story. Realistic and classical styles frequently revolve around depicting certain subjects or environments for viewers to interpret more specifically.

Beginners May Find the Loose Interpretation a Challenge

Last but not least, the vague and open-ended approach of monochrome art may be a little intimidating for beginners. Putting so much responsibility on the viewer to reach a conclusion can almost feel like moving backward.

green curve
Green Curve by Ellsworth Kelly

Since so much of the artistic fundamentals is telling a story or recreating real life, monochrome art can feel – for lack of a better term – too abstract. The limited palette and emphasis on less detail can also feel restricting for beginners trying to find their artistic voice.

Monochrome Paintings Is a Useful Skill for Moody and Ambiguous Art

From uniquely shaped canvases to all-black paintings, the monochrome movement is all about a sharp first impression. If you want to craft more moody art open to interpretation, consider giving this movement – and technique – a try.

Even if Yves Klein or Ellsworth Kelly aren’t the kind of artists you gravitate to, you may be surprised at what you take away from their commitment to the movement.

If you’re a newer artist who needs some help learning these fascinating fundamentals, check out Evolve Artist’s oil paintings for beginners course.

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