Why some of history’s greatest painters turned to black and white
By Meredith Mendelsohn
Updated April 3, 2018
For centuries, painters have taken away color from their work as a way of enhancing it.
This technique begins, like so many others in Western art, in the church.
In the 12th Century, Cistercian monks limited the color in stained glass windows to curtail sensory stimulation and encourage more meditative worship.
“The Annunciation Diptych” (about 1433-1435)
During the Italian Renaissance, in a showdown of skill between sculptors and painters, painters began working in monochrome to demonstrate their mastery of light and shadow.
Hendrik Goltzius (1599)
Some painters, like French Neo-Classical master Jean-Dominique Ingres, even chose to reproduce color paintings in black and white as a way to show off.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (about 1824-34)
The printing press prompted artists to translate their polychromatic masterpieces into monochromatic designs for mass production.
Célestin Joseph Blanc (1867)
But by the 20th century the flip side of this practice emerged.
Artists like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter began to work in black and white to imitate mechanical printing.
Pablo Picasso (1957)
These and around 70 other artworks are part of “Monochrome: Painting in Black and White” at London’s National Gallery.
Gerhard Richter (1992)
The monochromatic exhibit pushes the viewer’s eye to see more than it usually does.
Gerhard Richter (1966)