Monochrome is a visual art characteristic in which an image is composed of varying shades of the same color. A grayscale picture is a common example of monochromatic imagery, but monochrome images can also use variations of different hues like sepia or cyan. Some electronic devices—especially older ones—display monochrome images by default.
Uses of monochrome
Although monochromatic color schemes can be found in industries like fashion and interior design, they are most common in visual art and electronic displays.
The most common monochrome visual art medium is film photography. Multi-color photography didn’t emerge as an easy-to-use consumer medium until the 1930s, and even then black and white film was more common because it was less expensive. However, early photography methods like daguerreotypes and cyanotypes preceded film as monochromatic mediums. Examples of black and white film photography, cyanotype, and daguerreotype images are below:
Black and white film negative of Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 (Source: Library of Congress)
Cyanotype of Col. Theodore Roosevelt at Montauk Point in 1898 (Source: Library of Congress)
Daguerreotype of the editorial staff of the New York Tribune between 1844 and 1860 (Source: Library of Congress)
Monochrome images also appear in electronic device displays. Early CRT computer monitors usually displayed only one color—typically green, amber, or white—on a black screen. With these displays, all characters and graphics that the computer generated would appear in that single color. In the 1980s, multi-color displays became more popular among consumers. They quickly became the standard, and the rise of LCD screens eventually replaced monochromatic CRT monitors altogether.
Many electronic devices still use monochrome displays today. Night vision devices, for example, typically produce monochromatic green images because they make it easier to see contrast in low-lighting environments. Similarly, devices like thermostats, point-of-sale hardware, and alarm clocks often use monochromatic displays out of practicality because they do not require detailed graphics.
Monochrome vs. grayscale vs. black and white
Monochrome, grayscale, and black and white are similar concepts that are often used interchangeably, but they are not completely synonymous.
Images that are referred to as black and white are actually grayscale—they consist of a wide spectrum of gray shades that include black and white on opposite ends. True black and white images use only those two shades to indicate shadows and highlights. They have high contrast and are often used to create stencils. Therefore, all black and white images are considered grayscale, but not all grayscale images can be considered black and white.
Similarly, all grayscale images are considered monochromatic because they use different shades of the same hue. Any image, however, can also be monochromatic if it uses varying shades of a single hue, whether it’s gray or something else. Sepia tone, for example, is a monochromatic color scheme that consists of different shades of brown. In this context, all grayscale images are considered monochromatic, but not all monochromatic images can be considered grayscale.
This article was updated by Kaiti Norton.