How to Paint Grisaille

Grisaille is a painting technique whereby mostly black and white paint has been used to create a monochromatic effect with shades of grey. In fact, the term grisaille can also be used for a painting that is almost grey, perhaps exhibiting subtle color temperatures, such as blues or browns.

What is Grisaille?

Purists use the term to describe working drawings for sculptures or engravings intended to heighten a three-dimensional effect. Enhanced contrasts in light and shadow convey the texture and contours of an intended piece of work, bringing a dramatic feel to the grisaille. Grisaille can also be used for the under-painting, where the foundations of the upper glazes are laid. The grisaille under-glaze is often rendered in rough, broad brushstrokes in thinned oil paint or acrylic.

Grisaille in Painting

Grisaille was originally intended to cut cost when designs were conceived. But Grisaille can also be expressed for aesthetic reasons. Subtle color temperatures can convey a mood or undertone throughout a painting. Black and white paint need not be used, but color combinations that will bring about interesting greys and neutrals. In this painting of Ingres’s, the Valpincon Bather (above), which I painted for one of my art instruction books, I used mostly cool greys in the background to create contrast with the woman’s skin tones.

Grisaille Colors

In this painting, I used a limited palette of pthalo blue, burnt sienna, burnt umber, alizarin crimson and white. The combination of a cool color and a warm color will cancel each other out. But when mixed in various ratios, will create an array of neutrals with different color temperatures that will bring more interesting effects than using merely black and white.

Pigments for Grisaille

In my painting, an array of cool neutrals was achieved for the background by a variety of color mixes, which were (with varying amounts of white):

  • Pthalo blue and burnt umber.
  • Pthalo blue and burnt sienna.
  • Pthalo blue, burnt sienna and a little alizarin crimson.
  • Pthalo blue, burnt umber and a little alizarin crimson.
Effective Grisaille Techniques

Varying the ratios of these color combinations as well as the amount of white used will result in an infinite number of warm and cool neutrals from dark to pale, including eggshell, silver, pewter, charcoal, buff, slate, ivory, buff and others. Working these colors in fine glazes will add depth to the tones and richness to color values. A fine glaze is simply a color mixture with a little linseed oil mixed in. This transparent color when placed over a similar color will create richness to an oil painting.

When to Paint Grisaille

However, when scumbled onto a textured art surface, such as canvas, grisaille can bring pleasing effects as can be seen on this painting in progress of Mount Kilimanjaro. Paint with a dry consistency is lightly scrubbed over canvas that has been overlaid with a neutral under-glaze. The highlights and shadow immediately stand out in tonal value rather than hue.

Other Grisaille Effects

Paintings that exhibit a brown or sepia bias can be accurately described as being brunaille. A painting that mostly exhibits green undertones can be described as being verdaille. The first part of each word is French for brown and green. Gris is grey but need not always have to show merely grey in the painting.

Grisaille Painting Ideas

Other color combinations will bring about interesting neutral tones with a variety of color temperatures over a painting, which might be (with various ratios of white):

  • Ultramarine and burnt sienna
  • Permanent rose, burnt umber and pthalo blue
  • Viridian green and permanent rose
  • Ultramarine, cadmium red and burnt umber
  • Prussian blue and Indian red

Grisaille Painting Tips

Notice that each of these color combinations comprises basically a warm color, a cool color and a third that will add depth to tonal values. For great grisaille results, these colors can be mixed in different ratios and applied in different ways, from fine glazes to dry scumbles. The subject matter however, must provide the opportunity to reap the qualities of grisaille, in that high tonal contrasts can be seen within, such as the shadowy snowcap on Mount Kilimanjaro or the delicate shades on the woman’s back.

Images of the nude taken from my art instruction book Skin Tones in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides from Old Masters, by Rachel Shirley copyright 2013

Articles on my External Websites on Oil Painting