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Grisaille Underpainting Techniques

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Grisaille Underpainting in Oil 

Underpainting & Grisaille are...


An underpainting is the initial compositional layers of paint applied to the canvas or surface prior to the full range of colours. This can be in the form of a loose sketch to a complete tonal rendering of the intended artwork,


A Grisaille is simply an underpainting completed in a monochromatic grey scale. 


An Underpainting may be preceded by a pencil, charcoal or ink drawing of some description.


Underpaintings are as the name implies, to be painted over, in the most part anyway. A lot of artists will allow varying degrees of their base layer to been seen for different effects in the final work.


How an Underpainting can Influence your Painting Technique.


The aim of a good underpainting is to establish a blueprint or guide for subsequent layers as well as act as a colour base to work over.


This includes:


  • Layout and composition.

  • Establishing tonal values

  • Focal area,

  • Creating depth and form.

  • Atmosphere

  • Temperature

  • Drawing

  • Improve harmony


It can be as loose, or as detailed as you need.

You might prefer to have a few broad and basic values hinted at or more traditionally a finely tuned, detail complete final rendering prior to colour

 Getting everything correct at the same time can be like juggling chainsaws for even competent painters so the underpainting is a means of breaking the process down making it much easier to work out the drawing and values before you add colour into the mix often as a monochromatic foundation.


When an underpainting is thought about and implemented properly, it will a allow the artist to progress at a smoother more confident manner.


When this foundation is allowed to dry, the colours in the subsequent layers can be visually combined, optically rather like stacking stained glass as opposed to the colours physically mixing.

This allows the artist to concentrate entirely on the tone and composition, without having to worry about colour, as trying to figure out both the tonal and colour relationships in a painting simultaneously can be incredibly difficult.

 Often resulting in an overworked or muddy painting.


The underpainting should help the artist with subsequent layers, If they have to fight the underpainting, paint in a way that is primarily to opaque the underpainting as opposed to develop or add to the painting then it is a sign that the primary layer was not doing its job properly. Often this is due to an overly thick application of paint that has dried with either an unwanted texture or overly strong defining line. Thin and soft is how I recommend you apply this foundation layer.


Terms related to underpainting


  • Grisaille: Black or grey tonal underpainting.

  • Open Grisaille: Just black thinned and layered, relatively transparent as opposed to a closed Grisaille.

  • Closed Grisaille: White is used in addition to black and is generally thicker and more opaque.

  • Dead Layer & Dead Colouring: Alternate names for Closed Grisaille.

  • Achromatic meaning Greyscale or Neutral.

  • Monochrome meaning single Colour or Hue.

  • Brunaille - Brown tonal underpainting.

  • Verdaccio: Varying mix of black, white, and yellow pigments creating a grey, yellow or soft greenish-brown colour.

  • Washing - Opaque paint used as a glaze, semi-transparent by its thining rather than nature, often cloudy. 

  • Wash: A thin layer of any paint broadly applied.

  • Glazing - Transparent layer of paint intended to tint and add depth to the colour below. This technique can be instigated during the underpainting.

  •  Imprimatura is an initial stain of colour providing a painter with a transparent, toned ground,

  • Ground: A colour, wash or stain applied to or built into the surface prior to either the underpainting or direct method and is essentially just a coloured base to work over, not considered an underpainting as such.



Not all Underpaintings are Monochromatic.


Underpaintings are often but not by definition or by any means restricted to a single, Monochromatic Colour or Achromatic (Greyscale). Two or three colours are commonly used, often depending on the competence of the artist and their understanding of what they can achieve with multiple colours.



Choosing Colours for an Underpainting...

Underpaintings were usually executed in warm earth tones and browns, such as Umbers and siennas, neutral greys are common but any colour can be used, it really depends on the strategy for your painting and what effect you want to create.

 A multi-colour underpainting is something I have graduated to. I find it useful to plan in advance whether I want a  warm or cool or complimentary colour but I am always thinking about how this will change the next layer. This just takes time and experience.

