Sunday, January 10, 2010

Monochromatic Color

A monochromatic color scheme is not necessarily a neutral gray picture. It can be composed of any single color taken through the full range of values from light to dark.

There is long tradition for artwork for made only in grayish or brownish tones (Above, F.R. Gruger). Any drawing tool, such as a pencil or a stick of conté crayon, automatically makes a monochromatic image. Painters have rendered figures or scenes en grisaille, which literally means “in grays.” Grisaille painting was most often used as a preliminary step to work out the tonal values, or as a part of the process in painting, before the colors were overlaid in transparent glazes.

But apart from those exceptions, most painting through history has been created in full color. The 19th century and early 20th centuries saw the invention of several imagemaking technologies, including photography, halftone printing, motion pictures, and television, all of which began in black and white. It took until well in the 20th century before all those media changed to full color. The New York Times didn’t run a color photo on its front page until 1997.

As a result, people living through the early part of the last century got used to seeing the world interpreted in black and white or sepia tones. Now, of course, full color is universal, and black and white has become artistic choice rather than an economic one. Monochromatic schemes often draw attention for their very uniqueness and understatement.

Today in graphic novels or illustrated books, monochromatic schemes immediately suggest historical photos, as in this image Dinotopia, to lend credibility to an imaginary world. In full-color comics, flashback sequences are often presented in sepia.

In a painting, you can lay out any string of grey, brown, or blue colors. If you want to simulate an old photo, it often helps to stop short of the full range of tones. Instead of a black or a bright white for the extreme values, a more limited range can better suggest a yellowed or faded photographic image.


John Tells All said...

agreed. I'm stunned by this bit of modern portraiture:

My own photography is dull and naive: detailed contrasty objects in more or less the center of the frame. I think I'm going to reduce my palette and see what happens!

Oscar Baechler said...

I'm starting to get tired of how technology has created the opposite logic: bring your levels up for everything and increase saturation for everything.

There was an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations I watched last night, where he's all "Look at this restaurant's kooky menu." But their postprocess gammatized the image so much, the menu was a big bled-out glob of white light.

D said...

There's been some interesting research showing that people of a certain age interpret their dreams as having been in black and white.

D said...

I'll try again with that link:
black and white dreams

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Hey...I know that Gruger.That's the scan I sent you.I had planned to use it as an example in my own blog as part of an essay on Grugers use of value manipulation.I wish you had mentioned this to me beforehand Jim.

Brian Busch said...

To see someone who made great use out of monochromatic painting, check out the work of Eugene Carriere, or a contemporary artist Travis Louie.

Joyce said...

Morning Jim, 19th century illustrators often created their oil paintings en grisaille because the wood engravers would work from it transforming the painted image into a wood engraving plate reproduction.

James Gurney said...

Joyce, thanks for pointing that out. Once halftone reproduction came along, a lot of artists painted full-color, even though they knew the reproductions would be in black and white.

John, sorry I neglected to mention the source. The file was unmarked in a folder, and I couldn't recall where it came from. Anyway, I'd be interested in your analysis of the piece.

D, thanks for the dream research link. For older generations, black and white is the color of memories.