Monochromatic blue photograph of mountains receding away from the camera.

Understanding monochromatic color schemes

october 6, 2023

Choosing a color palette for a design project can feel like a project of its own. A monochromatic color scheme can help designers use color in a visually engaging fashion.

What is a monochromatic color scheme?

Monochrome is a word with Greek roots. The first part, "mono," means "one," and the second half of the word, "chrome," means "color." So, while the word can be defined as being "one color," a monochrome color scheme doesn't simply mean that a picture is one composed of one single color.

Instead, a monochrome color scheme involves variations of a single color, or hue. A hue is the purest form of a pigment, especially when dealing with a paint color. When considering a monochromatic color scheme, think of your base hue as being a pure color that is unaltered.

The variations within a monochromatic design come from tints, tones, and shades.


When white is added to a base hue to lighten it, it's called a tint. Think about the difference between stop sign red and a pale pink rose. That pale pink is created by adding white to the primary color red.

Color palette showing different tints of the same color of blue.


A base color is dulled, or desaturated, by the addition of gray. Tone refers to how vibrant a hue is. A bright, vibrant yellow is dulled when gray is added, and becomes more saturated when gray is removed.

Color palette showing different tones of the same color of blue.


Black is added to a base hue to make it darker. Think of how dark forest green is when compared to a pure green hue.

Color palette showing different sades of the same color of blue.

A monochromatic color scheme is typically made up of a base hue and a selection of that hue's tint, shades, and tones to create a look that communicates the right message for your design and keeps the base hue from overwhelming your design.

Here's an a template created with multiple colors (on the left, below) and modified to use a monochromatic palette (on the right, below).

Why should you use monochromatic colors?

A monochromatic palette can benefit the design of your project in many ways:

  • By using variations of a single color, you can create a visually cohesive look for your project.
  • A busy design can feel less overwhelming with monochromatic colors. A simple color palette can help to pull a design together and make it feel more unified, even if there's a lot going on.
  • When editing photos, using monochromatic design can make your image more interesting and dynamic. Consider a black and white photo that appears in different shades of blue or red, and how that might evoke a different response.
  • It can create visual effects that add of texture and depth to an otherwise flat project. Even a neutral monochrome color scheme that uses brown as a base hue can be impactful and benefit your design.
  • Use color in unexpected, understated ways. Many monochromatic designs will rely on the central hue and use tints or shades as accents. One creative way to use monochrome is to create a palette that is primarily composed of tints, shades, and tones, and use the bright base color as an accent. This can make your design appear more professional and may be an unexpected design choice that really resonates with your audience.
  • A graduated monochrome color scheme can visually divide your designs. Color blocking is an excellent way to create a layout that's well-organized and easy to navigate, particularly in navigational design. If you're creating an app, different variations of a base hue can help distinguish between options, and graduated colors can help indicate an order of operations.
  • Keeping your color palette simple can be incredibly effective. It can be easy to get swept up in using lots of different colors, but that might become overwhelming. Lots of colors can look muddy and too many colors that are overly similar might be indistinguishable on some platforms. A simple palette is ideal for creating logos that stand out and adding color to designs. Don't distract from your design, use a simple monochromatic palette that packs a punch.

How to make a monochromatic color scheme

A monochromatic color scheme is a great choice for photography, digital art, web design, and home décor. Using dark and light variations of a base hue can create a sense of harmony or—depending on the chosen color and variations—drama.

When considering how to make a monochromatic color scheme that works for your project, the first thing you'll need to do is choose a base hue that aligns with the intent of your project or brand. You might have a design brief or a brand style guide to work off. Conversely, you might need to think about what you've created, the audience you're trying to reach, and the tone you're trying to convey.

A good idea for getting started is to experiment. A monochrome palette typically consists of three to seven variations of the original color. Choose a base color and narrow down the variations by seeing what works best. Consider how your palette will work throughout your design and what role each color variation will play.

A monochromatic color scheme is great for vibrant, bold designs with colors like red or orange. These bright base colors allow you to make a statement. The lighter tints and darker shades to help balance out the vibrancy and tones add depth. You can use this kind of color scheme to make an impact with your design, especially if you're using your most vibrant colors judiciously.

On the other hand, a monochrome design can elicit feelings of tranquility. Think about how spas are typically designed. The rooms are generally neutral palettes of brown or gray, which can help guests feel relaxed and rooted in nature. Other monochrome schemes may not use the base hue at all and may stick solely to the desaturated tones and lighter tints to create a calm mood. Grayscale can be effective for setting a tranquil, cozy tone as well.

Whether you're creating a brand that appeals to small children or editing photos, a monochromatic color scheme can be an incredibly effective tool for a designer.

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