Complementary colours can be used and allowing some of the underpainting colour to remain visible can create a colour vibration.


Some Popular colours for a subtle and incorporated underpainting :
  • Burnt Sienna

  • Vandyke Brown

  • Burnt Umber

  • Raw Umber

  • Ivory Black

  • Paynes Grey

  • Ultramarine Blue

  • Red oxide


Combinations to help simultaneously work on Warm and Cool areas at the same time.


  • Ultramarine Blue with Cadmium Orange.

  • Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna.

  • Sap Green with Alizarine Crimson.

  • Ultramarine Blue, Burnt SIenna, Viridian and Alizarin


It helps if you use these colours a lot and know how they work together in your painting. This is a kind of shortcut but can also give subtle differing effects.


Colours for a more Dynamic, contrasting effect:

If you want to have vibrancy in your final work generally using complementary or contrasting colours, can make your work Pop or even Scream if you want...

  • Red underpainting if Green is to be a prominent or dominant colour in the final finish.

  • Green under Red

  • Yellow under Purple

  • Purple under Yellow

  • Blue Under Orange

  • Orange under Blue


The purer the colour the more contrast you will see. Look at Fauvism for a movement that focused on this.

Remember though that you will need good opaque coolers for some of these combinations: If you want Yellow to cover purple for example 




How to Use Acrylic, Alkyd & Oil in the Underpainting Process...


It is quite common for oil paintings to be painted over an acrylic ground.

The benefits being that the acrylic will dry a lot faster than the oil would and therefore be ready to paint on sooner.

Note you can paint oil over dry acrylic but not acrylic over Oil, wet or dry. Oil water don't mix, google for more info and for those who have experimented etc

You can use turpentine-thinned oil paint which will dry quicker, use drying mediums etc.

I prefer to use Alkyd Oils which in short can be thinned a lot and also have a dring ingredient mixed in, similar to Liquin.

I will go into more detail as to why I love Alkyds in another post...

The same applies whether you are painting over oil or Acrylics, Oil is less likely to have dried however if applied too thick, whereas there is more opportunity to paint impasto with acrylics.

You also want to consider that thick acrylic will be more flexible than the oil paint in the long term, I wouldn't panic too much about this but if longevity is of paramount importance you may want to read up more on this... just another reason to start with a thinner ground.



letting the underpainting dry...

I'll be honest I don't know if the technical definition clarifies that the underpainting should be totally dry to be considered an underpainting... however, my advice is to do what's needed.

If it's a safety net to fall back on then let it dry, if its a loose layout or block In to get your composition and placement in before really going for it then work into it wet. Obviously, this method will pick up more of the previous layer than if let dry but this is where its down to you to experiment.

Some like a slightly but not totally cured layer below to work on as of how it takes the paint.

A similar amount of consideration goes into what type of ground or support you want to work on

Often the benefit comes from the ability to keep layers separate and the inability for the foundation colours to mix into your final colours.

If this is the case then let it dry before continuing in full colour.

Establishing the values first makes it easier to match those values when you add colour but its still easy to get in a mess and want to start fresh. Heres where a dry grisaille will help you most as you just scrub back to reveal the foundation again.





Do you need to do an underpainting?


The simple answer is No.

Wet into wet is a very popular oil painting technique often completing the painting in only one sitting. It's a relatively modern approach to paint directly in one sitting without using layering at all.

A benefit of Oil is that if you do like to paint like this you can encourage the paint to stay wet or a least workable for a long time if this is your preference. 

This wet into wet approach can vary from mixing colour on the surface its self or with the artist  aiming to paint the perfect colour with each with application and brush stroke, premixing the correct colour individually,


  • Alla prima,

  • Direct painting

  • First stroke

  • Wet into Wet


Plain Air painting is painting outside, usually, the landscape of some description and is more likely to use this Wet into Wet approach. A loose underpainting or layout may still be produced with either faster drying materials or just to be worked Into as opposed to Over.



Using A Monochrome Underpainting...


