Master black-and-white art

Scorn Pourer by Steven Silverwood

Ever since humans plucked pieces of smouldering charcoal from the fire to draw on cave walls, artists have been concerned with the symbolism and power of black on a white or neutral background. But why work in black and white today when all the colours of the rainbow are available, at the click of a mouse?

“Working in one colour gives you nowhere to hide. Every line is laid bare and honest. Black-and-white artwork has a starkness about it that sticks in the memory,” says illustrator Steven Bonner (, who is based in Tullibody near Stirling.

Being colour-blind, Steven admits that he has always had a hard time with colour theory. Instead, he finds interest in shapes, lines, pattern and texture. On some pieces he employs sawtooth shading, pattern infills and halftones, whereas on more tonal works, he uses a lot of soft brushes in Photoshop to build up depth gradually. “It really depends on the final effect I want to achieve,” he says.

Emily Alston, working under the moniker Emily Forgot (, created a series of black-and-white drawings on ceramic plates for a group show called Sometimes I’ve Believed Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The drawings, which reference icons and pictograms, “were a challenge as the imagery is so simple”, she says.

?Iain Macarthur’s Boomblaster was a T-shirt commission

“When working in black and white you really have to give lots of other things consideration. It sounds obvious, but your choices of what should be block colour or remain line art are really important. Also, the weight of the line has to be considered.”

Depth and realism
At other times Emily, who lives in London, works tonally. Influenced by graphic designer Alan Aldridge, she uses gradients and shading to add depth and realism – an approach shared in part by Michael Ostermann ( “I always work with multi-tonal shading – it simply works best for me,” he says.

Based in Vienna, Michael usually starts with a photograph carefully chosen to set the mood of the overall image. “The next step is rendering out anything unwanted,” he says, “and then I fill in a solid grey background as I want the subject to stand out.

The 19th-century artist Aubrey Beardsley inspired Peacock by Iain Macarthur

“After that, I play around with a bunch of self-made resources. This is where I apply my feelings,” he says. “Sometimes I carelessly throw in chaotic elements, sometimes I really carefully and patiently place them in. Afterwards, I play around with filters and lightning, or pause to see if there are parts which need to be corrected.

“I never decide to use shading or anything else before I begin my artwork,” declares Michael, who works in Cinema 4D and Photoshop. “I start placing stuff first and then see if it needs more shading. Sometimes I shade with self-made resources, or I just use a round soft brush.”

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...