This series would not be happening without you

From Step 1: the Perfect Palette

Last year, Laura and I sketched out a seven-part series called Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters. Laura had a vision based on the industrial training videos that were part of her prior career. I’ve never watched a training video in my life; the last time I worked for someone else, my instructions were scribbled on foolscap.

I didn’t want to make a tedious video where I did a long, uninterrupted demo. They always make me fall asleep. Laura wanted a series of shorts that explained a specific concept. Each would be followed by exercises and a quiz.

I had no idea how to record video, and no clue how to edit it when it was done. However, I did have a good SLR and audio recorder. My son introduced me to DaVinci Resolve. We bought a subscription to Canva and extra storage on Google. Once we had all those things in place, we realized we had no idea what we were doing.

From Step 2: the Value Drawing

There is nothing more disheartening than spending an afternoon painting, only to find that you hadn’t focused the camera, or the light was wrong, or you forgot to start the audio recorder. If there was a mistake to be made, I’ve made it.

Our goal was to finish all seven classes by the end of the year, but as the summer season heated up, I lost my momentum. We will probably finish the fifth one by Christmas, and the other two by the end of winter. Once that’s done, you’ll no longer need me; you can learn to paint by doing the exercises.

From Step 3: The Correct Composition

This series would not be happening without you. That starts with the people who have asked me over the year to write a book; I got it outlined and then stalled. The outline for that book became the outline for this series.

Then there are the people who beta tested the first class. You gave me incisive and pertinent feedback, which improved later classes. A few loyal testers have been with me through every episode, and I’m especially grateful for you.

I’m grateful for the early adopters of the series. At times I wondered whether Laura and I had lost our minds in devoting a year to such a risky venture. But many of you have taken them, and you seem to have found them valuable. “I took Carol’s online class modules prior to the [Rockport Immersive] workshop and found them to be great preparation,” Beth D. wrote. “I don’t think I could have absorbed all that complicated and practical information while painting plein air on location. The modules were very brief and concise yet enlightening.” Thank you, Beth.

From Step 4: the Essential Grisaille

In appreciation of you all, here’s a code for 30% off one of the Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters. Choose from:

STEP 1: THE PERFECT PALETTE

STEP 2: THE VALUE DRAWING

STEP 3: THE CORRECT COMPOSITION

STEP 4: THE ESSENTIAL GRISAILLE

Just type THANKYOU30 in the coupon code. And thank you so much!

My 2024 workshops:

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 themโ€ฆ as long as I pay my internet bill.๐Ÿ˜Š

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

My 2024 workshops: