The black and white monochrome style is an effortless and timeless style of art, allowing the artwork to speak without relying on colour.
Over the centuries, artists have created black and white art, allowing them to practice shadow and light. This method of painting in black and white is referred to as grisaille. Notably, it was used in religious art in the Middle Ages, depicting the sacred subject without the distraction of colour and having the mind focus on the subject. No artist has dedicated themselves fully to the black and white style, so it is not a movement in the art world but a technique or a study in light and shadow.
Artists have used black and white predominantly to study the shadow and light of a subject. Black and white fall under the wider term called monochrome, which means the use of any single colour in a work.
Artists tend to choose black and white in their work to convey a certain emotion or aesthetic. It could even be for moral reasons, like depicting a religious subject. There are a range of artists who have used black and white in their body of work, like Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg. Then some others have been limited by technology, specifically the development of colour film, resulting in them relying on black and white, like the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. These artists, among others, use black and white to express ideas or work within the artistic challenges of monochrome.
None are more infamous than Russian artist Kazimir Malevich for using the colours black and white in their work. In 1915, Malevich unveiled Black Square, a work that would shake up the art world as well as the social world and inspire criticism all around. Black Square is a study of an idea, one which Malevich relied on painting a black square within a white border. The painting undoubtedly challenged the conventions of art at the time and, had many questioning the meaning of art. The controversy didn’t stop Malevich from pushing conventional art and, in 1918, created a painting in all white in White on White.
In Abstract Painting No. 5 (1962) and Untitled, from the portfolio Ten Works x Ten Painters (1964), Ad Reinhardt utilises the colours black and white to explore his ideas. Surely inspired by Malevich, Reinhardt was born into the uncertain terrain the art world was moving through, being only two years old when Malevich unleashed Black Square (1915) on the world. Reinhardt’s aim with these works was to eliminate the prettiness of symbolism, which the art world is filled with. By using black and white, and the movement of abstraction, Reinhardt was able to explore his ideas.
Jackson Pollock is known around the world for his drip style of painting, one that sees him roaming around a canvas set flat on the ground, and paint dripping from his brush. In some of his works, he even limits colour usage to black and white. This is seen in Number 14 (1951), which saw Pollock pouring black paint on a white canvas. Unlike his total abstract paintings, Number 14 is notable for its figures. Between 1951 and 1954, Pollock would restrict his palette to black, and these paintings would be known as ‘black pourings’.
Many artists have put colour palettes aside to experiment with the monochrome colours of black and white. This has allowed them to explore ideas and subjects without the dazzling, vibrant effect of colour, resulting in very unique and exciting outcomes that have propelled the art world in new directions.
From 1951 and 1954, Jackson Pollock restricted his paint palette to the use of black. He would take the paint and pour it across a black canvas to create more figurative work than what he was known to produce beforehand. And what he produced before delving into this style were works like Blue Poles (1952) and No. 5, 1948 (1948).
In 1915, Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square, and it’s safe to say, the art world was never the same. It wasn’t as though Malevich was an untalented artist who couldn’t paint figures or landscapes. He had, in fact, succeeded as an artist with paintings Cow and Fiddle (1913) and The Reaper on Red (1913), and he would return to painting figures in Haymaking (1929) and Red Cavalry (1932). The artist made some remarks on the painting, believing, “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins”. Historians and critics believe Black Square is the “zero point in painting”.
Over two months in 1937, Pablo Picasso painted his most famous artwork yet, and he needed only black and white and grief to execute such a wonder. Picasso depicted a scene of terror and agony, inspired by the attack of the town of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish civil war. His choice of colours is black and white, with shades of grey. Notably, Picasso does not need to use the colour red to depict the bloody scene. The Spanish artist ad a lifelong interest in stripping painting of colour and, rather than inspiring sensual delights from colour, it oozes with intellectual design.
Unlike cubism and abstract art, black and white art isn’t a movement nor is it a time period of art, rather a method of monochrome painting, therefore it can’t be considered as a contemporary artform. Despite this, there are many artists classified as contemporary artists who have used black and white to their artworks to further explore an idea or subject.