Basic Oil Painting Techniques: Classic Grisaille


How-To Oil Painting Grisaille - First Glaze
Oil paint has endless possibilities and it’s often said that an oil painting is “never finished”. It is considered the more forgiving of mediums since it can be corrected easily, dries slowly and can be changed before it sets up. New paint can be applied after it dries. Despite a myriad of paint application methods, oil painting still falls into two categories of techniques: indirect and direct. Direct painting is by far the most common way to work such as fresh, spontaneous wet in wets in one sitting “alla prima” or extended alla prima which is involves more than one session.
We are currently exploring the “indirect” method which involves a more careful planned underpainting. This painting method can produce exquisite and sensitive monochromatic studies and is popular for portraiture. Many masters worked with monochromatic studies prior to a full color painting, and these studies have become timeless classics.
The technique is called grisaille and starts with “imprimatura” –  Italian for “first paint layer” which is toning the support with a pigment and mineral spirits stain (kept lean – not oily or “fat”) providing a transparent ground. This helps establish value relationships which should be kept simple. Starting with a value study on paper, we break the subject down into the least possible values: dark, mid-tone and light. We draw and paint on the toned ground with a simple monochrome grisaille which can be grey (white and black which is not high in oil) or darks produced by mixing complements together to get neutral hues. While the paint is wet (usually 2 days needed for drying time) we lift out the lighter areas.
This underpainting grisaille can be left as a finished work once the finer details are completed. It is a carefully rendered process and depending on your taste it can be left somewhat impressionistic or brought to high realism, thus the term “indirect”. We also have the option to begin glazing this “finished” work after treating it with a layer of re-touch varnish. We see here the first initial glaze and can appreciate the time taken to finish the grisaille before applying color.
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