How And Why To Paint A Grisaille Underpainting

Grisaille Painting In Oil

How & Why To Paint A Grisaille Underpainting

I'm sharing everything as I deconstruct how I learned to paint.

This post is about painting grisaille in oil painting. I'll explain what grisaille painting means along with why and how to do it.

What is grisaille in painting?

Grisaille technique is said to come from the French word for grey. Grey in French is "Gris". When learning to paint in oils, the first paint layer is often referred to as a grisaille layer.

This first layer is considered an underpainting. A grisaille layer is optional.

This optional underpainting is painted with one or two colors, sometimes grey. This layer establishes the shapes, composition, and values.

Think of the underpainting grisaille as a grayscale version of the painting. Decide the composition prior to painting the grisaille layer. Be as accurate as possible when laying out the composition and when painting the grisaille layer.

The grisaille painting method establishes the composition, values, and forms within the first paint layer using one color of oil paint. The paint is thinned slightly with a solvent such as turpentine or odorless mineral spirits. Thinning the oil paint with a solvent makes this layer a "lean" layer, therefore following the fat over lean rule in oil painting.

When painting grisaille, one paint color is tinted with white to create a range of tints. The range of tints is used to establish the values.

How To Grisaille Technique

To paint a grisaille layer, choose one color of oil paint, preferably a neutral or earth tone.

The grisaille paint color can be thinned slightly with a few drops of a solvent such as turpentine or odorless mineral spirits. Thin only to a point that makes the paint easy to spread or flow from the brush. Too much solvent can affect the paint's ability to adhere to the canvas or panel. So don't use too much solvent.

Use a paintbrush to draw out the composition. Paint the shadow shapes and the mid-tones. Establish all of the lights and shadows.

Avoid painting details in this layer.

Best Grisaille Color

In art school, we were taught to use Raw Sienna for underpainting grisaille. Oil paint beginners often learn to paint grisaille. Grisaille is a very common oil painting technique. My research has suggested that the best grisaille color for oil painting portraits may be Green Earth.

Use any color of your choice.

Grisaille or Alla Prima?

Grisaille is an underpainting layer. The careful painting of a grisaille layer takes time. Let the grisaille layer dry fully before painting the next layer.

If pressed for time, consider painting Alla Prima. Alla Prima means to paint all in one sitting, from start to finish. When painting in Alla Prima, one can skip the grisaille layer.

Painting with transparent pigments

When painting with transparent paints, take great care when painting the underpainting. Model the values as you would in the upper layers. Turn the forms and model the gradients carefully. You will be able to see through transparent paint, therefore the underpainting will show through, paint accordingly.

You can see through transparent pigments. Read the oil paint tubes to see what the transparency level is for each paint color.

You won't be able to cover things up or paint over mistakes with transparent pigments. To do so may take many layers.

I think that painting with transparent pigments is like painting with watercolor. You just have to plan out your painting out a bit better. The luminosity one can achieve with transparent oil paints is likely worth the extra effort.


In conclusion, a grisaille layer is the first layer of an oil painting. It is the underpainting.

The grisaille underpainting is painted with one single color and white. The paint is thinned with a small amount of solvent, making the layer "lean". This follows the "fat over lean" rule in oil painting.

When painting with transparent pigments, you'll probably want to paint a grisaille layer. If painting Alla Prima you can skip the grisaille layer.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones