Grisaille (gri-ZAY) refers to paintings done in shades of gray. The term is derived from the French word gris, which translates to ?gray.? Usually, grisaille pieces are created with varying mixtures of black and white pigments.
Historically, artists have used grisaille painting in four different ways. First, you can use grisaille as a preliminary study for another subsequent painting. In an all black-and-white preparatory painting, you can work out all compositional considerations and tonal value relationships?before proceeding to the final color version of the painting. Second, you can also use a grisaille as the underpainting for an actual full-color work of art. This approach, which was used extensively by the Old Masters, is a form of indirect painting. I’ve illustrated this procedure in the above two-step demonstration, Portrait of Yvonne Krieger.
Third, grisaille has traditionally been used as a teaching device. Many traditional art instructors require their students to master the craft of painting in the mode of grisaille before permitting them to advance to works in color. Once again, the purpose is to postpone the added burden of colors so that students can focus their attention on the critical and demanding process of correctly modeling form. Finally, you can use areas of grisaille to represent gray objects in otherwise colorful paintings. For example, the Italian Renaissance artists often integrated areas of grisaille into their compositions to represent classical elements like marble statues and temple columns.
These four approaches represent great starting points for integrating grisaille into your own work. But no matter how you choose to incorporate it, you’ll find that grisaille can help hone your skills in creating accurate values and a realistic sense of form.
With works in the collections of the University of Delaware, the Supreme Court of the United States, The National Cathedral of Washington, D.C., and more, Margaret Huddy is an internationally recognized master artist. A signature member of both the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society, she teaches classes at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., and at the Art League School of Alexandria, Virginia. Her work appeared in Splash 5: Best of Watercolor (North Light Books, 1998).