grissaille painting layer

An artist has to overcome various challenges when he or she wants to paint a good painting. The drawing should be right, the composition has to be appealing, the colors should be right and values of the colors should be right too and these are just a few of the many such things. In this post, let’s see how one of these challenges can be tackled rather easily.

Grisaille layer of painting
Grisaille layer of painting

Many beginner artists have a common problem when they start out. They can draw well, but when they paint over it, everything seems to go wrong. That’s because they are trying to overcome two challenges at the same time. They have to get the value of the color right and the color itself right.

There is an age-old and easy way to overcome these challenges, one at a time. “Divide and rule” method works great here too. That method is called “Grisaille” method.

Grisaille is the name given to a monochromatic painting done typically with a near neutral (grey) color. It is more popular in figure painting, portrait painting and also as a cheaper alternative to 3-dimensional sculpture. Though this method acts as a stepping stone for painting with colors, the monochrome paintings also have a charm of their own.

Let’s look at the two steps of painting a colored painting using grisaille method.

Step 1: Grisaille layer

Here, the artist is concerned only about getting the values right. It is easier to achieve that when you paint with just one color.  As we know, getting the value right is very important for showing the form. Value is the parameter which gives the feel of 3rd dimension to a 2D painting.

Before applying other colors, this layer of painting is allowed to dry completely. If you paint with oil colors, this can take few days but if you use acrylic colors, you only need few minutes.

Step 2: Adding Colors

The next step is to get the color right. To achieve that, artist mixes the color for each area in the painting, matches it’s value to the relevant area in the grisaille layer and then applies it to that area. This way, the artist has a perfect way to get the right values of the colors.

Sometimes even a glaze of color is enough to bring the painting to life. When glazing is used instead of opaque colors, you are using the value of the grisaille layer and color from the glaze layer. This type of painting produces more translucent and lively paintings.

Even though this method is time-consuming because of two distinct steps and some drying time in between, it yields a higher percentage of good paintings. I recommend this method to my students when they are starting out. Once they are confident enough to achieve correct values and colors at the same time, they can use a direct painting approach.

So, when you paint with oils, acrylics or casein next time, try the grisaille method and experience it’s benefits!

Keep making art,
P.S. This method does not work too well with watercolors or gouache because the underlying layer can get reactivated and create a unwanted mix of colors when you apply the second layer.

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1 thought on “Grisaille”

  1. I think the grisaille technique is absolutely beautiful! I saw one of the grisaille works of art online, and fell in love with it, and I began researching and discovered the Flemish style with the grisaille technique. You present this technique so much simpler, and I want to work with it in oils, but I like the quick drying of the acrylics. Thank you for sharing with us.

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