Grisaille and Its Expressive Power
Originating from the French word “gris” meaning “gray”, the term grisaille stands for a monochrome painting or under-painting usually created in shades of gray or neutral grayish colors. These ash tone values can range from dark to light, transparent to opaque, flat to reflective, and sometimes from warm to cool. This method is commonly used in oil and acrylic painting, but there is also a grisaille watercolor technique. Although the term implies quite a particular palette, it has been stretched to include monochromatic paintings in brown or green. There are also more specific terms for these works – brown works may be described as brunaille, while those in green may be referred to as verdaille.
The work of grisaille may be created as an independent finished work, but it can also be employed as a preliminary underpainting for an oil painting that is subsequently overpainted with layers of color glaze. Grisaille is also employed as a preparatory model for an engraver to work from.
Additionally, it is often employed in ceramic art and metalwork, but also in the coloring of stained glass.
The Brief History of Grisaille
The topical concept was developed many centuries ago when pigments were very scarce. This was particularly popular for the outside shutters of polyptychs in Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many old masters employed a grisaille under-painting as the first stage of an oil painting, but also as a painting in its own. Choosing from only a handful of pigments to accomplish their beautiful results, the old masters pushed each pigment to its limits in order to achieve the luminosity in their art. Glazing their color over the black and white foundation helped achieve great realism and luminous effect. That “inner light” that played through their network of colors on canvas was made an integral part of the painting. As coloring of the piece was much more demanding and required more skill, this practice was also often chosen as a quicker and cheaper alternative. Yet, the method was also used deliberately for a specific visual effect. It was particularly utilized in large decorative schemes in imitation of sculpture. At the time, the sculpture was still more expensive than a painting, even the one executed by a top master.
During the Proto-Renaissance, Giotto used grisaille when painting some of his Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes in Padua between circa 1303 and 1310. Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck and their successors painted these monochromatic figures on the outsides of the wings of the triptych, as the doors were normally closed and these sides were on display for most of the time. One of the most famous van Eyck works executed using this method is The Annunciation Diptych created between 1433 and 1435 that makes the illusion of a sculptural group. Apart from Campin and van Eyck, other Netherlandish Renaissance painters such as Hugo Van Der Goes, Hans Memling and Hieronymus Bosch also adopted the method as a painting technique. Bosch famously employed it to paint his extraordinary picture of the Creation, on the outside of his altarpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights. High Renaissance painters such as Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo and Andrea del Sarto. The ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel have portions of the design in black and white described with the approach in question. The most notable monochromatic example by Andrea del Sarto is in the Chiostro dello Scalzo of the Scalzi in Florence that illustrates the life of John the Baptist and it was created between 1511-26.
Netherlandish painters such as Maerten van Heemskerck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder or Jan van Goyen maintained the tradition of grisaille, but since the late 17th century this type of art has declined in popularity.
The Technique of the Black and White Volume
The grisaille painting technique uses a 9-value scale to create the illusion of depth. To begin painting in this way, an artist needs to set up a 9-value scale on the Grey Paper Palette and mix colors accordingly. After the composition of the painting is sketched and the subject blocked-in, the artist looks for patterns of light and dark tones that make up the shadows. With the shadow shapes, the painting gains mass and volume. After the key light source is identified, the artist uses different silvery shades in the logical sequence of value gradation to create shapes in the painting. The piece finished in this manner can stand alone as a finished artwork and that is called a classic grisaille. When serving as an under-painting, and in that case, initial layers should be painted very thin. Transparent oil color glazes are then applied over the finished painting. These various gray values will facilitate various kinds of effects when light tries to pass through or bounce off the layers of paint. This network of paint channels natural sunlight from the surface through the final layer of color. In this way, it is possible for the light to be reflected back to the viewer for the effect of luminosity. It also provides an illusion of texture when using transparent color overlays that have no body of their own.
The Grisaille Painting Tutorial
Famous Grisaille Artworks from the History of Art
The most famous grisailles were created in the period of Early Renaissance and during the Florentine High Renaissance. Of course, many significant artworks completed in this manner were created by contemporary painters, but speaking about the most famous ones, we must go back to history, to the Early Renaissance, to Italy and to the Netherlands, where the most famous monochromatic paintings were created.
Giotto – Frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
Frescoes from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, are considered as one of the most important masterpieces of Western art. Giotto frescoed the whole chapel’s surface, both the walls and the ceiling. The whole oeuvre is organized along four cycles with the stories of the various protagonists of the Sacred History and the Gospel. Additionally, Giotto was known to utilize grisaille when working on other masterpieces as well.
Andrea del Sarto – Frescoes in the Chiostro dello Scalzo
One of the leading painters of the Florentine High Renaissance Andrea del Sarto widely employed the grisaille underpainting method throughout his work. His famous frescos in the Chiostro dello Scalzo in Florence are known as perfect examples of grisaille where the artist included a slightly wider color range as well. Del Sarto painted fresco cycle series in grays and browns depicting the virtues Faith, Hope, Justice and Charity. These celebrated frescoes can remind us of sepia-toned photographs today.
Hans Memling – Donne Triptych
One of the greatest Masters of Early Netherlandish painting, Hans Memling is known for a number of works in the technique. He painted diptychs, triptychs and portraits, as well as large religious paintings. The Donne Triptych, one of Memling’s most famous paintings, depicts Sir John Donne kneeling at the Madonna’s right, depicted in the central panel. When the outer panels are closed, a viewer can see paintings of St Christopher and St Anthony Abbot rendered exclusively in tones of gray. Memling rendered the works in such a way, to make them resemble stone sculptures.
