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Monday, February 26, 2018

Monochrome Painting

Tree in Red, Sunmallia. A monochrome painting (black and white are not regarded as colors).
Understanding and employing color is almost synonymous with being a painter. In fact, until the advent of the 20th-century monochrome paintings were virtually non-existant. Before around 1900, painters had, for centuries, reveled in color. During the mid-1800s there was quite a controversy in the French Ecole des Beaux Arts as to whether color was simply a means of enhancing a drawing (the Poussinistes) or a valid element of design having an vibrant independence of its own(the Rubenistes). Poussin and Rubens themselves had little to do with controversy other than being academic proponents of the two modes of thinking. Poussin's followers embraced traditional thinking with regard to color while followers of Rubens were akin to the avant-garde of the day. Both groups would likely have been antithetical to any thought of painting with only one hue (plus a lightening darkening agent).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Fifty-thousand Miles, Jim Lane. The single hue in monochrome painting need not be black. This one uses burnt umber.
We're probably all too familiar with the Russian painter, Kazimir Malevich's Black Square from 1915, and his Supremacist Composition: White on White dating from 1918. Although they dealt only with purist black or white (or both), they were probably the first monochrome paintings (or at least the first worth talking about). Thus monochrome painting is just over a hundred years old and was primarily important as one of the seeds leading to non-representational Abstract Expressionism. Although monochrome painting is a vibrant force in painting today (much of it expressionistic), very little of it falls into the category of pure Abstract Expressionism. Actually, a great deal of monochrome painting done today embraces Realism as with my own Fifty-thousand Miles (above).

Meltaway (monochrome) and Northern White (monochromatic), James Lecce
I suppose I should pause at this point and discuss monochrome painting as it relates to monochromatic painting. You may have noticed that I've not mention monochromatic painting until now in an effort to avoid the all too prevalent assumption on the part of artists and critics that the two are synonymous. They're not (quite). Monochrome refers to a photograph or painting developed or executed in black and white, or in varying tones of only one color. Monochromatic is an image having only one predominant color. The two are quite similar except for a single word--predominant. The two works of James Lecce (above) illustrate the difference. His Meltaway (left) uses only shades and tints of brown (probably burnt sienna). His Northern White (right) may at first glance, appear to be a monochrome, but notice that in addition to his shades of gray, the artist also employs shades of tan (probably raw sienna). That makes it monochromatic.

Rd8 (upper image) and Original Acrylic Painting by Serbian artist, Jelena Milojevic utilize a layered surface blurring the line between painting and sculpture. Both are monochrome.
Copyright, Jim Lane
I should also point out that monochrome art is not limited just to painting. In fact, a great deal of sculpture is monochrome, either by virtue of the material, such as marble, plastics, copper, steel, etc., or by the artist's choice of paint color as with the work of the Serbian painter, Jelena Milojevic (above). I might also note that many sculptural materials change color over time, though they usually do so in a manner still falling under the definition of monochrome (as in the greenish color taken on over time by copper.
Miss Liberty, 1971,
Jim Lane

Jim in Monochrome,
Anna Bain
Monochrome painting may seem to have its limits in terms of an artist's self-expression and content, and that is an element inherent in its nature, but such limitations are not as confining as one might expect. In terms of realistic renderings, monochrome painting has its roots in photography, though it took several decades from the "invention" of the photograph for them to take hold. It was only when photography began to be seen as an art-form in its own right that artists and critics came to realize that the aesthetics of blacks, whites, and grays in fine art photography could just as easily apply to painting. This lag meant that monochrome painting did not have much of an impact until well into the 20th-century when various avant-garde movements began to eschew multi-colored works in favor of the subtleties of mon-ochrome and monochromatic art. Portraits such as Jim in Monochrome (left) by Anna Bain and the monochromatic forest scene below provide an indication of the versatility of this color regimen in today's art.

The predominant shade is brown but the secondary color of earthen green gives this monochromatic scene a subtlety that would be lacking in pure monochrome.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Big Red, 1981, Jim Lane
In defense of colors, they help de-termine detail. Sometimes, however, multiple colors can disguise details as naturally seen. Using shades of one color to wash out a photo or painting can add to the overall impact and bring out details that oth-erwise might be missed. This pro-cess of either eliminating all color or reducing the color palette to hues within a single shade is often refer-red to as monochromatic. Adding the "tic" to monochrome changes the meaning to one of having some of the attributes of a single color. In the examples seen above, I've included images in which the artist focuses our attention using careful color sel-ection. This is not necessarily a sing-le color, even though monochromatic tends to imply such a distinction. Some photos and artwork bend the rule a bit and incorporate one ad-ditional color to the primary shade used. In this case, as with many other terms in the English language, two words--monochrome and mono-chromatic--are better than one.

Juhee. Is it monochrome or 
monochromatic? (I'm not sure if
"Juhee" is the name of the cat
or the artist.)


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