View Full Version : grisaille colors of old times

Painting Bas
03-09-2012, 10:32 AM
Dear fellowpainters,

I'd like to start a thread about what colors on earth the old masters used for their grisailles. I have figured out that cool area's or rather greyed ones in the end result come from a neutral colored grisaille where strong color was scumbled over it, but what colors did they use under there?

To start the idea's, here is one from me: there is something called "the gravy", made from ivory black made cooler with some ultramarine, then red ochre added until you get a purple, and then lighting it and greening it a little with yellow ochre. It has to be a bit lighter dan black. It has the color of gravy. Mixed with white it gives a faint purple that can gives a strong illusion of distance. So scumble final colors over a dried underpainting made with the gravy and do it thinly where you want the form to recede.
That works, but, looking at the paintings of old masters I see or think I see other colors than the gravy used in the beginning layers, often a greenish grey.

Does anyone know more about what those colors could be and how one chooses a suitable color for the grisaille? I think that there has to be a certain principle in this that the old masters used. Seems to me that answers on this are not easy to find, at least by googling.

Ok, I hope for lots of posts on this from you. Let's help eachother reach that beauty of old times!:wave:

Painting Bas
03-09-2012, 10:34 AM
O, by the way, the white I refer to will be lead white or a replacement, not titanium. Greetings!

03-09-2012, 02:41 PM
I still have much to learn about underpaintings, but some of the ideas I've learned so far:

Much of underpainting is some combination of lead white, bone black and raw umber. "Grisaille" would be the white and black with just a bit of raw umber added, enough to slightly warm the otherwise blueish tone a bit.

If you add more raw umber, enough to make it greenish, it becomes a "verdaccio." You can then add some red ochre to the mix if it is too saturated a green and needs to be neutralized further. (This is the basic fresco verdaccio color first mentioned by Cennini.) Verdaccio is particularly effective in beginning skin tones. This is not the same as an underpainting done with terre verte, which was widely used for underpainting skin tones in tempera, during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

There is also "brunaille," which is simply an underpainting done with a brown ochre or burnt umber, with or without white. From what I've seen of old paintings in museum galleries, I think this was probably done quite often - enough to be considered something of a standard procedure from the Baroque onward.

An underpainting method called "ebauche" involved a wider palette for a sort of full-color underpainting. As far as I know this didn't become a standard until the Nineteenth Century - however, Titian, as an artist who emphasized colore over disegno, is said to have utilized something similar to this, preferring to jump straight into the color rather than starting monochrome.

It's perfectly possible to combine any or all of these into the same painting. For instance, in a portrait, you might start with a brown ochre brunaille to establish the design; then do a verdaccio for the skin tones; a grisaille to be glazed over on the drapery; and an ebauche for hair or props. Or any other combination that suits.To start the idea's, here is one from me: there is something called "the gravy", made from ivory black made cooler with some ultramarine, then red ochre added until you get a purple, and then lighting it and greening it a little with yellow ochre.This sounds to me like it might be effective; however, I don't think many of the classical painters would have used ultramarine for an underpainting, or for shadows etc. - too expensive. Ultramarine ashes (low-grade grayish ultramarine) might have been used, though; or the inexpensive smalt seems likely, especially since it's a cobalt pigment and would have dried quickly.

Good topic, thanks for starting!

03-11-2012, 01:25 PM
Thanks for these palette mix. I've been wondering what makes a good grisaille. I'm going to try these formulas. What is an ebauche?

Would you be able to post some old grisaille masterpieces too to illustrate them please?

03-11-2012, 07:40 PM
What is an ebauche? Here is a good online blog post about ebauche:

Underpaintings (http://underpaintings.blogspot.com/2010/08/color-palettes-academic-ebauche-part-i.html)

Would you be able to post some old grisaille masterpieces too to illustrate them please?Well, this is the famous Odalisque grisaille by Ingres, painted IIRC as a demo(!) for his students:


Methinks old Jean was influenced by the Mannerists a bit here. (Check out the length of that back. Mermaid, maybe? And where's that back leg attached to?) And here's an older one by Raphael:


Damn that guy was good.

So, just a flat gray underpainting, with spots of brown imprimatura showing through here and there.

Painting Bas
03-15-2012, 10:24 AM
That was quite helpful, mr Lawrence, thank you!

I just came back from London where I saw the masterpieces in the National Gallery (by all means go there!!!) really up close. There was always a grey under the color everywhere and in light flesh areas warmer fleshcolors were scumbled over the grey, with the same value it seemed when I squinted. In the warm areas the color was applied thicker and in the cool areas color was very thinly applied and at the edges that made the form recede. I never saw strong color in receding area's of a head for instance, which betrays the extensive use those masters made of greys for a receding effect.

