Why grisaille?

Your painting should be a carefully judged pas de deuxbetween reality and your own vision. That’s best worked out before you start adding a million different color variables.

There are days when I just want to think compositionally, without any reality or detail cluttering up my mind. Monochrome is the best way I know to do this.

I have a student who has started painting in monochrome as he learns to master color. It’s a great idea; I might insist on it, except it would result in revolution. People love ‘color’ but fail to see that value is color’s anchor. However one expresses darks, their pattern is what drives a painting. It’s best seen in monochrome, before you add in hues.

By removing the hue question, Mark is doing the equivalent of practicing one hand of his difficult piano sonata at a time. It’s a time-honored technique because it works.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy the Courtauld Gallery

A grisaille (pronounced ‘griz-EYE’) is a painting done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral. It can take the form of an underpainting or can be a finished painting in itself. It’s not generally done in lieu of a pencil sketch or notan, but rather as a discrete step in the process of planning a painting.

It is possible to start a painting with just hash-marks on the canvas. Some excellent painters do this; however, for the beginner, that’s the circus trapeze without a net.

Historically, grisaille has been used for finished works of art. This was particularly true in decorative painting, where grisaille might serve as a sort of trompe l’oeilfor sculptural relief. Paint, even in the hands of a master, is cheaper than marble.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, above, was a personal painting owned by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his descendants. It’s tiny, roughly 9X12. Its character and intimacy are enhanced by being in monochrome. In that way, it has the feel of a fine drawing.

Odalisque in Grisaille, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and his workshop, 1823-24, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sometimes popular paintings were copied in monochrome to simplify life for engravers. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ copy of his La Grande Odalisque, above, is one such example. There lies a lesson for students: if engravers, who are skilled artisans in their own right, find it difficult to track value, how much harder is it for new painters?

Mostly, grisaille has been done as underpainting. Until the Impressionists, with a few exceptions, painting was done in what is called ‘indirect painting.’ Paint was applied in thin layers, or glazes. The underpainting was laid down in a thinned form, usually (but not always) in monochrome. This layer also served to tone the canvas. After it dried, subsequent thin washes of color were worked over the top. The underpainting was allowed to mingle with the glaze colors. It’s a powerful technique, but not as lyrical or free as alla prima painting.

A small underpainting grisaille example I made for my students.

Alla prima doesn’t really require any underpainting, but it’s an act of incredible courage to just start daubing on a blank canvas. Few artists are that brave—or foolhardy, depending on how you look at it. So, we tend to do exactly the same thing as our predecessors—a thin wash of paint, usually in grisaille, that tells us where stuff is supposed to go. Of course, we must learn to judge that first wash to a nicety. Too stiff, and the underpainting is too thick. Too goopy, and everything above it turns to soup.

If the composition reads well at this value-study phase, the painting is almost always going to work, providing you stick with your plan. If it doesn’t, you’re unlikely to salvage it.

All value judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye. Your painting should be a carefully judged pas de deux between reality and your own vision. That’s best worked out before you start adding a million different variables in the form of hues.

Monday Morning Art School: mastering value

The essence of alla prima painting is to nail the color on the first pass.

The top of this canvas is a simple grisaille; the bottom is a single layer of paint applied right over that. This is the gist of alla prima painting. 

You cannot overstate the importance of valuein painting. Even when artists represent value with hue(a technique pioneered by the Impressionists) the dark shapes in a painting have a form. That form drives our perception and guides us through the painting. There are various ways to get this right, but the most common is a quick value sketch. I ask watercolor students to then make a value study in paint before they start their finished project. I have oil and acrylic students do their paint study in the form of a rough grisaille on their canvases. It has to be thin, and it has to be worked fairly dry, or you can’t paint over it.

Where early oil painters sometimes trip up is in making that bottom layer too dark, thick, or soupy. Then, they hope they can somehow lighten it up by adding white back in. Indirect painting works almost like this, so they may have seen something similar on a video. In indirect painting, the artist works into this dark layer; in modern direct painting, or alla prima, it’s there as a roadmap, so it’s applied more lightly.

Close-value mixing is the heart of painting, and the hardest mixing to do.

Direct painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is au premier coup, or to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. When people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them.

All color is relative, and that’s particularly true when it comes to value. Above see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other. This is why oil painters should tone canvases, by the way.

