Grisaille Underpainting 101: Perfect Your Paintings With Grisaille

grisaille underpainting

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Are you struggling with realism in your art?

Do your paintings always end up looking overly flat, with no sense of dynamism at all?

Well! You’ve come to the right place. The grisaille underpainting technique that will be covered in the article below should be able to help you solve your problems.

Keep on reading to learn more!

What Is Grisaille Painting Technique?

The grisaille painting method is a technique in which an artist creates a monochromatic drawing or painting for the purpose of engraving or serving as an underpainting for oil painting.

The word “Gris” in Grisaille comes from the French word for ‘grey’.

It started out as a method for engravers to eliminate the risks of making mistakes in their work. They would draw in the design that they want to engrave before they start carving. This gray drawing serves as their reference. How deep they engrave will depend on the tone of the area that was marked.

A little later down the timeline, the grisaille technique became popular with oil painting artists and was better known as the “grisaille underpainting” technique.

what is grisaille painting technique
“Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Similar to how the engravers did it, the oil painter paints with pigments in neutral shades in order to easily create a realistic underpainting with accurate values. This mono-tonal underpainting will then be glazed over with the correct colors in order to create the final work.

If you want to see this process in more detail, have a look at the step-by-step demonstration of a grisaille underpainting below to learn more:

Grisaille Underpainting in 7 Quick-Steps

Step 1. Gather Materials Needed for Grisaille Painting

Grisaille underpainting is most compatible with the oil medium, so the supplies needed for this particular demonstration will lean toward that direction. As for the specifics, take a look at the following list for your own reference:

  • Paints: For grisaille, since the purpose is to paint more realistically, it’s better to work with artist-grade oil paints so that the process will go smoother. Also, Grisaille will require you to glaze over the initial underpainting to create the final work, and student-grade paints will not have as good an effect as professional-grade paints.
  • Painting Surface: Any surface compatible with oil paint is fine. Including but not limited to: canvas, wooden panels, stained glass and regular glass, etc.
  • Photo Editor: If your reference picture is in color, you’ll need a program that can change your reference to a monochromatic photo. The easiest way to do this is to add a filter on the photo using your phone’s ‘Photo’ app. Of course, doing this may distort the values of the reference a bit. So, if you like, you can use a more professional program.
  • Studio Lighting: If you prefer to work with live reference. Then you’ll need a good set of studio lights to properly separate lighter areas from the shadows.
  • Value Finder: Although not strictly necessary, if you’re struggling with differentiating values, you can purchase or print out your own value finder (e.g., Color Wheel ‘Grey Scale Value Finder’) to help you determine the light and dark areas during the grisaille underpainting process.

For brushes, paint mediums, etc. Whatever oil painting supplies you usually use will work just fine for underpainting grisaille. It’s a matter of preference. Just make sure that everything is ready for the next step!

Step 2. Select Your Preferred Colors for the Grisaille Underpainting

select your preferred color for grisaille underpainting
Mix Grey Colours by Dave Porters Art

Once you’ve collected and gathered your supplies, it’s time to proceed with other preparatory matters. In the case of underpainting grisaille art, one question that always crops up is ‘What color do you use for grisaille paintings?’

The simplest combination of paint pigments is “titanium white” and “ivory black”. With just these two colors, you can cover the entire value range — allowing you to draw the darkest areas and the lightest areas with ease.

Note! It’s not necessary to stick to black and white. If you prefer, you can play around with the tone of your grisaille underpainting by introducing other colors. For example, you can add warm red pigments or cool blue colors to your gray paint mixture. Anything is fine, there is no hard rule when it comes to colors used for underpainting.

BTW! If you’d like to try creating that kind of mono-tonal grisaille underpainting, another option is to exchange ivory black with darker colored pigments like burnt sienna, raw umber, or ultramarine blue. The process is simpler, but the result is about the same.

