Monochrome means one colour, so in relation to art, a monochrome artwork is one that includes only one colour

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  • John Varley, 'Monochrome Composition: A Blot' 1804
    John Varley
    Monochrome Composition: A Blot 1804
    Watercolour on paper
    support: 108 x 144 mm
    Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
  • Mary Martin, 'Expanding Form' 1954
    Mary Martin
    Expanding Form 1954
    Wood and emulsion paint
    object: 911 x 913 x 118 mm
    Purchased 2011© The estate of Mary Martin
  • Louise Nevelson, 'Black Wall' 1959
    Louise Nevelson
    Black Wall 1959
    Painted wood
    object: 2642 x 2165 x 648 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
  • Gary Hume, 'Incubus' 1991
    Gary Hume
    Incubus 1991
    Alkyd house paint on Formica
    displayed: 2389 x 3846 mm
    Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996© Gary Hume
  • View of Turner Prize Retrospective with detail of Anish Kapoor's Untitled 1990
    View of Turner Prize Retrospective with detail of Anish Kapoor's Untitled 1990
  • Ben Nicholson 1935 (white relief) 1935
    Ben Nicholson 1935 (white relief) 1935
    Painted wood
    101.6 x 166.4 cm
  • Frank Stella From Black Series II 1967
    Frank Stella
    From Black Series II 1967
    Lithograph on paper
    38.1 x 55.9 cm

 

Introduction 

For centuries artists used different shades (tones) of brown or black ink to create monochrome pictures on paper. The ink would simply be more or less diluted to achieve the required shades. Shades of grey oil paint were used to create monochrome paintings, a technique known as grisaille, from the French word ‘gris’ meaning grey. In such work the play of light and dark (chiaroscuro) enabled the artist to define form and create a picture.

In the twentieth century, with the rise of abstract art many artists experimented with making monochrome paintings including Anish Kapoor, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman and Robert Rauschenberg

Spiritual vs. formal

The monochrome often serves one of two purposes. The first of these was communicating spiritual purity; by choosing one colour, artists could explore the tranquility of total abstraction. In his artworks, Yves Klein hoped to recreate a sense of dissolution of material differences, so that the oneness of the universe could be felt. Similarly in the 1950’s, Pierre Manzoni explored the idea of ‘nothingness’ in his ‘Achrome’ series.

Piero Manzoni, 'Achrome' 1958
Piero Manzoni
Achrome 1958
China-clay on canvas
unconfirmed: 1003 x 1003 mm
frame: 1163 x 1165 x 68 mm
Purchased 1974© DACS, 2002

The second purpose of monochrome, for some artists, was to reduce the painting or sculpture to its simplest form so that the focus of the piece would be on its pure physical elements; colour, form, texture or the way in which it was made. Among the first was Kazimir Malevich who about 1917–18 created a series of white on white paintings (see suprematism). The German minimalist artist’s known as ‘Zero’  used monochrome as an opportunity to unveil the artistic process, often slashing or creating raised shapes on white or black canvases. In Britain, Ben Nicholson created a notable series of white reliefs in the mid 1930s.

Further reading

Tate Modern display: Monochromes
This Tate Modern display brings together abstract paintings from the mid to late 1950s, in which the use of a single colour allows a greater emphasis on the physical process of making.

 The Twentieth Century: White monochrome 
Find out about more about some of the ways monochrome has been used by abstract artists  in the twentieth century.

In focus: Yves Klein

Yves Klein, 'IKB 79' 1959
Yves Klein
IKB 79 1959
Paint on canvas on wood
object: 1397 x 1197 x 32 mm
Purchased 1972© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

 

From an early age, Klein had longed to join himself to the universal vacancy imaged in the overarching, cloudless blue sky, even resenting the flight of birds for vandalising the sky’s immaculate emptiness.
Steven Connor, ‘Next-to-Nothing’, Tate Etc. Issue 12, Spring 2008

The French artist Yves Klein became so famous for his monochrome paintings that he became known as ‘Yves le monochrome’. He is best known for his blue paintings which he began to produce from 1957. The blue he liked to use was a very particular shade of ultramarine which he dubbed ‘International Klein Blue’ (or IKB) and he made around 200 paintings in this one colour, each priced differently because:

Each blue world of each painting…presented a completely different essence and atmosphere. None resembled any other…

IKB 79, 1959
Read more about the development of International Klein Blue, and see it in action in this artwork in Tate’s collection. 

Derek Jarman: Blue
Find out how Yves Klein’s blue monochrome paintings inspired filmmaker Derek Jarman to make a blue film.

Next-to-Nothing
Steven Connor discusses Yves Klein’s blue paintings in the context of other artworks which use air as a subject.

It wasn’t just colour that Yves Klein experimented with. Watch this video to find out how he also (controversially) experimented with applying paint to canvas, radically combining performance and painting.

 

Other perspectives

TateShots: Ellsworth Kelly
Musician Alex James, guitarist with pop band Blur, discusses Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped monochrome paintings in relation to creation and a good pop song.

Black moods
This Tate Etc. article takes a fascinating look at the various ways in which artists have used black in their work.

Bowie to Seinfeld: The legacy of Malevich’s Black Square
One hundred years ago Malevich painted his first black square painting…We take a look at how the famous image has inspired appearances in popular culture and beyond. 

Related glossary terms

Abstract artDanseakhwa: The Korean monochrome movementchiaroscuroZerosuprematism