I made the oil-painting sample at the top of this page for my students. The top is the value study; the bottom is a finished painting. I keep it around to demonstrate that when we say “darks to lights” we don’t mean a thick mask of dark paint; we mean that we think through our values in that order. (In watercolor, we do the same thing, but the application is reversed to go from light to dark.)

Copy and print me.

To mix paint accurately you must become absolutely conversant with the colors on your own palette. You can download this pigment test chart and print it on watercolor paper (trimmed to size) on your laser printer. Or, just grid off a canvas or paper to match. (Don’t try doing this in watercolor on plain copy paper. It isn’t sized, and your pigment will just sink.)

Use the pigments you usually have on your palette (if there’s more than eleven, we may need to talk).

What is the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube? Compare it to that scale above.


The first step is to identify the natural value of your paint, straight out of the tube. For oil painters, this is easy. For watercolorists, it’s a bit of work to figure out what that really darkest point is, because it’s never the same as it appears on your palette. The colors wetted are a better guide, but you’ll need a test paper handy to experiment.
Your finished exercise should look something like this.

When you figure out the darkest natural position of that pigment, paint it in the appropriate position on your scale. Then make lighter steps to match the greyscale strip you’ve printed from the sample above. For watercolorists, that means dilution. For oil and acrylic painters, that means cutting with white.

There are three things to remember:

  1. These judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.  
  2. You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.
  3. All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar. 

Monday Morning Art School: why follow the rules?

There is broad consensus on how paint is applied, even if you take your craft to places I’ve never dreamed of.
The Race, by Tim Moran, watercolor on cold-press paper.
If you’ve studied with me for any length of time, you know I’m big on protocol. “Do it this way now,” I urge my students. “Then when you go back to your everyday painting, you can incorporate the things that work and discard what doesn’t work for you.”
The business of laying down paint is a craft, one that’s been developed over millennia. It’s possible to take this craft to new places, but only on a firm foundation of technique. That doesn’t mean I think that things don’t change; if they didn’t, we’d all be still painting encaustic funerary portraits a la the Romans. But there is still broad consensus on how oil paint and watercolor paint are applied. When you take my class, you’re not getting anything new. Everything I tell you, I learned from someone else.
Tim’s first value sketch.
What’s different is that I’ve written these instructions down as protocols. I’ve already shared them with you: here in oil, and here in watercolor. Students usually balk at the idea of spending so much time in the preparatory stages, particularly if they know an excellent painter who doesn’t bother. There are some. These are usually people who have a tremendously refined sense of design, and can do the first steps in their heads. People who do that well, by the way, are not that common.
I also assign homework to make sure these protocols are locked down in my students’ heads. Last week, watercolor student Tim Moran came in with such a perfectly-executed process that I asked him if I could share it with you.
Tim’s redesign, done after he did his monochromatic painting.
Tim started with a value drawing in his sketchbook of four sailboats racing off Camden. He did that because identifying a strong value structure at the beginning is the most important thing a watercolor artist can do to make a strong painting.
Then he did a monochromatic value study, using a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine to make a dark neutral. This was where he made choices of his values for lights and darks. It’s a crucial step in being able to apply watercolor confidently. Being unsure of the color makes us naturally diffident.
But Tim was not just blindly following my instructions here. He was also thinking. And what he thought was that the four-boat structure was static. So, he went back—literally—to the drawing board, and reconfigured his drawing to be three boats.
Tim’s monochromatic painting, at top, and his final painting, at bottom. Note that he’s testing his paints before he applies
He didn’t have to redo the monochromatic value study because the value structure was the same whether there were three or four boats. Instead he moved directly to the final painting.
Note that he tested his pigments on the left side of his paper. That test strip is another important part of watercolor that many people skip. The more thinking you’ve done about placement and composition before you start, the less likely you are to obliterate your light passages.
It’s a little harder to see those phases in an oil-painting student’s work because the monochromatic underlay gets obliterated in the final phase. But this is a class that’s taking my instruction very seriously. It’s days like this that remind me of how much I love to teach.

Black and white all over

A class exercise on design, and a chemistry question I can’t answer.
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art but the painting has been stolen.

