How to Focus on Extra Detail in Monochrome Art

May 19, 2020

Lavender Fantasia is a copper enamel dish by Pauline Higgins

By Chelsea Reed

What is monochrome artwork? It is simply art produced with only one color. The term comes from the ancient Greek word monochromos, which means “having one color.” Monochrome is different from grayscale. The latter can have many grays which count as more than one color. A monochrome painting can have black, or it can have any color, but there is always only one. A black monochrome painting is also known as black and white because white is the absence of color. 

Untitled Blue is an abstract oil painting by Doug BrannonMonochrome art first emerged in the 1900’s at the peak of the Modern Art movement. Most people associate monochrome with abstract paintings, but it applies to any genre. Monochrome’s unique perspective allows the viewer to focus on a particular idea. Even one color can express a thousand different things! The perception can vary a great deal with each viewer. Still, there are still universal ideas we comprehend about a certain color. It’s important to take your time observing a monochrome piece to reap the full benefit of its message.

More Than What Meets the Eye

Here are some good questions to ask yourself when looking at monochrome art:

“What’s the context of the artwork?”

Time to put on your art historian cap! Think about life in the “artist’s shoes.”  What was happening in their time period? How did they feel? What was important to them? Why did they choose this color? (Hint: It’s not cheating to Google the answer.) Exploring different ideas and concepts through one color is fun. That’s the point of monochrome art!

“What details am I looking for?”

Some monochrome paintings appear so simple, it seems a preschooler could have done it. But don’t be fooled! Each brush stroke in a monochrome piece is purposeful. The artist may have applied many layers over and even distressed it to create the desired effect. The beautiful thing about monochrome art is in the focus of texture. The distractions of other colors are taken away, allowing the textures to be the star of the show.

“Does the lighting tell a message?” 

Mighty Waves is a graphite drawing by Sue de LearieFocus on the lighting in a monochrome piece, especially in black and white. Whiter areas suggest softness and femininity, while heavier black shades define masculine influence. White and black themselves have different meanings in color psychology. Note how the art piece is framed or displayed in an art show. Sometimes that conveys an additional message. 

“How does it make me feel?”

That’s a question only you can answer! What memories, thoughts and feelings come up while looking at the piece? Pay attention to them. Here’s a fun learning exercise: write them down on notepaper as you’re in front of the art. This is easy to do at home. Get the kids involved! Then talk about it. How are your results different? How are they the same? You may be surprised to know the answer.

A Different Point of View

Seeing life “through rose colored glasses” may imply a narrow view, but monochrome art teaches us otherwise. When we focus on artwork with just one color, we catch so many things that get overlooked. Try it out now and see for yourself - you might just discover a favorite piece you haven’t thought of before!

Chelsea Reed is a copywriter who writes online content, articles, blogs, and websites from her base in North Carolina.

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