Grisaille Paintings
History of Painting Technique: Grey Pigments, Monochrome Paint.

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The Portinari Altarpiece Outer Panels
(c.1475) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Executed in grisaille by the Flemish
painter Hugo van der Goes for a
trompe l'oeil sculptural effect.

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What is Grisaille?
Different Types of Grisaille
History of Grisaille
Famous Grisaille Paintings
Other Painting Techniques

What is Grisaille?

In fine art, the term grisaille most commonly refers to a monochrome painting technique by which a painting or drawing is executed exclusively in shades of grey. Since a full colour painting requires more time and skill than one in monochrome (en camaieu), grisaille was often chosen as a quicker and cheaper alternative, although it was also chosen quite deliberately chosen for aesthetic reasons, in order to create a specfic visual effect. Traditionally, when part of a large decorative scheme in fresco or oils, or if incorporated into an altarpiece, a grisaille composition was often modeled to resemble sculpture, either relief or statuary. Good examples of grisaille mural paintings can be seen in the Chiostro dello Scalzo of the Scalzi in Florence (1511-26), illustrating the life of John the Baptist. The artist was Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), later leader of the Florentine High Renaissance.


Different Types of Grisaille

Basically, a work of grisaille may be executed as an independent finished work, as described above, or as a preliminary underpainting for an oil painting. In this case the painter overpaints the grisaille with layers of colour glaze. (Note: In French art, the term grisaille includes any painting method in which oil colours are applied to a monotone underpainting.) Alternatively, the grisaille may serve as a preparatory design for an engraving. Rubens' workshop is known to have employed monochrome techniques when sketching compositions for engravers.

In ceramic art and certain forms of metalwork, painters sometimes use the grisaille enamel painting technique, in which white vitreous enamel is combined with water, turpentine, and petroleum oil before being applied (typically) onto a black or blue enamel ground. A thick coat produces light tones while a thinner coat produces the greys. This grisaille enamel painting method - developed by 16th century French artists at Limoges - can produce a dramatic effect of light and shade, including enhanced volumes and three-dimensionality.

The term grisaille is also employed by glass painters to describe a grey, vitreous type of colour pigment used in the colouring of stained glass. This was probably the first example of grisaille art since Antiquity. An example is the 13th century Five Sisters stained glass window in St Peter's Cathedral in York, England.

Note: The term grisaille has been stretched to include monochromatic paintings in brown or green. However, these may be described using more specific terms: brown works may be described as brunaille, while those in green may be referred to as verdaille.

History of Grisaille

In the modern era, since Antiquity, the technique first came to prominence in Western painting in the production of illuminated manuscripts, where illustrations were often executed in ink and wash with a limited colour range. Known exponents of this type of grisaille book painting include the Frenchman Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334) and the English artist Matthew Paris (c.1200-59), although the technique had been practised widely in scriptoriums throughout Ireland and Northern England since Anglo-Saxon times.

during the Proto-Renaissance when Giotto used grisaille when painting some of his Scrovegni Chapel frescoes (c.1303-10) in Padua. (The basic monochrome method had been used in Oriental Ink and Wash painting, since about 650 CE. It is known as mo-shui in China, suibokuga or sumi-e in Japan, and Soomookwa in Korea.)

Grisaille was also adopted by artists of the early Netherlandish Renaissance, including the Tournai painter Robert Campin (c.1378-1444), the Ghent masters Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482), the Bruges artist Hans Memling (c.1433-94) and the Dutch visionary Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516).

Among the most famous grisaille paintings of the Netherlandish Renaissance are the two outer panels of the Portinari Altarpiece (c.1476-9) by Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482). Painted entirely in greys, they depict two life-size figures (Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin, of the Annunciation) as stone sculptures installed in wall niches bordered by shadows. When it was shipped to Italy in 1483, Van Der Goes' illusionary work - had a huge impact on the painters of the Florentine Renaissance, who had seen nothing like it before. Hieronymus Bosch famously used grisaille to paint his extraordinary picture of the Creation, on the outside of his altarpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05).

The technique was also used during the High Renaissance by the Mantua-based painter Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), Michelangelo (in his Genesis fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling) as well as Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530), leader of the Florentine High Renaissance, among others.

During the 16th century, the tradition of grisaille painting was maintained in the Netherlands, by the Haarlem-based artist Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), the great Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), the printmakers Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) and Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662), the landscape painter Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) and Rembrandt (1606-69).

Since the late 17th century, grisaille is one of the types of art that has declined in popularity both with artists and collectors. Nonetheless it is still used for aesthetic reasons in certain decorative works.

Famous Grisaille Paintings

Here is a short selected list of paintings containing or executed in grisaille.

Last Judgment Triptych - Outer Panel (c.1471) by Hans Memling.
Portinari Altarpiece - Outer Panel (1476-79) by Hugo Van Der Goes.
Donne Triptych - Outer Panel (1477-80) by Hans Memling.
Garden of Earthly Delights - Outer Panel (1505) by Hieronymus Bosch.
Battesimo Della Gente (1511-26, Chiostro dello Scalzo) by Andrea del Sarto.
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) by Pieter Bruegel.
Too stupid! (1618, Fine Arts Museum Lille) by Adriaen van de Venne.
Ecce Homo (1634, National Gallery, London) by Rembrandt.
Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia, Madrid) by Pablo Picasso.


Other Painting Techniques

For more painting methods, see:

Reducing length of figure to depict perspectival depth.
Trompe l'oeil mural technique of pushing space beyond a room's architecture.
The application of light and shadow to suggest volume in figures.
The handling of light and shadow for dramatic purposes.
The use in oil painting of imperceptible variations in tone.

• For more terms, see: Painting Glossary.
• For more about painting techniques, see: Homepage.

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