Yesterday was the kind of day that drives poets mad. Just below freezing, it rained heavily, with gusts of wind. Our plein air painting class was forced into the studio.

grisaille (pronounced griz-eye) is a painting done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral color. Historically, it was used as decorative painting in imitation of sculpture. Some are what we moderns call duotones. They have subtle colors added to extend the value range. But for our class, they would be strictly in black and white.
Abstract design by Christine Covert

Painting runs along two parallel tracks. The first is design. This is why painting teachers relentlessly push students to do thumbnails and other value sketches. Value is our most important tool. Get it right, and you can be wrong about a lot of other things.

(I came to this realization late, by the way. I studied with Cornelia Foss, who tinkers endlessly with the ‘rules’ of painting. From her I got the hairbrained idea of minimizing value as a structural concept. However, this was a misinterpretation on my part. That’s a good lesson in not asking the right questions at the opportune moment.)
Grisaille by Jennifer Johnson.
The second track is color. It’s so much more interesting in some ways that it can be a distraction to the beginning painter. Mixing paints is both difficult and exciting.
Of course, value is part of color. In color space, value is the range from black to white. All successful paintings have some kind of pre-meditated value range in them. A high-key painting is one in which the contrasts are extreme. A low-key painting is one in which the range is narrower. In either case, there must be midtones too. They are also part of the design process.
Grisaille by David Blanchard.
It’s a lot easier to experiment with value when you’re not fussing about color management at the same time. One way to familiarize yourself with this idea is to paint a ten-step scale ranging from black to white. That’s not a bad exercise, but it’s boring. Instead I asked my students to do the monochromatic still life that I assigned in Monday Morning Art School last month.
Grisaille by Chris Covert.
Before that, however, they did an abstraction in charcoal, based loosely on the drawing I included in yesterday’s blog. Charcoal is the most painterly of drawing tools, but this is something you can do in a sketchbook while watching TV. It is a bit intimidating for someone to ask you to do an abstract drawing, but if I call it “doodling,” you can relax and get on with it.
There are only two rules:
  • Have a full range of tones, not just a line drawing.
  • And no realistic objects belong in your drawing at all.

A question: One of my students has had a problem with red pigment from her toned boards bleeding into her final paintings. She prepared a sample board for me to test her M. Graham acrylics vs. a similar red from a very inexpensive craft paint. I tried the squares at 15 minute- and 30 minute-intervals. The M. Graham pigment bled into the white paint, but the craft paint did not. I then tried the same intervals using my own Golden-toned board. Again, there was no bleeding.
Acrylic is pigment suspended in acrylic polymer emulsion. It is supposed to be water-resistant when dried. That doesn’t mean it’s oil-resistant. I’m beyond my chemistry knowledge here, but if any readers can suggest what’s happening, I’d be very grateful.

It’s all about the traps, man

The Blue Umbrella, by Carol L. Douglas. Even without detail, you should be able to see that there are three different species of palm in this painting.
There are 629 living species of conifer in the world. In contrast, there are 2600 known species of palm trees, with the greatest diversity being on islands. They range in shape from draping to spiky to fan-shaped to pom-pom.
Studying the differences between trees helps me get the structure right in my paintings. In Karl’s Garden, yesterday, there were three different species shading the table. It’s a challenge to paint them accurately without being pedantic.
I vary my compositional technique depending on the subject. When I’m unsure about positioning, I sketch on paper, crop my sketch, and transfer the result to my canvas. For boats and buildings, I use a watercolor pencil and a straight edge. I draw directly on the canvas, using water for erasure. 
In my studio, I often start with an abstracted grisaille. This can be risky in the field, since those sloppy wet darks can migrate up into the painting, creating mud. Being rigorous about the fat-over-lean rule helps prevent this. So does marrying the underpainting color to the final shadow color. For this reason, I often end up using a violet-blue rather than the more conventional desaturated reddish-brown.
The rare and elusive pom-pom palm, at Coral Beach in Freeport.
We couldn’t get odorless mineral spirits in the Bahamas. Our choices for solvent were conventional white spirit or turpentine. We chose turpentine. It dries very fast, making the bottom layer less squishy than it would be at home. Going directly to paint meant I could develop paintings that relied on patterning, rather than modeling.
I like complicated images (even though I usually regret them halfway through the painting). I look for angles, light, and, most importantly, the negative space created by the objects. Then I determine where on the canvas the most important elements should fall. Quite literally, I paint quick circles in those spots and then stretch and bend the other objects to fit into the space.
The branching structure varies widely, as do the evergreen, pinnate leaves.
There’s a limit to what a grisaille can tell you about composition. In addition to value structure, paintings have chromatic structure. That was where I went wrong with the painting I wiped out this week. I didn’t take into consideration the coolness of the sea and sky when I was doing my underpainting. If I had, I could have swept them through the painting.
I had a painting teacher once who liked to intone “there is no negative space.” She was trying to say that there are no areas of the painting where nothing important is happening. This is true. However, it is useful to have a term to describe the interstices between objects. In painting a complicated image, those negative spaces are critical. For trees, the silhouette is important, but the traps—that negative space where sky shows through the canopy—is paramount.
After we’d downed brushes for the last time, we took a short car ride. There a line of tankers waits to approach Grand Bahama. I didn’t want to paint it, but it was a lovely image.
My week of painting in the Bahamas is now over, and I head back to Boston this afternoon. “The real question,” I told Bobbi Heath this morning, “is, where am I heading next?”

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Barnyard at G and S Orchards, by Carol L. Douglas. 9X12, oil on canvas, $450, framed.
During Saturday’s class at G and S Orchards, my goal was to solidify the lesson from the prior week about painting into a monochromatic grisaille. This was something I used to do but had abandoned until I painted with Jamie WilliamsGrossman earlier this month. Then I remembered how much I enjoyed it.
Step one is a very rude value study. This gets simplified and refined with brush and rag.
One student went from his drawing right to masses of solid color. Nothing wrong with that, but I was a bit frustrated that he was totally ignoring my instructions. Eventually I realized he’d missed last week’s class because he had to sit for his SATs. But it was too late to show him on his canvas.
Step two is the addition of thin masses of color.
I quickly set up a demo for him. It was a small class so I was able to do rounds, come back and paint a bit on my canvas, call my student over to discuss what I’d done, and then repeat—over and over. I like being very busy and this was energizing. We did run over (about an hour and a half) because of this but nobody appeared to mind.
Here is Nina Koski’s monochromatic painting. She was able to correct a composition problem very early on, rather than have it dogging her through the whole painting.
Meanwhile, Nina Koski had taken my instructions of last week very much to heart and was turning out quite a lovely painting of roses along the barnyard. I managed to get some intermediate photos of hers as well, so you can look at two different painters using the same technique.
Here Nina Koski is starting to add color.
Nina, by the way, painted a small plein air painting almost every day last week. She’s an exemplar of that old joke:
“Excuse me sir, but how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice!”
And here is her finished painting. She’s only been painting a few months!
I have three openings left for my 2014 workshop in Belfast, ME. Information is available here.

Painting a small study using an indirect method

Note: I first posted this in April but managed to lose all the illustrations. Embarrassing for someone who prides herself on her computer literacy. I recently realized I was overworking the thing, and ought to just follow the software instead of trying to bend it to my will.

During Wednesday’s class I demonstrated a method of indirect painting where one starts with a monochromatic grisaille and then paints into it. I had so much fun with the demo that I decided to finish it, working with the monochromatic underpainting while still wet. (In true indirect painting, the grisaille is allowed to dry completely and then color is glazed into it in transparent layers. What I am doing is more properly called scumbling.)

I am working on a 5X7 RayMar linen art board (so these images are actually quite small). I start with a mix of two earth pigments, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber, thinned with Turpenoid.

The advantages of cartooning in paint instead of drawing are numerous: you can wipe out what you don’t like, you’re inclined to work in masses instead of lines, your sketch is temperamentally closer to the final painting, and you concentrate more on your painting than your drawing skills. Rubens drew in paint, as did Rembrandt.

Those who were in Wednesday’s class know that my first sketch had two figures. But when I returned to it on Thursday, I could no longer remember where I was going with it, so I wiped it out. I decided (for no particular reason) to paint “Ruth amid the corn” for my subject.

While the first drawing was a sensitive rendering, it is a static composition, completely in profile. So I wiped it out and redrew it. The second draft is a rather brutish woman, but I liked the pose.

At this point I began to consider what I wished to say about Ruth. In the Bible story, she is starving, but remains beautiful enough to attract Boaz. She is an alien, but her story culminates in her being the great-grandmother of King David. She is both a poor woman and the ancestor of a King. The other women working in the field are separated from Ruth but aware of her. (The Book of Ruth can be read here.) I developed this stage by adding layers of paint and wiping it away where necessary. These layers were not completely dry as I was working over them, in contrast to a true grisaille, but I was able to add additional pigment without disturbing the lower layers. The goal at this point was to clearly develop the values (darks and lights) and begin to add texture. As I was not working with any reference (either a model or photos), the figure and face are unfortunately somewhat stylized.

I chose a transparent palette with mainly 20th century pigments: chromatic black, phthalo emerald, hansa yellow, Indian yellow, napthol red, quinacridone violet, ultramarine and phthalo blue. I chose this palette based on personal preference, because it certainly isn’t historically correct. Since the 20th century pigments were developed for direct painting, the end result is kind of quirky.

I glazed Ruth’s dress in blue as befits the ancester of a King (see representations of the Virgin). When the color was added, I noted a number of drafting errors—in the arm, in the basket, and in the placement of the eye. I could have corrected these in the transparency but didn’t feel like scrubbing them out on such a small canvas. Instead, I will correct them with opaque paint.

At this point I added two whites to my palette: zinc (for glazing) and titanium (for opaques). Zinc white tends to be warmer and more brittle than titanium white, which is extremely cool. It is important to begin using medium at this stage.

I began to experience the limitations of my brushes. I have been direct painting for so long that I no longer have sable or synthetic brushes. The hog bristle brushes I have are adequate but leave brushmarks unless you overwork the surface. I also have no tiny brushes, and I am working on a very small surface. Oh, well.

As I began adding white, I was also modeling chromatically. By underpainting in a warm tone, I have set up the painting so the light areas must be cool and the shadows warm. In these blues, I used a combination of violet and phthalo in the highlights, phthalo blue and emerald in the shadows, and ultramarine in the midtones.

I became aware of an annoying composition problem in the lower right corner, where the leg slices off a triangle. I could solve this by reducing the contrast and chroma in that corner, or by changing my drawing. I don’t like the bare leg that much anyway; it might contribute to a sense of motion, but is nonsensical for Biblical-era women’s dress.

I began to add the white to the flesh tones, which only emphasized the difficulties in the lower right corner. Note that scumbling the transparent (zinc) white over the wet transparent earth tones in the blouse results in warm and interesting shadows.

I realized I need to add some opaque colors in order to develop the skin tones and background. I choose yellow ochre, chromium oxide green, and raw sienna (modern earth pigments are more opaque than the historic ones). It’s a little picture, so I put out small amounts of paint.

The flesh is rather flat (I’m blaming my brushes), and my drafting errors have become more obvious. Note that I don’t strive for transparency in the skin tones at all. Rembrandt had a delightful way of painting solid faces into figures which were essentially transparencies (here, for example). I love it, even if I am not particularly good at it.

I decided to reduce the size of the figures in the background, and integrated a pale sky into the painting. Note that I was constantly refining the figure, the draperies, and the face with every iteration. In addition, I was reducing the contrast in the blue drape.

It was time to rid myself of that pesky leg. (I could have fixed the drafting, but that wasn’t the leg’s primary problem; its position was the issue.) Note that I used chromatic modeling on the white skirt even though the russet tones weren’t pulled up from the underpainting. Also, I was steadily reducing the contrast in the blue drapes while increasing the chromatic range.

One issue with using 20th century pigments was becoming apparent. Many of them (the phthalos in particular) are high-stain colors. With little provocation they will bleed or track into neighboring sections of the painting. The painter must take extra care to manage this.

But—gack!—that eye! I’ve put up with it in the wrong place long enough. I had great fun introducing a stone wall and ruffles on the white skirt. It’s become somewhat more opaque than I intended but there are still passages which are transparent. Have developed the background figures as far as I want to… I think.

In that I have to teach tomorrow, I will let it dry thoroughly and then look at it again. There are shadows which need resetting, but perhaps I will take my friend Toby’s advice and work this up as a larger painting.

Just for fun, here are some other renderings of Ruth.

Marc Chagall, The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz

William Blake, Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Ruth im Feld des Boaz