Am I blue? You’d be too if you only had one color to paint with.
Or is it a deliberate choice?
You may have heard about Pablo Picasso’s infamous “Blue Period”. Between 1901 and 1904 Picasso painted essentially monochromatic paintings in shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colors. Well, monochromatic or limited palette paintings don’t just occur at an artists whim or because he or she is feeling sad. Sometimes a monochromatic image can have a greater impact then a painting that uses the full range of paint colours.
Monochromatic painting has been part of the avante garde since the end of the 19th century, but science fiction and fantasy artists use monochromatic painting techniques to a great effect. One of the most obvious examples is found in the works of James Bama. During the 1960’s Bama was comissioned to paint a series of covers for the paperback re-issues of the old Doc Savage adventures. Bama chose to emphasize the science fiction elements of the old pulp adventures and he chose to paint in an extremely limited palette, using usually only two colours but sometimes only using one. Several of his Doc Savage paintings are done mostly in sepia or red but some were done in one tone of green, blue, even purple.
These covers were effective as the lack of colour allowed Bama to concentrate solely on composition and detail. As a result these images have an amazing impact. The poses and compsition draw the attention, which is exactyly what you wanted a paperback to do as it sat on a rack with so many others… it needed to stand out! And these do. The detail then draws you in. The detailing is so exact that one could mistake them for photographs, which, again, is enhanced by the limited palette of color.
Monochromatic paintings, or paintings with limited palette have the advantage of favoring composition. Without a broad range of colour choice the artist is given the freedom to work the image and maximise its impact. No other artist demonstrates this aspect of painting than Frank Frazetta. His use of muted and limited colors help to emphasize the strength of his ability to compose a picture. Frazetta’s images are like a punch in the gut and the limited color palette has a lot to do with that impact. Nothing distracts the viewer from the power of Frazetta’s compositional skill.
Take his DEATH DEALER image as an example. The colours are a mixture of blacks, sepias and other muddied brown colours with only a small bit of red to enhance. There is a vague suggestion of fire in the background but there are two red hot glowing embers of red for the eyes that stare out at the viewer like a challenge to the death. The little bit of fiery red reflected on the Death Dealer’s axe suggests that he’s slain many this day and you may be next.
Even today with digital painting becoming the standard method for artists to produce images, and where colour costs nothing, the choice to paint in monochrome or limited palette is even more impactful than ever. Take a recent image by polish digital artis Marek Okon for the cover of the comic book SHRAPNEL:Aristeia Rising. Okon’s choice to use a very limited range of colour ads to the overall impact of the composition. The strong composition catches the viewer’s eye. The limited colours the allow him to concentrate on the details of the image which draws thew viewer in even further.
Another artist who worked in an extremely limited color palette was Swiss Surrealist H. R. Giger. His disturbingly macabre airbrush paintings were limited to beige and grey, Giger’s favorite colors. Supposedly these were the colors of his beloved siamese cat, The limited palette certainly does not detract from but only manages to enhance the impact of his work.
Take a look around at some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy art. You may be surprised to find that a lot of them… some of the best… have made a real impact on you with a limited, but smart use of color.