Grisaille Painting: Definition & Technique

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you paint a picture using related tones of one color? How do you do it? In this lesson, learn about grisaille painting and explore how to create an image using this technique.

What is grisaille painting?

Have you ever tried to paint a picture using only one color and related tones?

Some very famous artists have painted using a process called grisaille. Grisaille painting (it's pronounced 'griz-EYE') is done when an artist uses a limited palette related to one color like gray to create a painting's first layer, called the underpainting. The artist develops the image by building up shadows, highlights and details to produce a desired contrast. Grisaille results in a detailed image that looks like a carefully rendered marble statue lacking any color. In fact, grisaille is a French word meaning 'gray.'

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Northern Europe, artists often used the grisaille method. Here's an image from that part of the world, with two figures rendered in grisaille.

Figures done in grisaille painting
grisaille painting

You can see how each detail such as drapery folds and contours on the hands and feet have been carefully rendered. When the grisaille is finished, the artist adds color to it with bright transparent glazes that allow the underpainting to show through.

Before we talk about how to create a grisaille painting, let's review some basic definitions. In painting, a shade is a color with black added to make it darker and a tint is a color with white added to make it lighter. So in grisaille painting, you work with tints and shades related to the neutral color you've chosen. Why a neutral color? In the underpainting, you don't want bold colors. Neutral colors are non-assertive. They allow you to create detailed figures, rendering them to give the illusion of an object or shape in three-dimensional space. You don't worry about trying to match different color tones or mix colors. In grisaille, color comes later when you apply glazes.

How is grisaille done?

To create a grisaille painting, you begin with canvas that's been toned, or painted all over with a mid-tone neutral color so that it is not white. This color will eventually allow the light areas of the composition to come through.

First you draw the subject on the canvas. Then you begin to add areas of shadow using medium shades of gray. Now, some artists have different ways to approach this step. They may begin to block in darker areas first or they may begin laying some lighter areas. Whichever variation is chosen, you start with general forms and work toward more detail. And you don't begin with either the extremely dark shades or the extremely light tints. You work them gradually, building up to the areas of brightest light and darkest shadow.

Here's an example of figures done in grisaille by artist Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen.

Figures painted in grisaille by Vermeyen
grisaille figures

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