Shades of Grey, Black-and-White and Colour

Sarah Street, Principal Investigator.

The last room of the National Gallery’s current exhibition Monochrome: Painting in Black and White (30 Oct 2017-18 Feb 2018) is a large-scale art installation called Room for one colour by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The installation uses single-frequency-monochromatic sodium-yellow lights that suppress all the other colours in the spectrum. This causes visitors to experience a heightened visual perception of shades of grey, black-and-white. As Jennifer Sliwka, co-author of the exhibition catalogue with Lelia Packer, explains: ‘The sensation experienced in this room is one of stepping into a black-and-white photograph or film where, in the absence of other colours, the eye registers the fine detail of line, shade and contour and detects many more shades of grey in the scale of black to white. The effect is a kind of enhanced vision that heightens our awareness and perception of the space, people and objects around us’ (2017: 205).

This was an impressive way to conclude an exhibition that focuses on the power of the monochromatic image in painting which in addition says much about the impact of colour. The exhibition covers traditions of monochromatic painting, showing how black-and-white was used by artists for preparatory studies to enhance their understanding of light, tone and shadow prior to executing a work in colour. But it was also used as a specific choice. The context for this could be religious, with monochrome works seen as conducive to spirituality, or as imitative of other media including sculpture, printmaking, photography and film. The exhibition is full of fascinating images including The Nativity (c. 1450, Petrus Christus), a devotional oil-on wood panel colour painting with an illusionistic architectural grisaille, or monochrome ‘frame’ that resembled a medieval church portal. This was intended to function as a contemplative gateway into the painting. A later section of the exhibition concentrates on monochrome painting in the age of photography and film, with examples of painters who responded to new technologies by producing rival works such as The Tempest (Peder Balke, c. 1862) that resembles early black-and-white photographic imagery. In the twentieth century, paintings by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter were inspired by a range of ‘new’ media source materials such as newspapers, photographs and newsreels.

In spite of its title, the exhibition is very much about colour, the effect of its relative absence or juxtaposition with black-and-white. As the Eliasson installation demonstrated, shades of grey are indeed multifarious and should not be thought of as colour-less. David Batchelor draws attention to a ‘paradox’ of grey: ‘As the non-colour of line, grey is often elevated above colours and is held by some to be a prerequisite of greatness in art; but as a colour, or a colour-idea, grey is habitually derided as less than a colour, or at least less than other colours, and is often an object of scorn and ridicule…Only when it is looked at more closely – and when grey is compared with another grey – do the colours of grey make themselves visible’ (2014: 78). And black also has variations of tone, intensity and shade. Vantablack, developed by Surrey NanoSystems and used by artist Anish Kapoor, is a super-black coating made of vertically aligned carbon nanotube arrays. It is currently one of the darkest artificial substances known, absorbing nearly all incident light. Its reputation as being capable of representing a complete void of nothingness immediately invites comparison with reflective blacks, making quite literally clear the depths to which scientists will go to develop ‘the blackest black in the world’ (Surrey NanoSystems, 2017).

The advocacy of a comparative, contextual and intermedial understanding of colour is at the heart of these debates, and as suggested by the Monochrome exhibition. This encouraged me to think of how some of the films we are investigating in our Eastmancolor Revolution project show a similar fascination with the relationship between colour and black-and-white by including both in the same image or film. The tradition of doing so had a distinguished heritage in Technicolor films, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and is a feature of later films including Wings of Desire (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), The Icicle Thief (1989), Pleasantville (1998) and Frantz (2017). There is no consistent pattern to these choices, although generally black-and-white is taken as a signifier of a more sterile, even cerebral world-view in accordance with classic disegno vs colore thinking. While Dorothy’s escape from the sepia-tones of Kansas was animated by a shift to the chromatic vibrancy of Oz, for Powell and Pressburger the shades of heaven were black-and-white (‘One is starved for Technicolor up there’ declares Conductor 71).

