Art Glossary: Monochrome Painting

Plus Profiles on Influential Abstract Artists

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A monochrome or monochromatic painting is one created using only one color or hue. A related term, grisaille, is a type of monochrome painting done completely in grays, coming from the French (and Latin and Spanish) term for gray.

As a tool, monochrome painting can be used to dramatic effect to convey simplicity, peacefulness, starkness, purity, or other meaning. It can use different shades of one color but by definition should contain only one base color. Done as an exercise, painting in monochrome can educate an artist on working with shades and gradients, composition and line.

The Rise of Abstract Monochromes

Monochrome pieces are not bound by style and can be in artwork that is realistic (like a grayscale photograph or drawing) to completely abstract. However, the mid-20th century saw the development of abstract art that, as well as rejecting the past and realism, also rejected the use of multiple colors in their works. Abstract artists famed for their monochrome paintings include Kazmir Malevich, Yves Klein and Ad Reinhardt, and Group Zero, a worldwide network of abstract artists in multiple mediums begun by German artists Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. These artists influenced the 1960s minimalist artists. Contemporary artist John Virtue's minimalist paintings harken back to the 1940s and '50s. Other monochromatic artists include Anish Kapoor, Robert Ryman, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Kazimir Malevich

Russian artist Malevich (1878–1935) was among the first to create monochromatic paintings in his white-on-white pieces in 1917–1918. He founded the suprematist school of painting, one of the first geometric abstract art movements.

Yves Klein

French artist Klein (1928–1962) had no formal training as an artist, but both his parents were artists. During a period in Paris, he created monochromatic paintings in three colors: gold, red, and ultramarine. He patented a special blue he created, called International Klein Blue, or IKB. In his "Anthropométries" series, models applied paint to their bodies and then created paintings by pressing themselves on the canvas or paper on the wall or floor.

Ad Reinhardt 

American artist Reinhardt (1913–1967) is known for his monochromatic paintings (1950s) portraying red and blue rectilinear shapes against a background of a similar hue as well as his later large black pieces. He aimed for the purity of abstraction and creation of paintings that do not reflect life.

Group Zero (Group 0 or just Zero)

A German artist group (1957–1966) formed by Mack and Piene, Group Zero strove to redefine art following World War II and influenced minimalist and conceptual artists but was not constrained to just painters. Works by people in this artist network could include sculpture, mixed media, installations, film, photographs, paper, and even those made with smoke (soot). 

John Virtue

English artist Virtue's (1947–) landscapes, done in the painterly style, feature white acrylic paint and black ink. He's been working exclusively in monochrome since 1978, and his work recalls the abstract expressionism of the 1940s to 1950s.

Other Mediums

Photographers working in black and white are automatically working in monochrome, as well as pencil, charcoal, or ink artists who stick with only the blacks and grays (or one color exclusively). One-color printmakers can be included among monochrome artists as well.