Fine Art Friday: Using Grisaille With Watercolors

Grisaille comes from the French word “gris” (gray). It describes a monochrome painting or underpainting, done usually in tones of gray or neutral colors, and is a technique commonly used in oil painting and acrylic painting. There is also grisaille watercolor technique, specific to the medium of watercolor.

Jan van Eyck Painting: Annunciation, 1439, Oil on panel

Oil on panel, an example of grisaille painting; Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation” (1439)

Many old masters used a grisaille underpainting as the first stage of an oil painting, or even grisaille as a painting in its own, as in the example seen above by Jan van Eyck. When used as an underpainting, successive layers of transparent colors are glazed over the grisaille to finish the process. This layering technique helps to achieve great realism and luminous effects.

It is possible to use a grisaille technique with watercolors by painting a monochrome underpainting and then adding layers of transparent washes.

Here are a few ways to adapt the grisaille technique to watercolor painting:

Painitng an Apple: purple underpainting

Underpainting in purple

Step 1: Underpainting

The purpose of the grisaille is to establish areas of light and shade. Because you are not thinking so much about color, you can really focus on rendering the shape.

There are many different ways to achieve this first layer of underpainting.

  • You can use watercolors. The most commonly used color for underpainting with watercolors is purple (a mix of cadmium red and ultramarine blue works very well). Artists also have had success with neutral colors, such as blue or green.
  • A light wash of India ink also works, as long as the ink is waterproof so it won’t smudge once dry, allowing you to paint watercolor on top.
  • It’s also possible to use a graphite or charcoal drawing the same way you would use a grisaille underpainting, but you will need to use a fixative before starting to paint so the water doesn’t disrupt the graphite or charcoal. The fixative might modify the absorbent properties of the paper

I painted a simple picture of an apple as an example of the grisaille technique with a purple underpainting to show the process. As watercolor is fairly transparent, the underpainting should be done quite lightly, as you don’t want its color to overpower the other colors of the painting. If done well, a purple underpainting should become “invisible” under subsequent layers of colors.

Painting an Apple: Glazing colors over the grisaille

Adding layers on top of the monochrome underpainting

Step 2: Adding color by glazing over the underpainting

The main challenge of adapting this technique to watercolor is that you will be painting successive layers of washes and there is a risk of disrupting the previously painted layers. The best way to avoid this is to use a light hand and a very soft brush, and also to make sure that each layer did dry very thoroughly before applying the next. Some colors will lift easier than others. Natural, inorganic pigments (ochres, umbers, siennas) tend to be the easiest to lift off the paper.

On the apple painting example, I did wait until the purple underpainting was very dry, and then I used permanent red and cadmium yellow for subsequent layers, painting them wet-in-wet on the paper so the colors would mingle.

The process of layering colors also makes it more difficult to preserve some white areas on your paper. To paint the apple, I did preserve some tiny white areas with masking fluid (around the stem) and I did also lift off some paint with water and a stiff brush to recover light areas.

The finished painting of an Apple

The finished painting

What are the advantages of the grisaille technique

  • The colors in the painting are unified by the underpainting.
  • It’s easier to achieve a broad range of tones for each color, creating depth in the painting.
  • When done well, the colors seem to glow.
  • This technique is simplifying the painting process as you focus mostly on value while painting the grisaille and mostly on color for the following steps.

To learn more watercolor techniques, check out Mat Rota’s Portraits in Watercolor class. You may also enjoy our post on effortless watercolor washes.

Have you tried a monochrome underpainting on your watercolors? What did you think about this technique?

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