Monochromatic, Grisaille or Brunaille underpaintings are usually the first choice when trying this out as a technique. It's also possible to start with a single colour and gradually add colours as you progress with your underpainting.



It's arguably a good start when trying to accomplish a harmony or colour balance in the final painting to use a unifying colour, to begin with, a common factor binding the whole piece.

This can be achieved with other methods, travelling colours around as you paint but it can also fail to produce the required harmony if its purpose is misunderstood and poorly instigated.



Painting Wet on Wet over your underpainting. 

Often an underpainting is used to give the artist more confidence to be bold in the subsequent layers. Without having to worry so much about tone, placement, drawing or composition they can paint more freely while having a loose boundary to constrain them.

This freedom is often a more direct form of painting where the paint is constantly applied wet into wet.

While the current layer of paint is wet but the underpainting is dry it also gives the artist the option of rubbing back the current layer to reveal the underpainting again if things are not going as well as intended without having to start again completely.

Note that the more you do this you will eventually erode your underpainting back to the bare surface or leave awkward paint scars that adversely affect you subsequent layers.


Advice on Technique

What do you want to achieve

  • To establish simple values or lines,

  • To capture most of the visual information in the underpainting technique before applying transparent glazes?

  • What colour is your surface?

  • And, what is your medium?

  • You will need to consider all of the above in choosing your approach.


Keeping your underpainting soft...

I would suggest that you try not to define your edges to harshly. Subsequent layers especially glazes can overemphasise them a lot faster than anticipated often leaving extremely hard edges when not required. Instead, I suggest making more use of softer edges that can be emphasised at a later date if necessary. So use soft, lost edges rather hard fixed edges.


Avoid heavy thick darks early on, I find building layers to establish darks makes for a much more subtle work than applying the final tone in the first pass. Often with a monochrome underpainting, your tone will not match the final colour so by hitting the correct tone straight away you will by default darken it when you apply a colour glaze to correct the colour. Or you will find yourself lightening again in order to go dark, the path to a slippery slope and often muddy colours...


There are dozens of common underpainting techniques, but you should develop your own method, one which is most useful to you. This will depend on a combination of things including your style, intent, materials and medium, strengths and weaknesses to name a few...


There are incredible painters who can apply paint directly without the need for an underpainting. Some, however great, far better than I, would in my opinion still benefit from an underpainting of sorts at least, maybe just a more textured and interesting base or ground.

My reason being is that it can add life and texture with which the perfect first-time application of paint can miss. It's the concept that nothing is perfect so for something to be perfect it has to have an imperfection etc etc...

I see some paintings that are so well applied that it actually takes the life out of the work. 

Traditional Airbrushing can often have a similar quality to what I am trying to describe, an over polished yet lifeless image.

A little underpainting here and there showing through can add all the grit, dirt and grounding a piece needs to make it sit that little bit more comfortably. For me anyway...


 I honestly think about my painting strategy like one would plan out a game of chess. Everything thought about many moves ahead of time, everything is done for a reason.


I consider all the work I do before adding White and opaque colours as my underpainting.

For me, it's quite a clear transition in practice although it might not sound so as I use half of my palette colours in my underpainting.

 To clarify I don't add white to the dark colour mix to make a dead layer.  I just start to add mixed opaque colour that includes White and paint in a more direct method over the relevant areas.

I suppose you could consider my underpainting as a Multi-coloured and Open.

 There will be areas where my underpainting has made it to the completed painting and as I have used shadow mixes and glazes as I have gone I don't need to tint these areas as I would if I had used an Open Grisaille. 

What follows is a working example as to how my underpainting develops into the completed painting. 

Oil Painting Technique Using An Underpainting

Oil Painting Technique and demo studio setup with work in progress

Oil Painting Technique & Walkthrough


Ok, I'm going to try and walk you through my process as well as my thinking behind why I'm doing what I am doing...


1. So the first stage is the idea and vision. I have my concept, I want to paint my English Bull Terrier's profile. Not my usual subject although I have painted him before, I had wanted to do this image for a while now. Its simple and bold and Colour in your life seemed like a good excuse.

I take my photos, I chose the one I think closest matches what I want. I drop it into photoshop and have a quick play with the composition and some background effects. Not to be too cheesy but I decided that the Union Jack would add to the UK feel to the program. It wasn't ever going to be a perfect all guns blazing show of pride, not with the mess of the UK amidst Brexit etc so a distressed flag fitted a lot better with my style and also the underlying message. I'm not anti-UK but I'm, not one for waving a flag regardless... I'm a realist after all.

Couldn't decide, square or rectangle so I left it a rectangle with the option to crop later... MDF :)


2. I prepare my surface by cutting a piece of 6mm MDF to the larger of my compositions and apply around 6 layers of acrylic gesso in my usual method.

Then I apply a layer of alkyd white, the same paint I will use later on. A day later and the board is ready to paint on.


3.With my Composition not decided I drawn up the head and do a pretty complete tonal study. I use my digital image to work out some measurements to keep the image the size I want it and keep the composition. Most Of the values are worked out her and even tho I am actually going to run this back its served two uses, 1 its made me really study the image before I even start painting so there shouldn't be too many surprises and 2. I now know that I am happy with the placement although I still haven't decided on the final crop.


4. After using a putty rubber, rolled over the whole drawing to soften the image right back I start applying a very thin layer of paint. If I left the drawing as heavy as it was the spirits I use would lift the excess graphite and it would mix too much with the paint. It would be ok but I'd rather keep as much control of the paint as possible and the grey would reduce this.

I am using a warm mix of burnt sienna and Ultramarine blue. Only a hint of blue to take the orange edge of the burnt sienna. I have added lots of white spits to the mix and its almost like water at this stage. I will let the mixture thicken slightly during this session and I will add a little Linseed oil as well otherwise the white spirit will evaporate and the pigment will be left with no binder... and won't stick.

I haven't washed a ground in on this one, the underpainting here will be sufficient as I know it will spread out to make enough of a mess to work into later, if it doesn't I can add to it.


5. More of the same, the mix gets slightly thicker again, we are still runny here just not so runny, seriously you have to experiment with this sort of thing, I am leaving the canvas where the portrait is lighter and building on the darker areas. I use a cloth to remove paint almost as much as I use a brush to apply it. It's not the same purpose but if you have ever seen a tattoo artist wiping away excess ink after every application you will know what I mean. This isn't, as far as I understand a normal practice for most painters. If it is I haven't seen it to the degree at least that I do it. 

I can also alternate my mix between blue and brown depending upon how I want the painting to progress. Where an area is going to be darker I can add more blue to the mix to darken it or if I want a warmth to an area I will let more of the brown show through. Even if the area needs to be cooler later on the warm underpainting will add contrast, from my experience Its easier to cool a painting than to add warmth.


6.  Here still more of the same really, patiently building up the layers. Its gone past a kind of staining stage, but it doesn't feel like paint either yet. I also started to add a little Alizarin to the mix just to add a little more variety.


7. Now I'm getting a little bored with the same mix of paint and I have put off work on the nose long enough now. I wanted to get onto this bit but because it's quite a light area I wanted to have at least some darks next to it ready to add some relativity to it. Painting light colours on white make's me more likely to paint them to light and then I will have to darken them later which is harder. I prefer to be slightly dark and have to lighten than the other way round. It helps me leave more texture naturally rather than adding it artificially.

The snout is again a simple mix of Alizarin, Cad Red, Titanium White and a hint of the shadow mix I have been using so far. This paint is thin but It is still fairly opaque and covers the hint of an underpainting I have done here easily.

I am painting the colour and relative tone now but I am leaning towards the darker end so that I can lighten certain areas later. Knowing that I am going to do an area in more than one pass lets me feel more confident to get things close but reduces the perfectionist desire in me that usually leads me to overwork an area. 

The greys in the bottom lips are a midpoint between the pink of the snout and the shadow mix in variations.


