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Using Grisaille and Glazing Techniques to Reproduce an Old Master Painting

Using Grisaille Underpainting to Reproduce Titian's "Venus Anadyomene"

Grisaille is a fine arts term applied to a monochromatic, grayscale style of painting. Grisaille painting is often used in decorative art or to reproduce the appearance of relief sculpture, however it can also be used as an underpainting for portraiture, still life, and other genres of art. Grisaille as an underpainting is similar to verdaccio, which I discuss on my page "What is Verdaccio and How to Use It in Your Paintings."

Whereas verdaccio is typically used under fleshtones to add a deep warmth and contrast to the earth tones applied over it, grisaille tends to have a cooling effect when used in such a fashion.

Although I typically use verdaccio for my underpaintings, I recently decided to try a strict grisaille underpainting for my reproduction of Titian's "Venus Anadyomene." I saw the original painting in the exhibit "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland" which was at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. I immediately fell in love with this Venus - her soft beauty and the way Titian was able to create so much mood and atmosphere in rather rough, expressive brushstrokes. Because the painting had such an overwhelming blue palette and her skin tone was quite pale, I thought grisaille would be a good choice for an underpainting, so as not to loose the purity of the blues.

Now I'll go step by step through the painting process so you can see how my own version of the Venus Anadyomene took shape.

Titian: The Complete Paintings - Learn More About The Italian Renaissance Master

Titian was one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. Any artist interested in classical style art should study the works of this master painter, and this book contains beautiful images of all of Titian's paintings. I've completed two Titian reproductions to date and this book is a wonderful resource tool for learning more about his artwork, methods and importance to the art world.

Your Experience with Grisaille Painting - Are You Familiar With This Oil Painting Technique?

Jan Brueghel the Elder-Christus und die Ehebrecherin

Jan Brueghel the Elder-Christus und die Ehebrecherin


1. Gridding My Reference Image

Before Beginning the Grisaille Underpainting, I Must Copy The Basic Image

After finding a high-resolution copy of "Venus Anadyomene" on-line, I saved it to my computer, converted it to grayscale, and printed it out to the dimensions to fit the panel I would be using. I then marked a 1" grid on the image, labeling each square with numbers in one direction and letters in the next. I enlarged the grid to fit my 24"x30" panel and began working on sketching the primary image in charcoal. Labeling the squares lessens the chance of getting lost while following the contours of a figure, hair or background details.Notice that on the face, I added diagonal lines to my grid to help place the angles of important features such as the nose, eyes and mouth. The important thing to remember if adding diagonal lines to your grid is that the ends of the lines MUST meet with squared corners of the grid to ensure proper placement. In an image with more angled components I would typically use more diagonal lines to ensure proper placement, but "Venus Anadyomene" is mostly vertical and horizontal in composition, so I only worried about the face.

2. Completed Charcoal Drawing

Almost Ready to Begin the Grisaille Underpainting

Here is my completed charcoal drawing on panel for "Venus Anadyomene." Once I was satisfied with the placement of features, I lightened the grid lines as best as I could and began adding shading and working up the values of the image. I used several bristle brushes to blend and smooth the charcoal over the surface and worked it until I was satisfied I'd gone far enough with the drawing that it was time to begin painting. I sealed the charcoal with fixative spray, using several coats until charcoal no longer rubbed off on my fingers.

Light umber wash

Light umber wash

3. Toning the Panel with a Light Umber Wash

Last Step Before Beginning the Grisaille

This next step might seem odd to some, but before painting the grisaille I "washed" the panel with burnt umber diluted with odorless mineral spirits. Even though I would be painting in grayscale, this thin layer of paint would make it easier for the next painting layer to "stick" to the panel. It would also help me see where I'd painted, and where only charcoal had been laid down.I let the wash dry completely overnight before continuing to the next step.

Grisaille swatches of Cennini paint.

Grisaille swatches of Cennini paint.

4. Using the Cennini Grisaille Kit

Pre-Mixed Grisaille Paints for Proper Greyscale Values

Instead of mixing a series of grisaille values from pure black and white oil paints, to save time I used a pre-mixed grisaille kit from Cennini (unfortunately now discontinued). These eight carefully calibrated paints came in precisely measured steps in value, making it a perfect way to get right into grisaille painting. I found the paint extremely buttery and easy to apply, even in the first coat onto my panel board. While learning to mix grisaille yourself is important for an artist to understand value properly, it's nice to have a ready-made kit on hand when you just want to start painting!