During the years covered by our project some interesting examples have been identified, including Stop the World I Want to Get Off (Philip Saville, 1966), Benefit of the Doubt (Peter Whitehead, 1967), Separation (Jack Bond, 1967), The White Bus (Lindsay Anderson, 1967), Herostratus (Don Levy, 1967), The Other People/Sleep is Lovely (David Hart, 1968), If… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968), Tell Me Lies (Peter Brook, 1968), Joanna (Mike Sarne, 1968) and O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973). Once again, there appear to be different approaches to creating shifts from black-and-white to colour but one is always searching for a rationale. There is however no doubt that using both colour and black-and-white accentuate the qualities of both while encouraging compositional precision and an active, occasionally authorial approach to colour choices in respect of directors, production and costume designers. Lindsay Anderson famously included both in If… as an impressive Brechtian device that was also a resourceful means of overcoming lighting issues, as with the filming of the black-and-white chapel scenes. But Anderson had already experimented with the technique in The White Bus, a short film adapted by Shelagh Delaney from one of her short stories, and was clearly interested in using the technique later in O Lucky Man!

The White Bus follows a young woman’s (Patricia Healey) disenchantment with London and return home to an unnamed northern city (filming locations were Salford and Manchester) where she takes a bus tour. Using a somewhat surreal, quirky approach with a touch of humour, colour bursts forth in the film in a number of shots that are interspersed with the black-and-white used for the majority of the film’s footage. The tour’s ‘sights’ include a library, an art gallery, a factory, numerous civic buildings, a school and a housing estate, with local officials, including the Lord Mayor (Arthur Lowe) and foreign visitors, also taking the trip. Colours saturate an environment that might otherwise appear uniform, as with the images shot in the factory, or for swatches of fabric that resemble industrial colour films from the Technicolor years such as This is Colour (1942) and Steel (1945).

Using a different approach whereby the majority of the film is in colour but with black-and-white shots and scenes interspersed, Joanna is a prime example of a graphically composed approach to design in which very precise choices have been made for the colours of costumes, décor, cars, indoor and outdoor settings. Using strong primaries and complementary colours, the film is a strange mixture of conveying Joanna’s (Geneviève Waite) dreams – both pleasurable and shocking – and her vacuous life in 1960s London as an art student. The film also features a sequence in Morocco, again filmed with acute chromatic interest and in contrast to the film’s London settings. Joanna’s conscious evocation of nouvelle vague sensibilities encourages a visual palette that incorporates contemporary designs and artworks while reserving black-and-white for signalling narrative shifts, for example when Joanna visits her dying friend Peter (Donald Sutherland) in hospital. We see the scene in black-and-white but later in the film, when Joanna is recalling his last words, it is in colour and shot with different camera angles. The complementary colours of Joanna’s orange dress and a green curtain stand out in an otherwise white set. As the camera tracks back the white expanse appears to expand like a void in the foreground; it is an impressionistic shot that contrasts with the ‘real’ footage of the room seen previously in more ‘realistic’ black-and-white.


Yet another approach to using colour and black-and-white can be seen in Separation, an experimental film written by Jane Arden who plays a woman whose perspective similarly alternates between subjective fantasy and reality, past recollections interspersed with her relationships with an estranged husband and lover. Years after being more or less excluded from the critical record, the film was released on DVD by the BFI in 2009 (BFIVD828). Mainly shot in black-and-white, Separation is however significant for colour because of its inclusion of liquid light projections by Scottish artist Mark Boyle. He was known for his innovative light-shows at the UFO Club, London, working with the music group Soft Machine. His projections were used in a number of performance events during the 1960s and were associated with psychedelia. Unlike the precise, graphically-designed imagery of Joanna, the projections in Separation accentuate the dynamism of colour as part of moving imagery, with continuously dissolving patterns projected onto Jane’s body and reflected on the wall behind her. Boyle’s aim was for his projections to evoke ‘patterns of line shape colour texture, but [also] patterns of experience’ (Wilson, 2005) which is appropriate for the film’s evocation of Jane’s psychological interiority and self-reflexivity of herself as a woman in the mid-1960s.

What’s striking from this brief survey is how incorporating monochrome, black-and-white and colour accentuated the qualities of each while encouraging us not to see them as separate in terms of constituting chromatic shades, light and form. Colour is profoundly relational, an understanding that invites thinking about its function and use in different media, from painting to light shows and experimental films. As the Monochrome exhibition so vividly communicates, when one leaves the last room having experienced the heightened perception of grey, black and white, the shock of seeing the ‘real’ colour of your garments is truly impressive.


Batchelor, D. (2014), The Luminous and the Grey, London: Reaktion Books

Packer, L. and Sliwka, J. (2017), Monochrome: Painting in Black and White, London: National Gallery

Surrey NanoSystems (2017):

Wilson, A. (2005), ‘Artist who pioneered the psychedelic light show’, the Guardian, 10 June 2005,



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: