Painting technique: Grisaille

Talking to Sarah about my work she named the technique that I have been trying to achieve: painting in greyscale to produce a sculptural effect.

This aspect of grisaille was used particularly by the 15th-century Flemish painters (as in the outer wings of the van Eycks’ Ghent Altarpiece) and in the late 18th century to imitate classical sculpture in wall and ceiling decoration…
In French, grisaille has also come to mean any painting technique in which translucent oil colours are laid over a monotone underpainting.

The artist Alfred Leslie did a series of figurative portraits using the Grisaille technique. The technique lends itself very well to the high contrast lighting in the portraits, emphasising the light and the form of the nude bodies.

Because of the optical properties of oil paint, this means that light will go through the transparent layers of paint, bounce off the white of the surface and back up through the paint layers to your eye. Consequently, these works done in grisaille by the Old Masters seem to positively glow. They shows a radiance and depth of color that is unique to that style. It’s like looking through stained glass.

This website: gives a great example of Old Masters grisaille painting, and shows what a painting would have looked like in grisaille before the glazing was applied.

In the painting Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Peter Breugel the Elder one can see the the sculptural quality and depth the scene has, without any colour needed. Working in grey or neutral colours is a brilliant way of focusing on the sculptural quality of a painting, and then once that is achieved, one can focus on the colour completely, hopefully producing a very successful finished painting.

Going forward

Looking at these paintings has made me realise just how much is possible with this technique. There is so much potential for my grisaille painting to have a great depth a sculptural quality. This could depict the experiential forest landscapes I paint in a refined and new way.
I am going to continue with the idea of varying texture to create depth. But I also think contrasting light and dark would also be a good tool for depth and highlight. Although painting my experience there is a line I need to have between painting for the finished piece and painting to most fully describe my experience… hmm.

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