Drab is Fab

If monochrome (single colour) artwork was a person, it would be the sensible, thoughtful, some might say dull friend, who's always happy when someone shows an interest. I love colour, but monochrome has a special place in my heart. My sister Caroline is warm-hearted and gregarious, with a fundamentally colourful character. She knew her way round Miss Selfridges by the age of 12, and always went right to the top of the climbing frame. Meanwhile, I was enjoying music practice and knitting. No wonder I ended up in Information Technology.

Taking monochrome to its logical conclusion is the gentle art of line drawing. Sigh? Yawn? Check out these nuggets of perfection:

Egon Shiele - Madchenkopf 

Albrecht Durer - Antwerp Harbour

Line drawing is usually done in a single colour, but (as if that wasn't exciting enough!) it can develop towards tonal work (shading) by varying the density of hatching.

Tonal drawing allows much easier portrayal of depth (things in the foreground being more defined, with more contrast than things in the distance) and form (implied by shadows). Colour is not needed for this, although it can help.

For someone learning to draw or paint, practicing in monochrome is the art equivalent of musical scales... vital exercise. To illustrate (albeit sheepishly in view of the masterpieces you've just seen), here are my today attempts, all pencil, none of which do justice to the beautiful subject Larna...

Line drawing

Line drawing with hatching and cross-hatching

Tonal drawing

Any computer programmer worth their salt strives to distil things to an elegant and minimal solution. Monochrome is all over this, and can convey the essence of something, realistic or abstract.

In a portrait, for example, capturing a figurative likeness depends on three things:

  • features being positioned correctly on the image
  • the volume being represented by shadows, and (to an extent) thickness of line
  • surface contrasts (eg relative light/darkness of the hair, skin, clothing) being represented by light and dark. The drawn hair doesn't have to be as dark, say, as the model's hair, but the relative values in the picture should match those of the subject. This is surprisingly difficult to do, even more so if you don't treat yourself to a framework of line. Of course, having worked out how to implement the rules, you can then set about breaking them...

Colour (hue) is almost irrelevant to a likeness being achieved. Of course, colour could be critical to the impact of the work, both as a representation (eg for red hair) and as a key to the atmosphere. But if a subject has, say, a particularly distinctive hair colour or penchant for bright lipstick, representing them in monochrome can allow the viewer to appreciate better their inner likeness, without the distracting noise of eyecatching colouration.

I know of no artistic medium where practicing in monochrome is not done... for watercolour, the sepia wash picture is a fundamental exercise; for oil, a grisaille (grey monochrome) underpainting is a popular early step. Charcoal comes before chalk pastel.

Now I'm going to bow out and let the artwork speak for itself. Thank you for showing an interest ;)

Turner - watrcolour of The Clyde

Picasso - The Old Guitarist (from his blue period)

Escher - Three Worlds