Oil Paints to Make Your Own Grisaille Series

If you can't find a pre-made grisaille kit - or are ready to start mixing your own grisaille, here are the basic paints you'll need.Traditionally Cremnitz or Lead White (today often Flake white) is used for underpaintings because of its opaqueness, quick drying properties, and durability. However, today it can be difficult to find or purchase "true" lead white - in some areas it is banned completely! So Titanium White can be used instead or if you have safety concerns. Do not used Zinc White in a grisaille underpainting.Ivory Black is the traditional black used in grisailles. It does have a bluish tint when mixed, so some artists will add a touch of burnt umber to warm the grisaille tones slightly.

My Preferred Oil Painting Medium: Liquin - Good for Underpainting, Glazing and All Stages of Oil Painting Work

Liquin is my favorite painting medium and the one I use by default for nearly all oil painting projects. It helps paint dry more quickly as well as works perfectly for glazing applications. Blue pigments can sometimes bead up and separate when mixed with medium for glazing but I've never had that problem with Liquin.


5. Completed Grisaille Underpainting

Performing the First Color Tests Over the Underpainting

Completing my grisaille went very quickly using the Cennini grisaille kit. I finished the grisaille in two sessions, using my charcoal drawing and reference photo to match the values of light to dark as closely as possible. I used only a small amount of Liquin medium in my grisaille paints as they were very smooth and easy to paint with, but the Liquin would help them dry faster.

I began adding color by working on the background first. This is important in that it "framed" the central figure of Venus and would help in getting her fleshtones accurate. Colors interact, and how we see one color depends crucially on the color or colors immediately next to it. I began by applying opaque colors over my grisaille, using hues such as King's Blue Light, Turquoise Green, Faience Blue and Green Blue from Maimeri's Puro line of paints. These are some of the purest, most beautiful oil paints out there currently, rich with intense color and of a wonderful consistency for layered and glazed painting techniques. With a little Titanium White mixed in to the blue and green tones, the color immediately began to "pop" off the grayscale underpainting and take shape quickly.

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6. First Fleshtone Applications

Painting Flesh Tones Over the Grisaille

With the background complete, I began layering in the fleshtones, working light to dark as Venus' skin tone was so light. I used primarily Titanium White mixed with a tiny amount of Cadmium Orange and a bit of Yellow Ochre. In the shadows and also in the hair, I used primarily Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre. Where possible in the darkest areas of shadow and hair, I glazed the dark colors thinly to allow some of the original grisaille underpainting to show through. In the bright areas of flesh, however, I painted thickly.

Oil paint becomes more transparent with time, so it is important to apply light colors thickly and to make sure any original drawing lines or charcoal sketches are well-covered.Notice here how the original grisaille really has given the painting an overall cool, bluish look, even while painting quite opaquely at this stage of the process. I again stuck to using Maimeri Puro paints, except for the Cadmium Orange which was from Winsor & Newton.

Colors Used in Venus' Fleshtones - Maimeri Puro Oil Colors

These are the colors and paints I used for Venus' flesh tone palette.

Building fleshtones

Building fleshtones

7. Building Fleshtones

Blocking in More Color over the Grisaille

Here I really begin laying in the fleshtones thick. I've finished one complete layer of fleshtone, body and face, in a blocky fashion but trying to concentrate on building the main areas of light and shadow. I want my Venus to have some real "heft" to her (and not just because she's a voluptuous lady.) I've also given her a touch of a "nose job" from my original grisaille, softening the tip and giving it a bit of an upturn.

To Learn More About Classical Oil Painting Techniques...

These books are wonderful resources for learning more about the methods and materials of the Old Masters and classical artists. If you are interested in traditional methods and painting like the Masters, I highly recommend each of these titles.


8. Warming Up Venus

Bringing More Warmth to the Fleshtones

Here I've starting warming the fleshtones to give her a little more "blood" and "life." This was accomplished by glazing some Burnt Sienna over the face, hands, hair and other areas of the body I wanted to look warmer. I also used some of the Burnt Sienna in the water and seashell, to keep the color palette unified throughout the painting.

At this point the painting was going to become a lot of back-and-forth work: adding color, softening lines, building contrast, and lessening it. This is both the most challenging and exciting stage of the painting process, where a rough image really begins to take shape and hopefully take on an air of realism.

Scumbling and glazing work

Scumbling and glazing work

9. Glazing and Detail Scumbling Work

Adding Depth and Detail to the Oil Painting

After glazing some reds and browns transparently over the hair and body, I used some lighter paint - mostly Titanium White mixed with a touch of Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna - to add detail to the hair and shell. This is called "scumbling," when you apply opaque colors over glazes and should be done minimally. I also glazed more dark colors into the water and over her body to keep developing the forms, shadows and flesh tones.

