The Monochromatic Trend: How to Paint in Monochromatic Color

Have you ever started an underpainting and fell in love with the simple beauty of form and value in one color only to cover it up with the “real” painting in a variety of hues and find yourself subtly missing the original work? Monochromatic painting is not only something that can be done as part of an underpainting or value study, but it is quite popular as a finished work of art as well! From the abstract works of Josef Albers to the recognizable models of Cindy Press, a dynamic range of subjects can be explored using one shade. Painting in one color truly allows you to focus on light, form, shape, emotion and drafting without the ‘distraction’ that multiple colors bring. In this article we will explore how to get started in this fun and skill-honing trend.

Working a Reference:

Working from life or a color photograph into monochrome can be tough, try using a photo editor or a phone app to change it to black and white. Some applications will let you posterize into a set number of gradients or adjust contrast so you can see the differences in value more clearly. Another great trick is to use a piece of gray palette paper with a hole punched through it. Use the hole as your “view” point and compare the shade of what’s shown to the gray color of the paper. This will give you an understanding of value by comparison. Robert Kelley frequently discusses comparison in values in his online and in-person courses – the side of the nose is darker than the top, the side of the jaw is darker than the cheek but lighter than under the jaw. You can begin to categorize your values into your gradients.  You can also learn more about posterizing images and working in a limited palette in my course ACRYLIC PORTRAITS.  Below you can see how I manipulate photos to help me with my paintings.  I like to posterize an image to help me paint my underpaintings.

IMG_5991-764x1024-portrait 3

Understanding Gradients:

Getting started with monochromatic painting works best when you select a limited number of gradients or values that you are going to explore. The number of shades you select for your palette is totally up to you – choose three values and you are going to have a very graphic-styled image. Select 5-7 and you start really adding subtlety of form. Anything over 7 and you can start working towards a more life-like representation of your chosen image. The number you decide on is up to how you want your finished work to look and feel. Trying a few different options can give you an idea of the range of styles you can craft simply by adjusting how many values you use!

Draft your Work:

Transfer your work to canvas using a grid or whatever method you prefer for accurate drawing. Pay close attention to the different values on your palette and think about sectioning your drawing out using fine lines to mark different areas for different values. If you have more experience working in monochromatic studies, you can always jump straight in with the paint, but I find this process creates a clear image to follow for that key comparison process. Is the backside of the hand lighter than the front? Does it have a third mid-range value that illustrates the form turning over the edge? Is the light highlighting the knuckles or the fingertips? What angle is the light shining on the subject? These questions will guide you towards your plan of a finished work.


The moment you’ve been waiting for! Here is where your style is going to really come through. Bold, clearly defined strokes of value are going to make a poster / pop-art vibe! Subtle shading is going to render a more life-like appearance. Think about mixing up your application style as well – smooth blended brushstrokes, thick short strokes of paint in varying angles, smaller impressionist dabs of values – they will all lend a very different look and feel to the work. Step back and assess how this work fits your artistic style and message. Did you use once of your favorite colors (in an array of values)? Did you choose only varieties of black, white and gray? Consider how else to play with the concept of contrast and comparison in this work as you finish it. A bold dash of color can make a grayscale piece pop and a thick black matte before framing can make a one-color canvas show beautifully.  Lately, I have been a bit obsessed with painting in black and white.  I often find that when I go back to painting in color, I have a better sense of values.  It's a great tool to become more proficient in your own painting skills.


Interested in taking a class that focuses on values and monochromatic palettes?  Try one of these!

We Want to Hear From You in the Comments Below!

Let us know how your own tips for working in a monochromatic pattern, classes that have helped you progress, or ask any questions in the comments below!

Until next time....


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