Why paint in only one colour?

Why would artists who have access to the full glory of colour chose to paint with only one colour? And would the effect be interesting? The National Gallery Monochrome exhibition answered these questions and included a dramatic ending.

Religion was one reason to paint in black and white. Medieval Christians thought that colour should be used only after the birth of Christ, so anything from the Old Testament should be in black and white. We saw an early painting of the nativity where mother, child, and animals were in colour but surrounded by a frieze showing Adam and Eve and other scenes from the Old Testament in black and white.

Another reason for painting in one colour was to show the virtuosity and skill of the artist, and this was probably the case (plus perhaps religious reasons) with Van Eyck’s St Barbara, one of the first monochrome paintings. It’s a powerful, intense picture that surely would inspire devotion, although I note a little blue at the top. This addition of a little colour is dramatic, and a fair few of the “monochrome pictures” included some colour.

St Brbara

It’s true of Mantegna’s picture of The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome, which seems to have the fires of hell (or could it be the colours of marble?) behind the figures. This picture, probably the one I would have chosen to take home if I could take just one, shows another reason for painting in black and white–to imitate sculpture. Renaissance artists were obsessed with the paragone, the debate over whether painting or sculpture was the superior art form. By showing that they could paint sculpture the painters surely thought that they could show the superiority of their art.


Lin would have chosen to take home Van Eyck’s sculpture painting of the Annunciation. The angel and the Virgin Mary are small and in separate frames, very frozen and still. The dove hovering above the Virgin’s head teases the sculptures who could not suspend a dove.

Van Eyck

Many artists until comparatively recently could see other painters’ work only in black and white prints if they could not see the original paintings, which often they couldn’t. This led to many painters producing “cheap” versions of their colour paintings in black and white and to paintings inspired by prints. One or the other was the reason for Hendrik Goltzius’s huge and erotic picture of Venus with friends; “Imagine having that on your wall,” said Lin.


The appearance of photography both challenged and inspired painters, and Gerhard Richter’s large painting of a prostitute with her fiancée was inspired by a photo in a newspaper and is painted like a fuzzy black and white photo. The prostitute was murdered, and one reason the picture astonishes is because the fiancée looks more like her son. What was going on? Why was she murdered? Did her fiancée murder her?


Marlene Dumas’s small picture was also inspired by a newspaper photograph and has great power in its simplicity.


The drama at the end was supplied by Olafur Eliasson’s Room with One Colour, a room painted in an intense yellow. It initially felt uncomfortable to be in the large room, and Lin thought she might have to leave immediately. She didn’t, adjusting slowly. But you did feel that you were in a different world. Leaving the room was a shock. The artist encouraged you to take photos in the room, and we did.

The exhibition didn’t light me up like many others have, but it did explain why artists might chose to paint with a single colour and show that the effect could be strong.


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