Monday, June 2, 2014

Grisaille (sigh)

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Marooned on Grisaille Island

I received an email today from a blog-follower in Colorado. It begins: 
First, I am, and have been, a fan of your work for many years even before I began to paint 6 years ago.
So far, so good.
But then he gets to the meat of his question.
I have adopted your theory of the grisaille, and begin each picture with one.  Actually, I am always very pleased with the result. Because of the ease of wiping out things I take as long a necessary to get what I want.  The problem for me is that inevitably the painting goes down hill from the grisaille. As long as I stay with transparent paints I am usually pleased with the results, although I don't feel the picture is complete.... 
A nice summation of the joys of grisaille. But wait!  There's trouble ahead!
...but when I finally open the white and introduce it the wheels seem to come off.  What was a picture that was vibrant suddenly falls into dullness.
For whom (including me) isn't this a recurring problem?
He goes on to say:
I don't seem to have a clear idea or understanding of what to do with the opaque color on top of the transparents.
Again, who hasn't fought this?
The best answer is to come to one of your workshops and let you show me what to do.
That's an example of rational thinking.

To begin, here's a post about grisailles, in case you're lost already

Okay, now let's suppose you've done the best grisaille of your life. It's now dry. First I would have you apply whatever transparent colors you could to serve as the basis for the 'local color' in all the areas of the painting, except for the sky. You might use permanent brown madder, or ultramarine, or prussian green, or sap green, or any of the transparent oxides (red, brown, yellow, orange, etc.) With these, and combinations of them, you can begin to gain some solidity throughout the painting.

Rembrandt was the outstanding proponent of the dictum "Keep your darks transparent and load your lights." 
Now Rembrandt was Rembrandt, of course, and he traveled to heights I could never expect to ascend. But the principle is right, even for us mortals. The physical difference in the paint of a Rembrandt portrait, between the darks and lights, is tremendous. His darks are transparent veils while his lights can be almost like cake icing.

In my case, I never 'load' the lights like Rembrandt. How one does that still eludes me, especially in landscape painting. But my lights are almost always opaque, while I treat the mid-values as transparent.

Confused yet?

For the mid-values, I don't paint like a house painter, I scumble, in a number of layers, allowing the grisaille to show through the grainy layer of opaque scumbling. This will usually yield an interesting area of marks which is very complex, suggesting great detail.

Let's say I've gone over an area of grisaille with opaque paint and it now looks like flat dead paint. Think about it. The initial grisaille was composed of many marks, with spaces of canvas or panel in between. The surface was lively. Now what you have is a flat patch of paint that isn't interesting, and certainly not vibrant. Where are all the nuances that the grisaille featured? By entirely obscuring all the grisaille, you've removed the liveliness. 

At this stage, I'd let it dry. When that's accomplished, I would paint over the 'flat' area with a glaze or two (don't tell anybody but that is really like a colored grisaille) or I would drag and scumble some variety of color across the flat area, taking care not to accidentally paint it flat again.

The real goal, and the lesson to be taken away, is that you must keep your painting lively. By this I don't necessarily mean colorful, for even color-starved paintings can be lively and interesting. What I do mean is to make sure that the whole surface be active, full of marks.

Here's a 5"x5" detail (which I've posted before) of a portion of a hedge from a large painting.

Notice how the opaque paint (yellow-green and white) float on top of a complex matrix of transparent paint. There's no room for wall painting when complexity and depth is the goal.

I'll see if I can find some time this week to paint some examples. In the meantime, send me your questions. 


Weekend Workshop

28-29 June 2014
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The Ogunquit Summer School of Art

Ogunquit, Maine
Two two-day workshops
14-15 August 2014
27-28 September 2014
Contact them at 603-819-9100

4-12 September, Alkmaar, NL
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(Possibly) Toronto
6-10 October 2014
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August 2015
Contact me to receive information as it
becomes available.

A possible 2015 workshop for the
Welsh Academy of Art


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the explanation, Donald. I too have struggled with the progression from grisaille to colour. I was once taught that you should try to cover the canvas as soon as possible with local colour and then go back and adjust things. As in any activity bad habits are hard too break and I have a tendency to want to jump in and see the finished painting far too soon. I think one of the things I brought away from last summer's workshop was the benefit of seeing the painting gradually discover itself through small adjustments and the way you use the brushwork in your grisaille to give the richness in detail by allowing it to read through the subsequent work. I still have trouble with Prussian Green. It never seems to be the right green. Wish there were other transparents too choose from.