Step 3. Plan Your Composition

plan your composition
Start Painting Grisaille

Alright, it’s time to start working on the actual underpainting. The first actionable step is preparatory. The purpose is to sketch out your subject with pencil or with a thin brush.

You can do it just like Dave — the artist of the drawing in the image above — and just outline the subject for reference. This works just fine, and you can start with the first layer of your underpainting immediately.

However, if you’re a beginner and would like to practice your observation skills before actually putting paint on canvas, you can be a little more detailed and block in the light and dark areas in advance. Doing so will prepare you for the actual underpainting layer. After all, at this stage, you can make mistakes freely, as the sketch will be covered by the oil paint later.

Step 4. Establish Your Values – Find Light Source

find light source
Find the Light Source

When working with the Grisaille painting technique, the first thing to determine is the light source. In order to be able to establish your values properly and create a realistic final painting, knowing where the light comes from and how it affects the planes of your subject will be key in getting you off to a good start.

As can be seen in the image above, Dave first started by blocking in the highlights of the face. You can do this too to practice your hand. After blocking in the highlights, no matter what, you should be able to get a good grasp of the source of light and move on to the next step.

Step 5. Establish Your Values – Dark to Light

dark to light
Paint Shadows

The next step in the grisaille method is to paint the shadows. When oil painting, it’s always better to paint from dark to light, and that practice is not displaced here.

Furthermore, by blocking in the darker areas first, you have a reference from which to work. At the very least, you can compare with the value finder that was recommended before to determine whether or not your mid-tone layers are in place.

Step 6. Blend Subsequent Layers to Create a Smooth Transition

blend subsequnt layers to create a smooth transition
Blend Layers

After you’ve blocked in all of your values, the resulting underpainting grisaille is probably a bit of a mess. The best way to smooth things out is to use a dry brush to slowly fill in transitioning shades — making the switch from dark to lighter areas more seamless.

Another more direct method is to use mineral spirits or turpentine to blend. If you want to use this method, make sure to do it carefully so as not to disturb the previous layers you’ve worked hard on!

Step 7. Refine Your Completed Grisaille

refine your completed grisaille
Add Final Grisaille Details

The last step of this painting technique breakdown is refinement. This is when you fill in the details of your painting and make sure that you’ve got the form and texture correct.

Many artists recommend taking a step back for a coffee or tea break at this stage. Just to allow your eyes to refresh and see the drawing for what it is without any bias and make adjustments accordingly.

How to Add Color to Your Grisaille Underpainting

One of the main reasons why the grisaille technique is so popular is that it makes it easier for an artist to apply color when the values have been set in gray. At least, this way, you don’t have to worry about your oil painting having mismatched values because of failure in color matching.

As for how to turn your grisaille underpainting into a colored oil painting, the basics are as follows:

Step 1. Let Your Grisaille Underpainting Dry

let your grisaille underpainting dry
Dry Grisaille Underpainting by Matt Harvey Art

In order to make sure that your painting will be workable, it must be set aside to dry.

Depending on the oil paints that you use, this may take a while. But don’t be impatient! The oil paint should be completely dry so that the previous layers will not be disturbed too much when you apply your colored glazes.

Step 2. Add Translucent Glaze

add translucent glaze
Adding Blush-Red Glaze

Next, it’s time to start adding glazes! Oil paint can be thinned for glazing with the use of an oil painting medium — whether it be solvents like turpentine or oils like linseed oil, lavender spike oil, etc. Once the oil has been thinned, pick up the thinned paint with a medium-sized brush and gently apply it onto the dried underpainting. It can be any color, just match what you see.

One thing, if you’re working on figures or portraits, it’s best to start with the flesh first to get the hang of it. It’s very easy to apply flesh-colored paint on a gray grisaille underpainting. The grays in the background layers will automatically neutralize the red pigment in your translucent glaze — doing almost half of the work for you!

