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.

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.

Monday Morning Art School: ditching the color

A painted value study is a great tool for understanding your subject.

Pile of rocks value study, by Jennifer Johnson

Last week, I had you find and identify the simple shapes within a drawing. The prior week, we learned how to do abstracted value studies of our own homes.  This week I want you to do a monochrome (black and white) painting based on a value drawing.

Jennifer Johnson is usually two steps ahead of me. At the end of Tuesday’s class she told me she’d done this assignment before I assigned it. She graciously offered her paintings to illustrate this post.
Jennifer started by doing this meticulous, detailed drawing of her pile of stones.
Before you can work successfully in color, you need to be able to work successfully in black and white. This is possibly the most valuable training an artist can give him or herself. I often do watercolor value studies before I paint in oils, but any painted medium will do for a monochrome study—gouache, watercolor, acrylic or oils.  It is not necessary to use a pricey substrate for this exercise: gessoed paper is sufficient for acrylics and oils; use any paper you have for gouache or watercolor.
Jennifer was trying to teach herself about rock structure, so she set up a pile of stones. First, she drew a meticulous, careful drawing of her subject. This step is akin to research; you are learning the details of your subject.
She traced the basic shapes for each iteration. It saved her tons of time and made it easier to do multiple iterations of the same idea.
Next, she simplified and redrew her picture in graphite, focusing on the values, not the fine details. She then painted the rocks in monochrome acrylic. She added a final step, using five different colors to represent five different value levels. If you want to add this step, the exact colors you use are immaterial, but they should go from warm to cool or cool to warm as they get darker.
Jennifer used tracing paper to redraw her outlines. That’s perfectly fine, since she didn’t get hung up on the drawing. You may find yourself doing a half-dozen drawings before you get the levels and composition just right. Your goal isn’t to simply copy reality, but to design a construction that pleases your eye. It may be almost exactly what you see, or it may be very different.
Next came a simple value sketch of the rocks.
Value is the first and most important visual element available to the painter. Get it right, and you can be wrong about a lot of other things and still produce a stellar painting. It’s a lot easier to experiment with value when you’re not fussing about color management at the same time.
Why use paint instead of a pencil for your value study? In practice, many students have trouble applying different pencil tones to paper. They leave most of the paper white. Moreover, it’s hard to differentiate four or five value steps with a #2 pencil.
In addition to her monochrome painting, Jennifer did a version where she assigned different colors to different values. If you do this, make sure the colors move warm-to-cool or cool-to-warm as they get darker or lighter.
Work from light to dark. When you’re done, check where the area of highest contrast is. If that’s not where you wanted the focal point to be, you may have a design problem. If so, just do it again until your work can be read like a story: first focal point, next focal point, next focal point, etc.
Don’t be timid about laying in darks and don’t worry about neatness. This is rough work, and it should be done fast.
Why not do your value studies on the canvas you intend to work on? Once you cover it up, you no longer have it for reference. That becomes very important as the light shifts. Having a value study on hand can make the difference between being able to finish a painting or not.