The artists who gave up colour to see better

Show your true colours: The French artist Ingres painted two versions of his famous Odalisque.

Does art need colour? A new book reveals rare colour photos from the second world war. They are remarkable — but throughout history, some artists have preferred to work in black and white…

People party in the streets of the Dutch town of Eindhoven, their clothes displaying every shade of blue. Above them, a Red Cross flag stands out against the earth-brown buildings. From a balcony hang orange garlands: the colour of the Dutch nobility.

This photograph was taken in 1944, as the Allies liberated the Netherlands. It is one of those featured in the new book The Second World War in Colour. At the time, colour film was very expensive, which is why almost all our images of the war are in black and white. The book’s photos are rare exceptions to the rule — as its author says, they have “the power to shock”.

Black and white (B&W) has often been seen as an inferior medium to colour. Historically, painters prepared for colour works by sketching in monochrome. Photography, film and television all started out in B&W, before ditching it for colour as soon as the technology allowed.

Look closer, though, and the history of B&W becomes more colourful. Artists through the ages have valued it for its unique aesthetic qualities. In the Middle Ages, it was associated with spirituality; still today, B&W art is frequently described in terms like “ethereal” and “meditative”.

Others have argued that bright pigments are a distraction. As the novelist Herman Melville put it, colours “are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without”. Remove them, and the true forms of things — lines, angles, surfaces — are revealed, making for a purer, more beautiful image.

As a result, B&W is far from dead. Art house films are shot in it; smartphone cameras come with sepia and greyscale filters. The latest Facebook craze, the “7 Days, 7 Photos” challenge, gets users to upload their finest colourless snaps. A major new exhibition at London’s National Gallery gathers the best of monochrome art, from Rembrandt to Picasso.

Clearly, B&W has a place in art. But can it really rival the expressive power of colour?

Grey matters

No way, say some. There is a reason almost all cinema and photography is in colour now: arty or not, B&W is just a bit dull. The human eye can distinguish a million tones, so it’s a waste not to use them. Just look at those new photos from the second world war — they bring that period to life. Nothing beats the thrill of colour.

Use your imagination, reply others. Used well, B&W creates a kind of mystery. Shapes become more vivid. Light and shadow acquire a strange new force. The real hues of things are veiled in a thousand shades of grey, leaving you to ponder what the artist really saw. By contrast, colour fills in all the details in for you. Surely that is boring.

You Decide

  1. Would you watch TV if it was all in black and white?
  2. Are “black” and “white” colours?


  1. Watch the BBC’s video in Become An Expert. Then discuss: is the image improved by colour? Why (not)?
  2. Split the class into two groups. Over the next week, the people in one group have to create an artwork (drawing, photo, film) in monochrome; those in the other have to make one in colour. Then compare and contrast your works.

Some People Say...

“It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it.”

John Ruskin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The human retina consists of 126 million light-detecting cells. There are cone cells, which perceive colour, and rod cells, which deal with greys. Most researchers put the number of colours that cones can detect at around one million, but this number varies between people. The colour-blind can only see in the thousands, whereas people with rare genetic mutations can distinguish up to 100 million.
What do we not know?
Science aside, we continue to debate whether we all see the same colours. Just because you and I agree that red and blue are different doesn’t mean that our experiences of those colours are identical. Given that we cannot truly share another person’s perspective, this question is all but impossible to answer. But it makes for a good philosophical discussion.

Word Watch

Red Cross
A global network of humanitarian organisations which aim to help people in suffering. The flag is a red cross on a white background — an inversion of the flag of Switzerland, which is where the Red Cross was founded.
The Second World War in Colour
The colour photos were commissioned during the war by the British Ministry of Information. Only around 3,000 were taken; many of those printed in this book have never been seen before.
Oxford Dictionaries: “Extremely delicate and light in a way that seems not to be of this world; heavenly or spiritual.”
Herman Melville
In his novel Moby-Dick, Melville uses the white colour of the eponymous whale to great symbolic effect.
Shot in it
In fact, many contemporary B&W films are actually shot in colour then converted to monochrome. This is largely because colour film stock is now of a much higher quality, allowing for a wider range of tones, even when converted to B&W.
New exhibition
Monochrome runs until February 18th, 2018. It has received mostly positive reviews.
A million tones
See Q&A.

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