Grisaille makes realistic painting easier

Many artists have difficulty creating a full range of tones (lights and darks) using color.  They spend a lot of time adjusting lights and shadows because they just can’t seem to get them right on the first try.  To get all the lights and shadows just right with minimal fuss, try using a grisaille underpainting. The grisaille technique is commonly used in oil and acrylic painting, but it can be adapted for watercolor (more on that later).

     The French word “grisaille” means “gray tones.”  A grisaille is a monochromatic painting executed in gray tones ranging from dark to light.  The grisaille becomes a foundation for the artist to add transparent color overlays, called “glazes”. 

     This technique was used by many of the Old Masters, including Rembrandt, because it accomplishes three important things.  First, it allows the artist to concentrate on patterns of light and dark without the distraction of color.  Secondly, when the transparent colors are applied, the artist has more control over bringing the painting to a highly refined finish. 

     The third wonderful feature of the grisaille technique is that light will reflect down through the transparent color layers to the opaque grisaille, and then reflect back to strike the eye with rich color infused with shimmering light effects.  Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras called this kind of illumination the “inner light.”

Grisaille stage; Mims Studios atelier, NC, student copy after Jacques-Louis David’ “Patroclus” – oil on linen 48″ x 78″ – wikipedia

     One of the methods used by the Old Masters calls for titanium white, yellow ochre, raw umber and mars black. You will also use a medium to thin the paint and make mixing easier. Acrylic painters will use either water or acrylic medium.  If you’re using oil paint, try 3 parts turpenoid, 1 part Damar varnish, and 1 part stand oil.  (In oil, the idea is that your starting layer should dry quickly and the transparent color layers should dry more slowly.  Acrylics, fortunately, dry so quickly that there’s little worry about drying time.)

     Sketch the outlines of objects on the surface (canvas or wood panel) with a light pencil or charcoal.  Mix a pleasing neutral color tone using white, raw umber and black.  Try to hit a middle ground — not brown, not black, but something in between.  If it looks like graphite (pencil) you’re in business.  Begin blocking in the image.  Don’t freak out if you used charcoal for your drawing and it mixes with the paint — just keep the effects you like.

     Once the image is blocked in, mix a darker color and begin molding the forms with shadows.  Be a little careful about using brown to darken; you don’t want your picture to look like a cow pie.  It’s better to use black with a little white for darkening.  This will give coolness to your shadows. 

     Once the darks are done, use white and raw umber (NOT burnt umber) to create lighter areas.  If you use only white and black for darkening and lightening, your image will look like death eating a cracker.  It will have a pasty, gray, drained look.  The little touches of warm brown give the painting a healthy look while you’re developing it and also give a nicer range of tone transition.

     For the brightest highlights, use just a hint of yellow ochre mixed with white.  Be careful not to build up too much paint, because the texture will compete with the details for attention.

     When you’re happy with the grisaille underpainting, let it dry well.  Then begin mixing the color glazes using a little color and a lot of medium.  Build the color layers up slowly.  I think you’ll be surprised and pleased at how well the colors look applied over the grisaille. 

     A grisaille method can be used with watercolor.  Many of the earliest British watercolorists used a monochromatic grey underpainting (leaving the white of the paper as the whitest areas) over which they applied washes of color. You must be very careful that the underpainting is completely dry, and use a delicate touch — and as little water as possible — when adding the colors. 

     Another watercolor method is to mix a purple shade from ultramarine blue and cad red, and make a monochromatic underpainting with it.  Allow it to dry and then paint the colors over it (gently!).  You’ll be surprised how that purple “disappears” as you add color, and it provides a livelier shadow color than the grey underpainting. 

     If you’re into strongly realistic painting — try using a grisaille underpainting.  It can sometimes make all the difference.

Published by on May 2014. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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