8. I go back to working the darks and I start to experiment with shaping the background with thin washes again, looking for pleasing shapes mimicking what I played with in photoshop. All of this has the gradual effect of making the nose look lighter without me even touching it.

Plan ahead - everything is relative, I'm not even sure I went dark enough on the nose now...

There's more blue in the mix and I'm trying not to work over too many of the mid tones that are now appearing.

I'm starting to add details more clearly now just by being more careful where I paint.

Still no white or opaque colours in this area yet. White would make me push and pull the painting too much and this, in turn, would make me lose the transparency in the darks. This is what makes them look believable and adds the depth in this kind of painting.


9. Happy with the previous experimentation on the background I add a bolder textural layer and let it dry.

Notice how quickly this mix of blues cools the brown. It's only thin but already it has a dramatic effect on the feel of the piece.


10. Now I start more confidently working up the background, I have enough layered in to give a rough feel to the piece.

I don't want to polish the subject and then have to paint around it carefully and then inevitably have to fix areas that I mess up. Instead, I want to be free with my background but with purpose and then finalise the face at the end.

This is a great theory but there will always be some back and forth however it really helps to try for this as it does make things easier.

The hard thing here is actually painting over the cool, interesting textural effect made earlier with the dripping paint. I know I can't leave it all but choosing what and how much is the art and it's not as easy as it may seem. When you are indecisive and creative it can be really hard to destroy what you have made even for the greater good... just in case it turns out you don't like it... This battle is all part of it and so long as I don't get too precious its a lot of fun.

I'm mixing my shadow colours here along with a little viridian and white. This makes it more opaque so I'm scrapping or scrubbing back a lot if I want to see more of the underpainting along with the texture it creates with the weave if the gesso textured board.

Even though white is included in the mix I still aim dark, I already know where I will lighten at a later stage fo added contrast but it will work better added fresh on top.

11. The last stages of the painting appear to change the least but this is where most of the time is actually spent. Even if its just contemplating...

I eventually add a little of the opaque colours to the darks in only a few relevant places, I then glaze over these with the shadow mix again and do this until I am happy. There is a lot of leaving the painting overnight and doing the same again the next day, happy, not happy etc. It's all very subtle at this point. Always on the edge of overworking the painting. Sessions may be become a lot shorter, doing what slight changes are needed then leaving to dry. 

Or messing up a tiny detail and spending an ungodly amount of time trying to undo/redo what was actually totally fine in the first place... Control, Edit, Undo buttons would be gratefully used here...

Meanwhile playing with the background, trying to add hard highlighted edges to make areas pop out or losing some unneeded contrast that distracts too much from the focal point.

There really is a lot of fiddling at this stage.


12. Eventually, you have to stop...


The last image is a scan of the final painting.

I still haven't decided on the crop a year on so I have just left the painting as is until a time I either know or have to make the decision for framing...


I have a square frame that I have tested on the painting, something I do throughout the process if I have a frame to had as It helps me to visualise the completed painting. A frame is going to be a part of the final work so incorporating it in the creation process early on is something I find invaluable to my method.



Lemon Yellow

Cadmium Yellow

Cadmium Red

Alizarin Red

Ultra Marine Blue

Prussian Blue

Titanium White

Ivory Black


Burnt Sienna

Cadmium Orange

Naples Yellow

Yellow Ochre



Winsor & Newton Griffin Alkyd Oils

Winsor & Newton Artist Oils

Georgian Oils

Michael Harding Oils





Refined Linseed oil

Dalor Rowny Alkyd Flow Medium

Sansoder low odder turpentine

White Spirit.




Moderately priced brushes


Pro Arte Miniature Brushes  - Flat 1/8,

Rounds 000 - 3

Pro Arte Acrylix One Stroke Brush Series 204 

Pro Arte Series 008 Prolene Plus One Stroke Brush


Decent Budget Brushes


Polar Brushes -  Flats & Rounds

Daler Rowney Graduate  - Flats & Rounds

Gold Taklon - Value Sets


Blaze no Glory.jpg

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