You’ve probably done the same thing…
Browsing through some pictures you are arrested by one image. Among all the other splashes of color it has something – a unity that the others don’t have. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s MONOCHROME!
Here is the picture, taken some winters ago, and forgotten. Although it is a full color photo saved as a full color RGB Tiff file, it seems monochromatic. All snow, all blues, very cold. How did that happen? Why is it so striking? First, it happened because I took the photograph without bothering to adjust for the lighting conditions. The camera was set for “auto white balance”, which assumed that the bluish cast of the view was normal, but was not what I experienced when I was freezing my ass off in front of the house. The image is striking because human perception seems to enjoy the balance between the expected and the unexpected. A familiar scene rendered in a limited range of colors will attract the viewer’s attention more than a straightforward photo of the same scene.
Producing a monochromatic image is quite simple using a computer and Photoshop. De-saturate (image/mode/greyscale) the file to create a grey-tone image, then convert that to a “duotone” image (Image/mode/duotone) picking whatever color you want to render it in (blue in this case). Traditional photography used to do the same thing using filters, and traditional printing used to save money doing the same thing in the press run.
Of course ink and pencil drawings are natural examples of monochrome art. Ink is easily reproduced but has a limited range. Using black and white pencils (or pastel, or ink) you can approach reality with a minimum of fuss.
The unity this technique gives to figure drawing is so satisfying that I prefer it to any color technique.
This drawing, working from a photograph, shows how the pencil can go from smudgy sketch to pop-off-the-paper realism.
I have found less success in using the pencil on toned paper depicting architecture. However, the monochromatic approach is still worth considering as you finalize your illustration.
This rendering of a renovated bank building looked lost in full color, but was too dry in black and white. Working with a range of yellows created a warm period-piece that the client loved.
This image was originally a full color rendering of a brick “wedding cake” building. I never liked the end result, but it is resurrected by re-framing the image on the most interesting side and reducing the color to a monochrome brick red.
This sketch of a “Euro Model House” in France lacked “style” in its full color rendering...
...but the sepia tone version, while giving less information, has an atmosphere that more than makes up for the lack of color.
And finally, here’s with color (done with herculean effort)… And then without (done with 3 clicks of the mouse). I find the colored image more interesting – as art. But I find the monochromatic image more believable – as a building/time/place. Ironic, that.
So, I’m going to restrain myself here, and not go on about the psychological meaning of non-color, or the historic legacy of non-color photography, or even the artistic interpretation of non-color. No, the simple reality is that sometimes an illustration just looks better in black and white (apologies to Paul Simon). And, with color simplification so easy, there is no reason not to do some exploring before you finalize your masterpiece.