So, you want to paint using a single colour? That’s called working in monochrome. You may think, “Watercolor has so many gorgeous colours; why use just one?” Now, this is where things get interesting. 

The basic idea of painting in monochrome is to choose one colour, any colour, and work with it. It forces us, as artists, to shift our focus to a few aspects of our craft rather than having to manage all of it in the same painting.

Using a single colour to do a painting, a sketch, or a study, lets you work without considering the other colours. Forget mixing; today, we only think about light and shadows, contrast and composition!

Watercolour for monochrome paintings.

If your medium of choice is watercolour, you end up with two main colours: the colour of the paper and the colour of choice. Because water can dilute watercolour, it gives you a range from the most concentrated paint application to the lightest touch of colour. You now have a span of values from light to intense.

Selecting a colour with a dark mass tone, like black, will give you a more comprehensive range than using a colour like yellow. Both can work; you just have to figure out what kind of effect you want to achieve. Do you want to focus on more dramatic lighting or a softer light and feel?

Using your reference.

There are many ways to work with a reference for monochrome art. You can convert the image to black and white or find a film noir movie to draw inspiration.

Vintage photographs can be a very nice reference, too. If your subject is in colour and you can’t change it, as in the case of live sketching, that’s when your art brain gets the biggest workout. Looking at the scene, you should ask yourself these four questions:

Which area gets the most light?

The lightest area is the one you would generally try to keep the closest to the colour of the paper, even if what it’s depicting isn’t the colour of the paper. Most watercolour paper is white or natural white, so that’s your lightest colour. It’s also easier to add paint than to remove it, so if your lightest area is too light in the end, you can layer a wash of colour over it.  

Which area gets the least light, or where is the darkest shade?

It’s good to keep this in mind to remember that you don’t need to detail this space. It’s going to be in the shade, anyway.

Where is the strongest, sharpest contrast?

Our eyes are drawn to contrast. If you see that the most contrast is on an item that distracts from the piece’s subject, you may want to make that item less contrasted. 

What appeals to you the most in the scene?

When painting from reference, you might highlight everything you can, resulting in a very confusing monochrome piece. Choose only one “favourite part” of the scene, and you’ll know on what you have to focus. That’s your subject.

Painting in monochrome is something we like to call an “art brain workout” because, like any other workout, it gets better and easier with every repetition. Just like we have lousy art days, there are some awful workout days, so they have that in common as well!

Working with a single colour can be a great way to study composition if you want to work on it. You can work quickly, focus on the shapes and where they sit in the image, and test things out. Watercolour will give you a good selection of values to use for this kind of practice.

Why choose watercolour as a medium for this?

First of all - it’s effortless to carry! You just need one colour for this, so you can easily pop a paint pan in a small tin and get going. There’s no need for a large mixing area, as we use only one colour. If you’re familiar with urban sketching and painting outdoors, it can make for an even smaller kit to carry around. 

If you’re new to this medium, it’s an excellent way to start. Having just one tube of paint takes away the worry of selecting colours, which brand to get, finding a palette, etc. 

You will also get familiar with the properties of watercolour without having to consider everything about the medium all at once. If you’re familiar with watercolour but want to get to know a colour better, doing monochromatic work with that colour will help you get comfortable with it. 

Another excellent aspect of watercolour for this is that you can build up layers. If you’re worried you’ll paint too dark, you can start lighter and gradually add more paint on top of previous layers to get to the darkness or contrast you want. 

A few tips to leave you with...

Using a grey watercolour pencil to do a rough sketch as a base could be beneficial to you. The grey will blend in and be invisible on the finished painting. 

If you don’t tend to use black watercolour in full-colour paintings, this is a great way to get use out of those neglected pans and paints!

Have fun with it! Ultimately, that’s the most important thing of all, so do what you want with the colour of your choosing. Go where your amazing art brain takes you!

Is painting in monochrome something you would like to try?

If it is, and you have further questions, feel free to drop us a comment down below. We’d love to help you explore this form of art :-) 

Eve Bolt is a French-Canadian artist and YouTuber living in Montreal, Canada. Her favorite tools are watercolor and inks. She really likes cats.


  • Lorraine Watt said:

    Hi, I’m interested in painting mono portraits.

    Can you help please?


    September 10, 2021

Leave a comment