As an artist I usually prefer to work in colour. However, as with photography, when devising a composition, one of the important questions to ask yourself is: How do I best represent my subject?
Sometimes, monochrome is a better fit. Let me explain why.
Your subject isn’t just the person or the object you might be portraying, it is in fact, everything that falls within the margins of your composition. Everything in the frame should count in order to create an even and balanced piece, and to create a visual narrative that is pleasing. Now, how you decide that is based entirely on your personal preferences and your artistic vision, but please trust that your brain and your eyes are very adept at knowing what looks and feels right, irrespective of whatever artistic training you may or may not have had. When deciding on how a piece should look and feel, however, whether the piece should be portrayed in colour or monochrome is a key factor.
Had I decided to work the above piece in colour, it would have made it a very different piece with different visual cues to draw my audience in. Working in monochrome using a medium such as graphite, for example, puts the emphasis on structure. This is because the human brain with the help of the eyes will instantly focus on the lightest and darkest parts of an image, with mid-tones calling for less attention. If you want a part of your composition to really stand out, then you pair very dark with very light in order to create that stark contrast that the brain loves. This technique of course, works in colour too. However, with monochrome the language of contrast is greatly increased because of the lack of variation that colour affords. There is simply less to distract the eye and the brain with monochrome, resulting in the visual landscape changing completely. It gives the viewer of the artwork an opportunity to really engage with the form of the composition, and the composition as a whole.
As with my pot of Marmite below, I, as the artist want you to pay attention to its bulbous form, and the wonderful vintage lettering of the label. I want you to pay attention to the reflections within its highly polished dark glass and wonder what it’s reflecting, because I’m trying to recreate a sense of context. And if you love Marmite – as I do, then it will add all important meaning to you. If I had rendered this in colour, likely the white lettering on the red and yellow background, coupled with the bright yellow lid would have taken all of your attention, and the pot’s form would likely have had less of an impact. By rendering this in monochrome, I have guided your point of focus to the whole object where there is an even balance of very dark versus very light. Everything within the frame counts and feels unified.
With portraiture, working in monochrome can be a powerfully emotive tool. The area of the face where that stark contrast is very present is around the eyes, for example. Within the iris and pupils alone you have the opportunity to represent the brightest highlights adjacent to the deepest shadows, thus creating an illusion of sentience, because this is what the human eye is used to seeing in everyday life in its assessment of what is and isn’t real. The brain is easily fooled however, but to great benefit for us artists, because the result – if you get that balance of contrasts right, is very pleasing and feels a little bit like magic. Even a carrion bird like the Lappet Faced Vulture below, appears more personable because of the sense of ‘life’ that the one visible eye seems to have, and its rather enigmatic smile created by the creases in the skin coving its beak. Notice the stark contrast of very dark against the brightness of the paper throughout the whole image and how it creates the illusion of form and a sense of familiarity. By eliminating the colour, I am encouraging the viewer to engage with the personality of the bird, rather than with its original colourful form, and risking my rendition of the bird being dismissed as simply a colourful bird.
We are only able to see because of the presence of light. In low light levels for example, our ability to discern one object or colour from another becomes greatly impaired. The sharp contrasts that usually help inform us of shape and distance are reduced to a mid-tone greyscale, making it very difficult to discern one object from another, no matter its distance in relation to us. We rely on sharp contrasts of light to help us evaluate and assess our environment in a way that is beneficial to us. Of course, we usually have other senses to help us evaluate our environment and sense of reality, however, with visual two-dimensional art all of the emphasis is placed on the what the eyes see, and how what they see makes us feel. And so, as the artist, you have to play to the eye’s strength, so to speak, and to hopefully evoke a strong sense of meaning by creating illusions that evoke emotion and a sense of familiarity. Understanding how light and contrast works within your artwork is a fundamental part of how it will be received once it is finished and you are ready to present it to a wider audience. Your composition is a dialogue that happens the moment someone looks at it. How its audience engages with it is the important part and will be the culmination of all your hard work. Hopefully, it’s a good story.
Your work doesn’t have to be hyperrealistic in order to be emotive and for it to be an effective composition, neither does it have to be in monochrome, but it does need to contain certain elements that inform the eye of the viewer as to where to look and where to place focus, and to some extent, what to feel. The decision then, as to whether to do the work in monochrome or colour is as strategic as it is stylistic, and should be considered in equal measure.