Grisaille For Its Own Sake The power and drama of black and white paintings

"Grisaille Study: Oil Lamp" oil on panel, 5x5 inches.
“Grisaille Study: Oil Lamp”
oil on panel, 5×5 inches.

Today’s painting is a little different.

If you’ve followed this newsletter for a while, you may well have read about the process I use to create these paintings.

It’s a set of multiple, discrete steps that taken together form the core of the Flemish Technique, which artists have used to create highly refined and realistic paintings for five centuries.

The middle step – and what I think of as the heart of this technique – is the monochromatic underpainting – a preliminary version of the painting done solely in black and white (or some other color such as red or green and white).

This underpainting – also known by the wonderful French word grisaille (griz-EYE) serves as a foundation for the color layer, and allows the artist to fully work out ideas around composition, light and shadow, and value (the degree of lightness or darkness of a color).

It’s a critical step in this technique, and in many ways is my favorite part of doing a painting.

But it is usually just a means to an end, and the grisaille becomes lost in the process, covered up by the final color layer.

But not always.


Sometimes, the artist will create a grisaille painting as the finished work.

Like black and white photography, these paintings become intense studies in tremendous power of light and shadow, and the purity and drama that a good, clear arrangement of values can bring.

This week’s painting is one such – it was beautiful just to immerse myself in the drama of the light, the long sweeping curves of the lamp, and of course that magnificent brocaded cloth in the background – all without the entanglements of judging and mixing color.

The visual arts have always had an analog to black and white photography in the practice of drawing, but true grisaille paintings are comparatively rare.

If you’re a fan of contemporary art, you may think of Mark Tansey.

For me, though, the one that always comes to mind is a beautiful painting done by the Netherlandish painter Jan Gossaert (known as Mabuse) in the early 1500s.

It’s a pair of panels in diptych format owned by the National Gallery in Washington DC (entitled “Saint Jerome Penitent”) – the outer doors of altarpieces from the Middle Ages were sometimes painted in grisaille, and this is likely one of those.

I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of seeing it in person several times, and paused to study it as long as I reasonably could. Below is the complete pair of panels, followed by a detail of the right-hand panel, depicting the architecture in the background.

If you ever find yourself at the National Gallery, I hope you can see this stunning and unusual painting for yourself.

Jan Gossaert, "Saint Jerome Penitent", c. 1510 Oil on panel, about 36 x 20 inches
Jan Gossaert, “Saint Jerome Penitent”, c. 1510
Oil on panel, about 36 x 20 inches
Jan Gossaert, "Saint Jerome Penitent" (detail), c. 1510 Oil on panel, about 36 x 20 inches
Jan Gossaert, “Saint Jerome Penitent” (detail), c. 1510
Oil on panel, about 36 x 20 inches

PS – for those who are fastidious about definitions:  My own painting (at the top of this post) is strictly speaking not a grisaille at all, but is a brunaille, as it is created with brown instead of black.

I used a combination of Ivory Black, Raw Umber, and Venetian Red to get that lovely warm neutral tone.

Gosseart’s painting is actually a hybrid – mostly grisaille, but the foreground figures are painted in brunaille, which has the effect of separating them from the background and bringing them towards the viewer.