Art Term

Monochrome

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

Mary Martin, ‘Expanding Form’ 1954
Mary Martin
Expanding Form 1954
Tate
© Estate of Mary Martin / DACS 2019

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.

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.

Related Terms and Concepts

Explore this term

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Selected artists in the collection

Selected artworks in the collection

Monochrome at Tate

  • Tate Modern

    Exhibition

    Malevich

    16 Jul – 26 Oct 2014
    Malevich exhibition at Tate Modern, opens 16 July 2014
  • Tate St Ives

    Exhibition

    Ellsworth Kelly in St Ives

    28 Jan – 7 May 2006
    Ellsworth Kelly in St Ives; past exhibition at Tate St Ives
  • Tate Liverpool

    Exhibition

    Yves Klein

    21 Oct 2016 – 5 Mar 2017

    Discover one of the most influential figures of the post-war era