Monday Morning Art School: why grisaille?

Sometimes you just need to push paint around in a dream state. A grisaille is the perfect place to do that.

A grisaille is a monochromatic painting. In oil painting, it forms the first step of underpainting. In watercolor, it’s a separate reference to check values.

There are a few painters I know who skip the grisaille step entirely. (I’m not one of them.) The only ones who are successful at it are so experienced that they can integrate hue, value and chroma simultaneously. Even then, they’re still working dark to light and being careful not to misstep and put gobs of white or light paint where it doesn’t belong.

Eric Jacobsen is one of these outliers, and he graciously offered to demo his underpainting technique for my newest online class, The Essential Grisaille. (Appearances by his dog Sugar and his chickens were completely unscripted – but cute.)

As we filmed, I kept thinking, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” Eric isn’t skipping the grisaille step so much as integrating it with his initial color notes. That’s very difficult for all but the most experienced painters.

Early in the grisaille process for the Scottish portrait I wrote about on Friday.

Why grisaille?

The human mind sees value before hue or chroma. The arrangement of rods and cones makes us more sensitive to value shifts when scanning a vista. We also have a wide dynamic range. Both were awfully convenient for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and they influence how we see paintings.

In the brain, processing starts with low-level information like brightness and contrast. That’s processed more quickly and efficiently than higher-level color information, which requires additional signals from the eyes.

Sometimes my sketch for an oil painting will take the form of a watercolor grisaille.

In a nutshell, that means the viewer will see your value structure before he or she sees anything else. A painting that fails on its value structure will just fail, period. Arthur Wesley Dow, who wrote the definitive 20th century composition book, is the guy who gave us the notion of notan. He taught students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values to specific values. He wanted students to realize that all compositions are, underneath, a structure of light and dark shapes. That’s a critical insight that influences all modern painting.

A watercolor grisaille done as preparation for a watercolor painting.

What is grisaille?

Grisaille just means a monochromatic painting. I teach both oil and watercolor students to do this preparatory step. In watercolor, it’s a monochrome study on a separate page that guides the color choices for the finished painting. For oil painting it’s the underpainting step before we start adding color.

In oils, it’s done in a dark tone that relates to the overall color scheme of the planned painting-if the shadows are cool, the grisaille should be cool, and if the shadows are warm, the grisaille should be warm. That’s because the grisaille will be part of the finished painting, sometimes visible with no covering whatsoever.

The paint is thinned with odorless mineral spirits (OMS) and no white or light colors should be introduced. A brush and a rag are both used to get the full range of values.

Even for a QuickDraw, I do a grisaille. This is partly covered with color notes. The finished painting is here.

Simple, right?

Another watercolor grisaille. All examples are by me.

I’ve just spent about six weeks writing and filming The Essential Grisaille*, and thinking through all the ways it can go wrong. Julie Hunt, who is a very good student and painter, told me, “There were beginning things I fudged with little instruction that I remember.” She has now carefully worked through every step of The Essential Grisaille to really master the subject. I’m excited to see how her painting changes.

Julie has put her finger on the difficulty of all classes, online or in person. There’s so much to take in that nobody gets it all the first time they hear it. And we can fill in the gaps with inspired guesses or just wrong-headed mistakes. It all comes down to being ready to hear, grasshopper.

Which is why Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters is designed to be open-ended. You can go back and revisit them… as long as I pay my internet bill.😊

*I’m talking about both watercolor and oils in this post, but The Essential Grisaille is intended for oil painters.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: ruthless pruning

Prom Shoes 2, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.

Sorry about my absence last week, but it was a lovely vacation.

A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. This means not getting caught up in the details, but seeing the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to painting.

This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as something we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s difficult, and even experienced painters can be tripped up.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00

Oops! My bad.

A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.

Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan there that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was drawing what I ‘knew’, not what was there.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can see.

If I set a teacup in front of you, you’ll be guided in part by what you know about teacups: they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives you some checks on your drawing, but it also allows you to make assumptions about measurements and values. That can lead you astray.

To draw it successfully, you must stop reading it as ‘teacup’ and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. My process is two-fold. First, I sketch to figure out what I’m looking at. That’s investigative. Then, I ruthlessly prune, forcing my drawing into a series of shapes and values.

All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes. These build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not inherently much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same forms as a house. If you start with a pencil case, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

Primary Shapes, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Notan and all other value studies are, above all, about cutting the picture frame into shapes, what Arthur Wesley Dow called “space cutting.”

Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values-perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.

Students sometimes chafe at being asked to do still life, but it’s the best training to learn space cutting. Just as important, it’s easy to set up and execute quickly, so you can practice on paper in just a few spare moments.

My 2024 workshops:

Why not a two-day workshop?

I like nothing more than sitting at Schoodic Point discussing watercolor with my old pal Becky, who has come back year after year for more of my malarkey.

A fellow teacher told me recently that she’s been asked to compress a four-week beginner course into two days. “I think it's a disservice,” she said. “That's a lot of information to compress into a much shorter time. So, either it's a very shallow dive or there's so much information compressed so tightly that half of it gets lost.”

I am asked about two-day workshops as well. They fit neatly into a weekend and the cost is lower, so they’re easier for arts organizations to sell. If they’re subject-based, like ‘painting sunsets,’ they can work because these workshops are inherently shallow. They’re also intended for artists who already know the mechanics of painting.

But two days are insufficient when it’s a question of really developing style, color fluency, composition and form. And if you understand these concepts, you don’t need a special workshop on sunsets or water; you have the tools to paint anything you want.

Students cavorting during a workshop in the Adirondacks.

What can go wrong? A lot.

Basic protocols for watercolor and oils run to about seven discrete steps, depending on how you break them down. Here are the steps for oil painting:

  1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a useful manner.
  2. Do a value drawing.
  3. Crop your drawing and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
  4. Transfer the drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
  5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct.
  6. Divide big shapes and develop details.
  7. Add highlights, detail and impasto as desired.

Students in my watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle.

Let’s just consider #2. It’s almost useless for me to just tell you to do a sketch—in fact, if I did that, you’d have to wonder why you didn’t just draw on the canvas instead. You need insight into what you’re looking for, what makes a good composition, and different ways to do that preparatory composition.

I can (and sometimes do) rattle off a lecture on these points, but that is the just the start of the process of discovery. Unfortunately, in a two-day workshop, that’s about all the time we’d have for the step many artists consider most crucial to the development of a good painting. You, the student, then go home and consult your notes. They become a slavish list of dos-and-don’ts, rather than a framework for a deeper understanding.

It's far better that I start with an exercise that allows you to build understanding of composition on your own. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a book or video and interactive teaching. It’s why people take workshops in the first place.

That kind of teaching takes time.

Arthur Wesley Dow, the popularizer of Notan, had his students work for weeks on line before they eventually graduated to masses and then finally to greyscale and color. His students included Georgia O'KeeffeCharles SheelerCharles Burchfield, and other 20th century art luminaries, so he was definitely onto something.

Linda DeLorey, another old friend, painting in beautiful Pecos.

And now for something fun

Here’s a quiz for you to discover the kind of workshop that suits you best. There’s no obligation, of course; it’s all in fun.

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