At this point I decided I needed to take a break from this painting for a while to come back with "fresh eyes" to complete it. I had been working on it nearly daily for about 2 weeks, for a few hours at a time, and wasn't quite satisfied with the coloration and details. Sometimes it's good practice to put a painting away for period of time instead of rushing to finish it. I worked on a large landscape for a change of pace and did not return to Venus, in fact, for about 2 months. When I did the rest of the work flowed smoothly and quickly.


10. Glazing to Unify and Soften the Painting

Making Corrections with Oil Glazes

I decided one of the main problems was Venus was looking too contrasty and harsh, so to tone down the painting I added some more glazes to smooth transitions and tone down the color chroma. I touched some of the background blue colors into her skin, and blurred the edges between the background and the body. I applied Burnt Umber glazes over the hair and water, and added a touch more Green Blue to the water as well. Now she was beginning to look closer to completion, but I still needed to play a bit more with the image before I'd be totally satisfied.

11. The Completed Painting - My Copy of Titian's "Venus Anadyomene"

Venus Anadyomene - complete!

Venus Anadyomene - complete!

For my final day of painting, I made a very thin glaze of Raw Sienna Light in Liquin and applied it over the entire painting surface. I varied the intensity of the sienna color throughout the painting, wiping away some in the brightest areas of flesh and deepening it in the shadows. This immediately unified the entire image and gave it a more "classical" look.I then worked some Rose Lake into the still-wet glaze, touching the rose into the areas of flesh I wanted to "pink up": lips, cheeks, tip of the nose, fingers and chest. Any area of the body which normally appears more reddish due to bloodflow, I softly worked the rose color into it. I also threw some in to the horizon line.

For final touches, I mixed a little Titanium White into my Raw Sienna glaze and threw in hair highlights with a small detail brush. These tiny details did much to suggest the curls and flow of the hair without overdoing the contrast as I had before.At this point, I decided that my version of "Venus Anadyomene" was complete. She doesn't look exactly like Titian's, but that's also what I like about her - she's my Venus, even if derived and inspired by another. I always find, in reproducing Old Master portraits and figure painting, that a bit of my own personality still comes through and I like that instead of trying for an exact carbon copy.

I felt the grisaille method of underpainting worked well for this painting. It certainly had a different feeling and cast a different tone to the work as opposed to using verdaccio. In the future I'll continue to experiment with different hued underpaintings depending on the mood and atmosphere I want to create in my work.

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I really do like Maimeri paints and they aren't always easy to find...except on eBay!


For More of My Artwork...

Please visit my personal website, Nicole Pellegrini Art, for more examples of my artwork in various styles and mediums from oil to watercolor and pencil. Besides classical reproduction work I do original portraiture, fan and "media" art, pet portraiture, astronomical art and fantasy designs.You can also find some of my work for sale in my Etsy storefront so do stop by and check out the original paintings and prints that are available there.

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Please let me know what you thought of this painting tutorial! I hope you enjoyed reading it and that it may inspire you to paint your own Venus someday...

Comments Welcome on this Grisaille Painting Tutorial

fotolady49 lm on July 20, 2013:

I love this great informative lens. I've bookmarked it. It is a great resource lens also.

anonymous on October 12, 2012:

I enjoyed it but was frustrated by the fact that you didn't specify where you put your glazes?? All over the figure or just on specific parts? Hard for a beginner to know. Would also have liked to see more details of the face. But still grateful for what you did.

anonymous on October 10, 2012:

Oil Painting is the best technology of Painting. I like it.

anonymous on October 03, 2012:

This is wonderful, thank you for putting it together.

Aquavel on April 04, 2012:

Great tutorial. I became aware of Grisaille a few years ago when I was admiring a series of small paintings of fruit that looked like they had come out of Rembrant's studio. At least I "think" it was Grisaille. Perhaps it was Verdaccio. I better go and read your other lens! Stunning artwork, btw!

sousababy on March 30, 2012:

Wow, your tutorial is amazing . . you make it look so easy. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. Sincerely, Rose

SquidooRocks55 on March 15, 2012:

Pretty cool techniques. Painting was always something I wished I was good at. No Luck though. LOL.

Delia on January 29, 2012:

Another great lens! very informative

seosmm on January 08, 2012:

Very interesting. Really enjoyed your lens!

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