A little later on the web I read a remark that the old masters, to just put them on one heap, made use of simultaneous contrast, meaning that a neutral grey faintly takes on the complementary color of the color surrounding it. That just happens in our brain, but for us painters it would mean that a neutral grey is indeed very usable for underpainting -as mr Lawrence showed- and that we can let the later color "tint" the grey.

Enough theory for me now. Theory is good but meant for practice. I am going at it and will show something here as soon as I can!

By the way, what worked for me when I wanted to set things up in color, was this. I tried it on a copy after Caravaggio. I know the drawing is bad, but the method below is about the layering in the more finished areas) :

-Start on a white oilground -never on gesso!- with a transparent imprimatura of burnt siena muted with some raw umber to get a middle tone brown. Let dry. Then draw the outlines with the same color, made a little lighter with a little white added. (medium: 1/2 terp. + 1/2 linseed oil). Reduce the amount of white for the better contours.
-Then reduce the subject to a mosaic of flat shapes of muted colour with their average values (that is the value that you see between the light and dark in a certain shape). The point of this is that you can model later by adding both the dark and the light.
I muted the color with raw umber first (I used black in the Correggio copy, but it dries slower than raw umber) and added as much white as needed to bring the mixture up to the average value I wanted. Then I thinly filled the drawing with flat shapes of weak color and would call that dead color. You see this stage well in the upperleg. Thinly applied those flat shapes can be corrected pretty easily in outline and placement by the surrounding flat shapes until they look right. Compare them in a mirror to the original (which I clearly forgot to do)
-Then, for every shape, I made a little lighter and a little darker mixture only adding a little white to the first basic colour for the one and a little raw umber to it for the other. With those three values I could model the shape (in the more finished areas that is) until the basic placing of dark and light was right. Then, but I did not get so far yet, I would build the lights up with white to bring them up to the maximum value of the original. Then I will let everything dry, after that having a dead colored, or "cool" underpainting over which the stronger and warm colors can be scumbled in the light areas and color can be glazed in the shadow area's.

Seeing the nice shadows I obtained in the shoulder and arm, I think I have come close to an old master practice here. If any of you would care to try it and post the result or comment, criticize, make suggestions I would be very curious. Oh and don't forget to get the drawing right first, ahem..
Cheers from Holland.:wave:


03-15-2012, 07:05 PM
Dag, Bas, and thanks for the description. Am I right then that you used only burnt sienna, raw umber and lead white for the skin tones? That worked out very well!

Painting Bas
03-15-2012, 07:18 PM
Thank you.
Well, I forgot to say it, but I used a palette of raw umber, ivory black, yellow ochre, red ochre and lead white. I aproximated the local colors first with the black (gives a weak green when mixed with yellow ochre), yellow and red. I would add burnt umber in the dark shadows later as glazes.
I want to try the flat grey underpainting on a brown imprimatura, but since I prefer to do the drawing stage on paper and then transfer that for painting, it may take a while before I post the grisaille stage.

Painting Bas
03-15-2012, 07:22 PM
Dag, Bas, and thanks for the description. Am I right then that you used only burnt sienna, raw umber and lead white for the skin tones? That worked out very well!

o yes, the skin tones: yellow ochre with a touch of red ochre in it, this was muted with raw umber and made lighter to the desired average value with leadwhite.

03-20-2012, 04:48 PM
I could look at that Odalisque painting all day, in fact it inspired me to make my own detailed grisaille, or verdaccio - as I used greens without an umber layer, though it doesn't show in the painting. I thought i would try to get the painting to a fully fleshed out stage, so to speak, before applying colour glazes. I used chromium oxide green, mars black and titanium white.

03-21-2012, 02:58 AM
Thank you, Lawrence, Anthony, for the illustrative photos.

I gave the different palettes a try. I don't know anything about oil paint really except having done two still life recently with water mixable oil here (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showpost.php?p=15085202&postcount=90) and here (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showpost.php?p=15292342&postcount=116). But tonight, I decided to use the Modular Gray acrylic that I got of Golden brand from value 4 to 8 on Acrylic paper.

I learnt a lot about this paint. 4 being darker when mixed with water is warmer in color than 5. Don't know why. I made a mess of Caravaggio and gave the character some companions. I think I might finish it with water mixable oil. Acrylics is so hard to use. Now I realize why people uses oil. There is time for you to wipe up mistakes. Acrylics has none!!


Then I did one using Liquitex acrylics black tube paint, Golden zinc white fluid acrylics and Grumbacher raw umber tube acrylics.

I really like the mix but I went on to find out how difficult it is to use more white to lighten. It changes the hue altogether. I should have just thinned it. But then it's so difficult to paint and wipe off mistakes because it dries almost instantly. Made mincemeat out of the nose. This is the last time I want to use acrylics really for body work. Landscapes is fine but for facial features, watercolor is easier.

Leonardo da vinci copy

Acrylics paper 9x12 inch


03-24-2012, 02:12 PM
I've colored the Caravaggio piece with super strong Golden and Liquitex acrylics.:lol: