One Color is Enough: Painting With a Monochromatic Color Palette

Colors are enticing and they bring a lot of life and interest to a painting, but a monochromatic color palette can be just as attractive. Not only that, there are some particular benefits that come from a monochromatic color palette, especially for beginner and intermediate painters using any medium.

Monochromatic studies
Painting monochromatic studies is a very effective way to train the eye and hand for painting. These studies help you consolidate the way you perceive and paint tone. Capturing the different subtle variations in tonal value creates a soft look in your paintings. Ramp up the contrast, and you can create a more dramatic ambiance. As you can see, tone is a valuable tool when defining the mood of a painting and gaining good control over it gives you the capability of creating anything from a moody, dark scene to bright, sunny landscapes.

When we speak of tone, in the context of art, we are referring to the variations in lightness and darkness of any given color. Learning to apply tonal value variations to our paintings is very important because this prevents the colors, and the painting as a whole, from looking flat and one-dimensional.

Removing the distracting variable of color from the equation allows us to focus on achieving a successful range of tone in our painting.

Balcony window monochromatic study

When analyzing tone, we can divide paintings into two categories: low-key paintings and high-key paintings. The characteristic of a low-key painting is a narrow range of tone, with mostly mid tones. Whereas, a high-key painting is characteristic for possessing a contrasting range of tones, usually featuring dark, light and mid tones. Which one you chose and the way you navigate this selection has a big role in playing up the interest and mood of your artwork.


You can create these tone studies in any of your favorite mediums. Even better, if there’s a particular medium that you’ve always wanted to try but you find intimidating (oil painting for me!), painting with a monochromatic color palette is a very good way to dip your toes.

There are different ways to mix paint in order to achieve different tones, this depends on the type of paint you are using. If you are painting with transparent mediums, like watercolors, you can lighten a color by adding more and more water and darken it by either using little water or mixing a color with a dark paint, like Payne’s grey.

If you are using an opaque medium like acrylics, oils or gouache, the simplest way to lighten and darken a color is by mixing in some white and black respectively. If you are more experienced in mixing colors, you might not like this option very much because black and white can sometimes dull down colors, but it will suffice for simple monochromatic studies.

Fontana di Trevi monochromatic watercolor study

Color schemes

Tone is an element we can find in any color, meaning that you can paint a black and white tonal study, or you can select one specific hue and paint the variation of tones in this color.

cold and warm color schemes

Painting with a warm color scheme on your tonal study can help create a certain warmth and inviting feeling within your painting. Whereas, a cold color scheme (like the one above) will give off a colder, more distant feeling. Allow your chosen color scheme to reflect the mood, message and feeling you want to convey within your artwork.
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Learn how to create endless colors with a limited color palette as you explore tints, tones and shades in Bluprint’s Paint and Palette Essentials class taught by Jay Senetchko. Begin by setting up a monochromatic color palette, and dive into value as you use light and dark to develop dimensional forms.

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What is your favorite color palette to convey mood?

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