Grisaille: Seeing in Shades of Gray

Give your paintings depth and unity with underpainting.

Building your paintings in an organized way from the ground up is critical to taking your work to the next level. Here artist Tim Saternow shows how starting your watercolor with a grisaille underpainting can ground your work with a powerful value structure.

Composition in Focus

A grisaille technique works well to capture the dramatic canyons of New York City. I used various values of Payne’s gray to paint Broadway to the Flatiron Building (watercolor, 60 x 40) on Arches triple elephant size rough paper.

Unity. It’s the basic building block of any visual composition. It’s what makes a painting a harmonious, integrated whole. In both representational and abstract painting, there are many ways to achieve unity: placing elements close together; using repetition; continuing a line, an area or an edge of a pattern; using a grid; or using a dominant color, texture, line, size, shape or value. How an artist unifies a painting is a highly personal aesthetic choice. I love to paint New York City, but it’s a cacophony of color, texture and shapes that can be overwhelming. I’ve found that using value to unify my watercolor paintings helps me grapple with this complex landscape. Value is the structure that holds my paintings together, and it’s the first paint I put down on paper.

I begin all of my paintings with a value-pattern underpainting. Unifying the image in this way helps me realize a large number of important compositional considerations. First, the underpainting establishes volume and depth—especially atmospheric or aerial perspective. Second, it creates my focal point. Third, it forms true depictions of light and shadow. And, finally, a value-pattern underpainting generates a dramatic, emotional impact, especially when using high-key contrasts.

The Power of Grisaille

The technique I use to create this underlying value pattern is called grisaille underpainting. Grisaille (pronounced like Versailles) means “grayness” in French. Historically, works created completely in ranges of achromatic gray were seen in medieval- and Renaissance-era frescoes and devotional triptychs that depict minor saints, architectural elements or trompe l’oeil statues.

Achromatic painting was quicker and less expensive than using costly color pigments, or creating a relief sculpture. The works also could be rendered in brown/sepia tones (brunaille) or gray-green (verdaille), which were often used in tempera paintings as an underpainting technique for skin tones.

With the development of oil paint in the 1400s, artists discovered the incredible range of this new medium. It could be used thick and opaque or in thin transparent washes. The grisaille technique was already widely known, but now an artist could create a grisaille underpainting and apply color glazes over it. Not only was it easy to get a range of value using just a single color, it also helped avoid the risk of the vivid colors getting muddy by mixing colors wet.

Instant Drama

I’ve found that this old oil technique works well for watercolor painting as well. I take my Payne’s gray and use it from full strength to very light washes to create an initial grisaille layer, or value pattern. The Winsor & Newton Payne’s gray isn’t a true achromatic gray, but rather a deep gray-blue (a mixture of ultramarine, Mars black and sometimes crimson). I love it for its richness and depth. Sometimes I finish my painting at the underpainting stage—without adding any local color.

Working on Arches triple elephant size rough paper, I start with a careful perspective drawing in pencil, and then add the first layers of Payne’s gray as a value composition. I leave the paper white where I know I’ll want pure, bright local color.

My technique also breaks an old “rule” of watercolor painting: Start with the lightest and palest, then move toward the darks. Instead, I try the absolute darkest value first. It’s an easy way to see the range of values—from the white of the paper next to the darkest value of Payne’s gray. Instant drama!

I want the sign to be the focus in Psychic Reading, West 27th St(watercolor on paper, 60 x 40), so the depth and lightness of the sidewalk lead the eye in that direction. I also needed more dark values, so I layered Payne’s gray and sepia to create rich darks.

Start From Sketch

Before I paint, I first draw a small, separate value sketch in pencil. I’m not looking for detail with these sketches, but rather for large areas of light and dark. At this stage, the shadow side of a building and its cast shadow aren’t necessarily separate values, or elements. I draw them as one shape. This is when I can see if my composition will actually work as a much larger painting. Keep in mind that color does have value, but seeing those values is difficult. An easy way to see the values in color is to photocopy your reference (in black and white) and draw from that.

I find that a careful pencil drawing is essential. It keeps me from worrying about the details or composition while painting. Sunlight and cast shadows are important elements in my compositions. Not only do they provide great diagonals, they increase the sense of distance and drama as seen in this grisaille stage.

I apply the grisaille layer carefully, taking my time, but the local color goes on quickly in washes. This added color shifts value beautifully, according to the grisaille layer beneath.

For the finished painting, Irving Place, Con Ed Tower (watercolor on paper, 40 x 26), I further increased the contrast of the shadows to pull the viewer’s eye deep down Irving Place to that beautiful tower building. I left areas of white paper in places where I knew the sun would strike to provide the bright local color of the brick and stone.

Watercolor is a complex and very contemporary medium that allows for a wide range of treatments and techniques. Grisaille underpainting gives my paintings a weight and solidity that communicates my very personal vision of New York City.


About the Artist

In his large watercolors, artist Tim Saternow (timsaternow.com) reveals the beauty of the old factories and gritty streets of NYC. He exhibits in galleries throughout the U.S. and internationally, and in art publications, including the competition series, Splash,Volumes 12, 13 and 18. Saternow teaches workshops on painting, drawing and linear perspective. The artist is represented by the Kobalt Gallery, in Provincetown, Mass.

This magazine article excerpt is a reprint from Watercolor Artist, January/February 2019 issue. Check out the rest of the issue or subscribe for more great watercolor techniques!

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