Hans Memling – Last Judgment Triptych
Another famous Memling’s piece is the Last Judgment Triptych, executed around 1471. This is a typical piece of Biblical art and it was commissioned by Jacopo Tani who was representative of the Medici Family in Bruges. Pictures in grisaille of the donor Jacopo Tani and his wife Caterina kneeling in prayer can be seen when the outer panels are closed. The whole exterior of the triptych is actually done this way.
Pieter Bruegel – Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery is probably the best-known grisaille ever executed. This painting by Pieter Bruegel represents a biblical episode from John 7:53-8:11 where Jesus encounters an adulteress brought before Pharisees and scribes. This piece of art was stolen in 1982, from the Courtauld Gallery. However, due to its fame and value, the painting is unsaleable on the open market, and the British police found it in 1992.
Hugo Van Der Goes – Portinari Altarpiece
The Portinari Altarpiece or Portinari Triptych is an oil on wood triptych that was painted by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. It represents the Adoration of the Shepherds and today it can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The central scene celebrates the joy at the birth of Jesus, but also highlights the humility of the family and the peasants. When the two side panels are closed, a viewer can see The Annunciation, with the two figures – the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel – painted entirely in the monochrome technique.
Hieronymus Bosch – Garden of Earthly Delights
Famous painting by the Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, is certainly one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. It is, in fact, a triptych painted in oil on oak, formed from a square middle panel flanked by two other oak rectangular wings that close over the center as shutters. Not many people realize that the outer wings of this masterpiece are completely painted in grisaille. Once these wings are closed, they show the earth during the biblical narrative of Creation in this manner.
Rembrandt – Ecce Homo
Even the Baroque master Rembrandt employed grisaille in his vast oeuvre. His Ecce homo from 1634 depicts one of the most famous biblical themes in art. The phrase Ecce homo means ‘Behold the man!’ and were said by Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus. This work was done as a preparatory study for an etching that Rembrandt made one year later, in 1635.
Pablo Picasso – Guernica
Revered as the biggest masterpiece of the 20th century by some, Picasso’s Guernica is an excellent example of monochromatic painting. This masterpiece became a symbol of horrors of war and war devastation, while in it delivered layers of artistic novelties, embodying the style and the philosophy of Picasso’s modernism. Violent images of anguished figures were rendered in the shades of gray, which makes the painting one of the best examples of the method in Modern Art.
Gerhard Richter – October 18, 1977
In his early career, Gerhard Richter employed soft distortions and sensuous grayscale. Although he previously left the practice of black and white, Richter returned to the method while making the grisaille photo-based paintings October 18, 1977. This series of 15 paintings were inspired by the group the Red Army Faction (RAF), a terrorist group active in Germany in 1970s. Paintings were created in different formats, but all of them are reduced to tones of grey. The palette of grays refers also to newspapers of that time, which were mostly printed in black and white.
The Expressive Potential of Grisaille in Contemporary Art
With the expansion of black and white photography in the late 19th century and the 20th century’s emphasis on direct painting, grisaille evolved into a far more conceptual paradigm. While less widespread, it still continued as an artistic technique. One of the most famous modern examples is Picasso‘s Guernica from 1937. The investigation of the monochrome palette and classical techniques by a diverse set of artists such as César, Glenn Brown, Vija Celmins, Luciano Fabro, Gerhard Richter, Rudolf Stingel, Betty Tompkins, and numerous others, have brought the vitality of grisaille’s history into the 21st first century. Gerhard Richter has said of the color gray: “Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other color has, to make ‘nothing’ visible.” Painters such as Richard Artschwager, Lucio Fontana, Frank Stella, and Ryan Sullivan have explored a monochromatic palette of grays to gain reflexivity in their work. Grays are often employed to evoke a wide scope of emotional, psychological, and spiritual states. This palette also provides a vehicle for meditation of color through the very absence of color.
Today, grisaille as a method is still employed for aesthetic reasons. Some contemporary artists find it easier to only think about tones and drawing without the use of color. This way, they can focus on the composition and brushwork. It is also a very important method to master for art students. Those who train in the classical realist tradition first start working in graphite, then charcoal and finally paint, and grisaille can serve as an excellent entry point for oil painting. The painting method that has been around for centuries still has much to teach us today.
Editors’ Tip: Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited by Karen Serres The publication Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited accompanied a focused display at The Courtauld Gallery that brought together together for the first time Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s only three known grisaille paintings – the Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (which is barred from travel), The Death of the Virgin from Upton House in Warwickshire (National Trust) and Three Soldiers from the Frick Collection in NYC. The pieces are complimented by prints and contemporary replicas and other grisaille works to provide an insight into the development of this method in Norther Europe. Including the technical examination of these three panels executed by Bruegel, the publication also reassess the practical aspects of this method and its effects.
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- McKenzie Graham. Working Up From a Grisaille, Artist’s Network. [August 25, 2016]
- Barry Schwabsky. Turning Reductivism Inside Out: Dannielle Tegeder and the Art of Incompletion, Art Critical. [September 6, 2014]
Featured images: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres – Odalisque, between circa 1824 and circa 1834, via metmuseum.org; Grisaille detail at the Chiostro dello Scalzo of the Scalzi in Florence by Andrea del Sarto; Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Death of the Virgin, via weetwo.org. All images for illustrative purposes only.