What is a Grisaille?

“Alecea Grisaille Study” 8×10 by Joe Kronenberg

It was not too long ago (about six years) that I decided I was going to make the transition from pastels to oils and I can remember being full of excitement about the idea, and of painting on huge canvases and having the smell of oil paints fill my studio. Though I had read up and studied a bit I soon came to the realization that I knew very little about the process of oil painting.

Being heavily inspired by the mood of the old masters and the vibrance and light of the Hudson River School of artist’s tonalism and luminism techniques I set out to learn as much about their methods as I could. Now, some years later I have developed and use four different classical methods either in whole or in part to get the result I am hoping for. Of the four the one I enjoy both using and teaching the most is an almost six-hundred year old method called “grisaille” (pronounced ‘griz-eye’), which is followed up by a series of glazes.

At about the end of the 19th century came the introduction of direct method painting, or impressionism, followed by post-impressionism then modernism. Right along-side these new methods were the critics of the day touting praises upon them while chastising the classical schools with their old rigid rules and methods of painting as being unenlightened and outdated. The result…less than a quarter century later the once world famous academies of art (Ateliers) were all but gone. Taking with them their centuries old techniques and methods of training.

The good news. Many of those methods were preserved at some level through writings and a very limited number of trained artists that could claim an unbroken chain back to the masters of old.

Four Steps of Grisaille:

1) Draw your image onto your canvas or painting surface with a pencil or charcoal. Once you are done with the drawing be sure to spray the surface with some workable fixative to prevent your drawing from coming off at step two.

2) I prefer either Paynes Gray (for cooler results) or Raw Umber (for warmer results) to tone the canvas with to a mid-range of value. This can be done by thinning down the color with some turpentine and brushing it on or by simply squeezing a small amount of the paint directly on the canvas and using a paper towel with a bit of turpentine on it to evenly spread the paint over the surface.

3) Once toned start painting in the darkest areas (values) of the image. The toned surface does much of the work acting as your mid-tone.

4) With the addition of white paint to your palette work into your mid-tones and light value ranges, modeling up to your lightest values on the form as you go, paying close attention to detail and creating the illusion of form. You should have the mindset that you are working towards a completed painting in monochrome.

Once complete, you can let it dry and it is ready to glaze in the colors (I’ll cover that process in a future post). Below are some examples of grisaille paintings before and after the final steps of glazing.

Until next time. Enjoy…

"Princesse de Broglie" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Any time you see a painting with amazing satin you can almost bet it was done with a grisaille base, then glazed as in “Princesse de Broglie” by Ingres. An interesting side note on this painting. As I was viewing it the the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC I noticed about an inch or so of unfinished painting at the bottom exposing the grisaille. Take a look at the detail below.

Detail of "Princesse de Broglie by Ingres

You can see about the bottom inch or so of this painting never got glazed. It is the brownish color just above the frame and it goes across the entire painting.

"September Strut" in grisaille by Joe Kronenberg

“September Strut” by Joe Kronenberg, in the grisaille stage. See the completed painting. I love how the detail of the grisaille can be maintained in the final painting.

"September Strut" by Joe Kronenberg

Completed painting, “September Strut” by Joe Kronenberg. Started in grisaille.

"Grande Odalisque" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

This completed painting of “Grand Odalisque” by Ingres hangs in the Louvre. What a great before and after side-by-side!

"Grande Odalisque in Grisaille" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
This grisaille of “Grand Odalisque” by Ingres hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It is said he painted it after the original as part of a student workshop.