Grisaille

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Grisaille

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005


Because even the most opaque oil paints are not fully opaque, there is a subtle difference in the optical effect produced by a fully modeled neutral underpainting beneath the color layer(s), even when the overpainting is done opaquely. However, its greatest effectiveness is when the color layer varies in degrees of opacity/transparence according to a system wherein the lightest lights are more heavily loaded and opaque, the deepest darks are thin and composed of transparent paints, and the tones in between those extremes are handled according to the degrees of light indicated. This allows the modeling in the underpainting to show through in varying degrees according to the painter's intention. Our perception of three-dimensional reality is not such a simple matter, and the artist who understands fully the potential of the optical effects possible in multilayer painting is well equipped to create the most convincing illusions of spatial depth and solid forms.

The method is especially well suited for smoothly modeled, rounded forms, such as young women's bodies.

It is well to know how to paint in more than one way. Some subjects are best treated one way, while others are most suitably depicted with a different approach. And of course it is desirable that there be discernible differences from one artist to the next.

There is yet another method that does not seem to have entered this discussion, and that is the method of underpainting the flesh areas of youthful, light-complected people with brighter (i.e., higher chroma) opaque colors, and then overpainting with opaque and semiopaque passages of greys or greyer colors, allowing the warmer underlying colors to show through from below to create the final effect as a complex optical phenomenon much like that created in real human flesh. This method was used by William Bouguereau to its best effect, but it dates back at least as far as Fran├žois Boucher. It is mentioned in Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst's book, The Painter in Oil, though he does not go into great detail.

The direct-in-full-color method allows a much wider range of possible effects with the many pigments that are available to painters of today than was the case in previous centuries, when there were fewer reliable colors to work with. Formerly, artists were compelled to exploit every tendency of every pigment, including its opacity or transparence, to get the most out of a limited palette. There is still something to be gained from knowing how to do things the way they were done long ago, as there are subtleties in optical effects that are only possible through underpainting, scumbling, glazing and opaque painting systematically, all in the same picture, which cannot be duplicated in direct painting, even with today's expanded palette.

Virgil Elliott