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 Opp Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996

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  • 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

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  • 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

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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 painting. Among the first was Kazimir Malevich who about 1917–18 created a series of white on white paintings (see suprematism). In Britain, Ben Nicholson created a notable series of white reliefs in the mid 1930s. Monochrome painting became particularly widespread in the second half of the century with the appearance of colour field painting and minimal art. The French artist Yves Klein became so famous for his all-blue paintings that he became known as Yves the monochrome.