Black and white paintings have been created by artists for centuries and continue to be popular today. The lack of color simplifies a painting down to its essential elements – shapes, textures, light and dark. When color is removed, the viewer must look deeper to understand the meaning behind the painting. There are several common interpretations and uses of black and white in art.
The most elemental distinction is between black and white itself. These opposing colors are used symbolically to represent different concepts:
So a black and white painting that shows white birds flying out of a black cave could symbolize good triumphing over evil or hope emerging from despair. A black background with a small white light could indicate a spark of hope in a dark world.
Artists often use black and white symbolically, especially in abstract compositions. Ad Reinhardt, for example, painted entirely black canvases to encourage meditation on darkness. Agnes Martin used subtle tones of grey to portray introspection and mental states. Georgia O’Keeffe employed stark black and white to portray contrasting aspects of objects, like animal bones.
Emphasis on Form
Eliminating color from a painting puts all the focus on the forms within the composition. The viewer is forced to appreciate the illusion of depth and perspective, as well as contrasts in texture and tonality. Shadows become more pronounced without the distraction of color. Black and white brings out the essential visual elements of contour, shape, pattern and light effects.
Many 20th century artists took advantage of this. Picasso, Braque and other Cubist painters restricted their palettes to emphasize the geometric forms in their abstracted figures and objects. Psychological artist Kathe Kollwitz used only black, white and grey in her emotional prints of human suffering. Without color, the visual impact of these works is made stronger.
Prior to the invention of photography, monochromatic painting served a practical purpose of documenting history. Military conquests, royal portraits and monumental events were captured in black, white and grey tones. Vermeer’s detailed bourgeois domestic scenes give insight into 17th century Dutch life.
Grisaille, a monochromatic technique intended to imitate sculpture, was employed in religious altarpieces and church frescoes. By replicating stone or bronze in paint, the artwork appeared more permanent, eternal and divine.
During the Renaissance, grisaille was also used for underpainting. Many masters started a painting by blocking in figures and composition in black and white before slowly building up color layers. This initial underpainting helped establish tonal values.
The invention of photography had a major impact on painting. Black and white photographs offered new compositional perspectives that artists creatively adapted. Photography also spurred painterly innovation as artists reacted against mechanical reproduction with colorful abstract styles.
But some pioneering modern artists were inspired by the monochromatic look of film photography. Edward Hopper’s haunting urban landscapes mimic the gloomy lighting and moodiness of noir movies. Gerhard Richter blurred and obscured his paintings to achieve photographic effects in paint. Close cropping, unusual angles, and everyday snapshot-style compositions entered painting as modern life painting caught up with photography.
Expressionists exploited the power of black and white to convey inner tumult and strong emotions. The unnatural, high-contrast lighting accented feelings of fear, misery, obsession and hysteria. Subjects were often isolated against bare, black canvases, spotlit against darkness like a scene from a horror film.
Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionist portraits use brushy grey tones to capture psychological anxiety. Emil Nolde’s religious works drip with black shadow and white light to heighten spiritual ecstasy. Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” uses a blood red sky against black water to externalize overwhelming dread and despair.
Many modern artists looked back to African and Oceanic tribal masks, sculpture and textiles for inspiration. The bold abstract designs and rough surfaces offered new expressive possibilities.
Picasso, Matisse and German Expressionists incorporated the visual power and stark geometry of primitive black and white patterns into their works. Gauguin often used large areas of flat black to flatten perspective and enhance decorative effects. Using the power of negative space let these artists focus on pure essential form.
Surrealist artists tapped into the power of the irrational mind through lurid dream imagery and bizarre juxtapositions. Turning away from observed reality, they relied on psychic improvisation and the subconscious for fantasy subjects.
Surrealist paintings often have a sketchy, automatic quality with floating outlines and opaque shadows. Magritte used black and white to heighten the deadpan weirdness of his ordinary objects in irrational settings. Dal?? employed monochrome white spaces to isolate and accentuate the uncanny double images in his melting dreamscapes.
Minimalism and Pop Art
After Abstract Expressionism dominated art with colorful gestural paint flinging, some artists revolted with the extreme simplification of minimalism. Hard-edged black and white geometric abstraction stripped art down to basic lines, shapes and contrasts. Sculptors like Frank Stella also created unadorned black Minimalist objects.
In reaction to minimalism, Pop art reintroduced color and representation in bold graphic style. But Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein often incorporated solid black outlines and benday dots to flatten space and echo mass media printing techniques. Stark black and white elements recaptured the origins of Pop art in newspaper ads and comic strips.
Postmodern artists introduced new black and white approaches in reaction to commercialism and mass media. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth composed paintings using nothing but text on white canvases to spark verbal, rather than visual, interpretation. John Baldessari created deadpan black and white canvases by blotting out colorful images, focusing only on remaining abstract forms.
Marcel Duchamp painted shadows and dust patterns directly onto canvas and called the results readymades, challenging traditional artistic language. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg incorporated monochrome white panels and black outlines into their combined painting-collage works probing the blurring of art and life.
Today black and white painting encompasses all these traditions – from symbolic to minimalist to conceptual. Some contemporary painters use limited palettes of black and white to reduce visual noise and distill subjects down to elementals. Others layer washes of black over white gesso to achieve abstractions with depth, scraping through to reveal hints of white underneath. Photorealistic charcoal drawings capture the world in meticulous tonal detail.
Novel black and white approaches continue to develop as painters mine this potent elemental contrast. The opposition of light and dark still compels artists to explore fundamental mysteries of the human condition through simplified form and line. Eliminating color, a black and white approach highlights what is most essential both in art and in life.
Over the centuries, black and white painting has served many purposes and interpretations. Artists have used limited palettes for symbolic meanings, formal emphasis, documentary purposes, photographic inspiration, expressive power, and conceptual communication. From medieval altarpieces to pop art, the visual tension between dark and light continues to give black and white art an enduring impact. A world without color distills art down to its most basic but compelling elements.