Step 3. Apply Thicker Paint

apply thicker paint
Add Opaque Layer

After you’ve finished applying the thin translucent glazes, you can move on to adding thicker colored pigment to build up form and texture.

A medium-dry brush is best for working at this stage. It’s only when you’ve adjusted the colors appropriately that you should work with a dryer brush to fill in the details.

grisaille painting
Add Finishing Touches with Dry Brush

Quick Tips for Improving Your Grisaille Technique

If you’ve tried painting grisaille in the past and have yet to see any good results, here are some quick tips that you can try to ease the way:

  • Use High Contrast References: As a beginner, you should pay attention to the reference photo you use and, if possible, seek out reference photographs that are high in contrast for easier painting. This way, the values of your subject will be much clearer.
  • Focus on Shapes not Details: When shading, it’s easy to get distracted by the details on the subject and ignore its actual values. As an example, when drawing the face, although what’s in front of you is a nose, a pair of eyes, and a mouth, what you should pay attention to is the shape of the highlights on the bridge of the nose, the dark area under the mouth, etc.
  • Pay Attention to Painting Technique: Pay attention to your painting technique when working on your grisaille underpainting. As mentioned in the tutorial above, you should work from thin to thick and dark to light. Some beginner artists don’t pay attention to this rule and end up with cracked paintings and poor realism. Don’t make the same mistake!

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Best Color for Grisaille Underpainting?

There is no actual ‘best’ color for grisaille underpainting. It all depends on preference.

Some artists prefer to stick to the simplest form and paint in black and white. Whilst others experiment with other neutral shades (e.g., burnt sienna, payne’s gray, etc.) to match the color palette of their artwork and make it easier to add color on top of the finished underpainting later.

what is the best color for grisaille underpainting?
“Battesimo Della Gente” by Andrea del Sarto

What Brush Is Best for Underpainting?

What brush is best for underpainting depends on what stage of the underpainting you are on.

When painting the first layer, a medium-sized flat brush with softer bristles can help you paint flat washes of tones. After, hog-bristle brushes of a smaller size are used for applying thick paint and dry-brushing transitioning tones, whilst the thinnest and smallest brushes can be put down till the end for adding detail.

Is Grisaille the Best Method for Underpainting?

Grisaille is not necessarily the best method for underpainting, but it is the most straightforward and simple.

The cost is low — you only need black and white paint. Also, a finished grisaille painting can be considered a finished artwork of its own and doesn’t actually need to be a background layer for a colored painting.

What Is the Difference Between Grisaille and Verdaccio?

The difference between the two are the colors used. Grisaille, as mentioned, can be said to be the simplest form of underpainting — using black and white. Meanwhile, Verdaccio is a painting method that uses shades of green. In this way, verdaccio can be said to be most suitable with landscapes focusing on greenery and other similar subjects.

what is the difference between grisaille and verdaccio?
“A Chinoiserie Procession of Figures Riding on Elephants with Temples Beyond” by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

What Is the Difference Between Grisaille and Imprimatura?

The difference between grisaille and imprimatura is that grisaille is done in grey tones whilst imprimatura is done in earthy tones (e.g., burnt sienna, raw umber, red oxide, etc.). What you use depends on your preference and subject matter, as there will likely be areas in the finished painting where the underpainting is not completely covered.

Can You Do Grisaille With Acrylic Paint?

Yes, you can do grisaille with acrylic paint. Some artists prefer to do so because acrylics dry faster than oil paint. In any case, oil paint can be painted on top of acrylic paint, so there is no big problem. It’s just that you have to remember that you can’t paint acrylics over oil paintings! Don’t get them mixed up later.

Improve Your Oil Painting with Grisaille Today!

Learning how to paint Grisaille is undoubtedly one of the best ways to improve your oil paintings and make your artwork more realistic. Not only will it not cost you any money, but it will also exercise your skills. If you want to take your art to the next level, make sure to give it a try!

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