My Monochromatic Journey
Updated: Apr 23
Monochrome is my signature palette. I readily admit, the seemingly endless possibilities and combinations that lie between the polar values of black and white are more interesting to me than colour. My interest is in the vertical axis of tone versus the horizontal chroma band.
I recognise that I live and create in a semi-tropical climate with abundant colour that is normally an attraction and an expectation in the artwork produced by both residents and visitors. However, I am not following tradition. As appealing as the avoidance of sameness may be, this is not an intentional contrary decision but is rather that I am pursuing another taste within the realm of possibilities.
My transition to mostly monochromatic work was gradual. Interestingly, at a level I was aware of what was occurring in my work. I understood the phenomenon. I have often told students over the years that style and oeuvre is not dependent on intention but is revealed on reflection.
Ironically, or perhaps not, my monochromatic work has given me a heightened appreciation of colour. Certainly, as with tones, colours have weight, meaning and significance. They should not be used by serious creators without a conscious or intuitive appreciation of what they contribute to their work. When I use colour, its associations, symbolism and even colour space relationships have been taken into consideration. In my painting Remember Me, the purpose of the red is to compliment and intensify the green. In my Cow Pass series, colours reference specific resident dynamics. Like Henri Matisse, my sentiment is that I can and will use colour towards my own purposes, “When I paint green, it doesn’t mean grass; when I paint blue, it doesn’t mean sky.
The early influences on my palette were almost exclusively aesthetic and technical. One is my passion for photography. My long fascination with black and white photography led to training in St. Joseph, Michigan. Through the 80’s and 90’s, I developed black and white film and prints as a part of my freelance practice. I would eventually teach this- including pinhole photography. Today, photography and black and white documentation are integral in my process in my mixed media work.
Secondly, in my early paintings, mainly influenced by the photo-realists such as Richard Estes and Ralph Goings, I found it useful to create a monochromatic base layer to establish composition and emphasise values. Eventually, my aesthetic regard of this base layer caused me to regard it as the completed work.
A third influence stems from my role as an art educator. Repeated demonstrations on the importance of value in establishing form and depth certainly affected my own work. It is exhausting to see freshman students depend so much on outline as they develop their imagery. I have come to expect little interest or insight that we exist in a three-dimensional world where the consideration of light sources and the effect of light resting on objects provides substance and space for both imitative and imaginative imagery.
As an art educator I also encourage exploration of the creative possibilities that accompany limitation- whether self-imposed or otherwise. This includes palette choices. For example, the dramatic and monumental impact of one of my favourite works, Picasso’s Guernica, is due not only to its content, scale and dramatic distortions but also to its reliance on tone rather than colour.
I have come to see the strongest influence on my work has been consistent involvement and experimentation with technique eventually leading to a concentration on my content. Content has assumed the position of priority. It is the primary driver that now influences my aesthetic and technical choices- including my palette. My visual imagery must be imbued with relevance and meaning. This, for me, is a critique of humanity and an interest in identity and place.
Events and personal life experiences planted the interest in social realities and an interest in contributing with my art to the wider discourse of humanity. Life, in this 21st century Western postcolonial existence, is reduced, stratified and polarised. For now, I have found my monochromatic approach assists in my endeavour. There is a marriage of message and media. While I love the energy and documentary quality that tonal contrast brings to a composition, I appreciate more that I access the ordinariness, dignity, and solemnity I desire.
This direction was self-motivated- in that it was not consciously encouraged or legitimised by the approval of artworld superstars. However, approximately ten years into my monochromatic journey, I found a provocative quote by symbolist painter Odilon Redon that resonates with me. He said, “Black is the most essential of all colours. Above all, if I may say so, it draws its excitement and vitality from deep and secret sources of health… One must admire black. Nothing can debauch it.”
I am aware that one does not or cannot know all of the influences on their art. It is important to continue to create and to learn from one’s own experiences. Embrace the growing realisation of particular influences on your work.
I appreciate the reminder given to me recently by a fellow art professor that I should not regard my monochromatic work as a comfort zone that I am working within. Artists must continue to experiment and explore. And so while I work with this palette and my content I will continue to do just that. I am enjoying the process. I am enjoying my journey.
details from Assurances and Skepticism and Peppergate