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What Is Grisaille In Classical Oil Painting? Step-By-Step Guide

What is grisaille in classical oil painting?

​​What is Grisaille? Grisaille is a painting technique that involves using only gray or monochromatic tones to create the base of a painting. It comes from the French word "gris," which means gray. In classical oil painting, the technique is used as an underpainting, typically done in shades of gray or brown, that establishes the values and forms of the painting. It is often used in conjunction with glazing, which is the application of thin, transparent layers of color over the grisaille layer.

Grisaille allows painters to focus on the tonal values and composition of the painting before introducing color. Grisaille is commonly used in figurative and portrait painting, as well as in architectural and landscape painting to establish the basic shapes and forms.

The technique has a long history in classical painting and was widely used during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Today, it is still used by many painters as a way to establish the foundational values of a painting.

Demonstration by Tyler Hughes @tylerhughesart on Instagram shows a time lapse of the grisaille painting process.

How to use grisaille in classical oil painting:

1. Prepare the surface

Begin by preparing your canvas or surface with a toned ground. The tone can be a warm or cool color and should reflect the ultimate vision of your work. Warm browns are generally suitable for portraits and human figures.

2. Sketch the composition

Use a pencil or white chalk to sketch the composition on the canvas, establishing the basic shapes and values of the painting. You can block out individual masses to get them ready for a value scale.

3. Mix gray paint

Mix your gray paint by combining black and white paint. Adjust the ratio of black to white to create a range of values from light to dark. You can also create a value scale using a warmer range of colors as well, such as brown, but remember the goal is to establish the important values of the composition.

4. Apply the underpainting

Using a broad brush or a rag, apply the paint thinly to the canvas covering the entire surface. Your goal is to essentially paint the entire composition in its fundamental value based form. You should focus on establishing the important relationships of the various values without getting stuck in the details. Allow the paint to dry.

5. Add details

Once the underpainting is dry, use finer brushes to add limited details and refine the forms. You can also use a dry brush technique to add texture and interest.

Demonstration by Tyler Hughes, @tylerhughesart on Instagram, shows a time lapse of the grisaille painting process. Here he has already added some of the underpainting by using a mixture of black and yellow. Then he paints on top to create the light values and texture which will serve as a base for further glazing.

6. Glaze with color

Once the underpainting is complete, you can add color by glazing thin layers of transparent color over the gray underpainting. The gray underpainting will help to establish the tonal values and give the color a more cohesive and realistic appearance.

Demonstration by Tyler Hughes, @tylerhughesart on Instagram, shows a time lapse of the glazing and scumbling process.

Why use grisaille in classical oil painting?

By using the grisaille technique, you can establish the tonal values and forms of your painting before adding color. This can help to create a more cohesive and realistic painting. Additionally, the monochromatic underpainting can create a sense of depth and atmosphere that may be hard to achieve with the complications of color.

There are several reasons why you may want to use the grisaille technique for classical oil painting:

1. Value control

By painting in grayscale, you can focus solely on controlling the values (lightness and darkness) of the painting, without the distraction of color. This can help create a strong foundation for the painting before adding color. Many beginners in particular will get confused by the use of color, so this is an effective way to establish crucial value based contrast from the start.

2. Underpainting

The grisaille technique can also serve as an effective underpainting for a later color layer. The grayscale values act as a guide for where to place color and how light and shadow will fall on the subject. This makes adding color much easier and removes much of the confusion that arises when painting in color.

3. Time-saving

Grisaille can be a time-saving technique as it allows you to create a detailed painting with minimal layers of paint. It can also allow for quicker drying times, as there are no additional layers of wet paint to contend with. Plus it can establish key structures quickly.

4. Consistency

Working in grisaille can help ensure that the values of the painting are consistent throughout, providing a more cohesive and unified final result.

5. Traditional method

Grisaille is a classical technique that has been used for centuries, and is still used today in many classical and academic oil painting schools. It can provide a foundation in traditional painting techniques for anyone looking to learn from historical methods.

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