Using a Grisaille Under-Painting in Watercolor

View from My Kitchen Sink
© Annie Glacken

An Easy Way to Establish Value in Your Paintings or Sketches

The word “grisaille” is a French word for “gray.” It was an under-painting technique used by 15th-century artists. The artist would paint a layer of grays underneath their oil paintings in order to make them appear three-dimensional.

This technique can also be used with watercolor in a couple different ways.

The first way is to paint an under-painting using a gray, purple, or neutral watercolor pigment.

The second way to achieve this look of light and shadow is by painting light washes of India ink before painting with watercolor. India ink is ideal for this technique as it is permanent once it dries. So basically, what you are painting is a value study with your ink before adding color. This India ink method is the one I used on the sketch below.

I started by diluting my India ink with water in small bottle. You can create your own value scale as I did on this sketch.  I left the top box unpainted. Then, I painted the next four boxes down with the diluted ink and then let it dry. Next, I painted the lower three boxes again and let dry. Then I painted the last two boxes once again and let dry. Lastly, I painted one more coat on the last box. This created a value scale where each box progressively became darker.

Once I determined what values I could achieve, I painted the glass bottle and brushes with my diluted India ink. I left the lightest value areas unpainted. Next, I painted all of the other areas. After this dried, I painted over areas already painted where I desired a darker value. With each subsequent layer, I would paint over areas I needed to be darker.  Once this dried I painted a simple watercolor wash in only one value.

Below is a reference photo I used for a page in one of my sketchbooks. This is the view from the window over my kitchen sink.

First, I sketched in my pencil lines. By the way, this was the first time I didn’t use a ruler to sketch long lines. I have heard it said, that not using a ruler gives your sketch more “character” than the perfect lines you create with a ruler. Well let’s just say, my sketch had “lots of character” by looking at my “wonky” lines. However, I decided to ignore them and continued on by inking my lines.

Next, it was time to paint my under-painting using my India ink washes.

Finally, I added the watercolor washes over the dried ink under-painting.

Because I had already established my values with the under-painting, I only had to use one value of my watercolor washes.  The under-painting is what created the lights and shadows in my sketch.

View from My Kitchen Sink
© Annie Glacken

If you would like to know more about using grisaille and other journaling techniques, please check out my workshop:  Journalling in Ink and Watercolor at the workshop tab above.

As always, the compositions in these exercises are copyrighted. Thanks!

8 Replies to “Using a Grisaille Under-Painting in Watercolor”

  1. I LOVE this technique, Annie! I have always wanted to watercolor. I was gifted recently with some watercolor supplies, but no watercolors. But I do have some India ink! This would be a great place to start.THANK YOU!

    • Hi Lois! I am glad you liked this idea If you decide you want to purchase some watercolors, I would suggest looking into the Daniel Smith Essentials set. The Essentials Set has three cool primary colors: Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Rose, and Phthalo Blue, and three warm primary colors: New Gamboge, Pyrrol Scarlet, and French Ultramarine. With the 6 colors in the set, you can mix a huge range of other colors. Amazon Prime has the best price: $23.29. In addition to this set, I would purchase a tube of Burnt Sienna too. This is a good way to get started in watercolor without having to buy too many tubes of watercolor. Thanks for your comment!

      • I have put Daniel Smith’s Essentials watercolor set on my supplies list, along with a tube of burnt sienna. Thank you for taking the time to provide this “newby” with some basics for this journey!

        • You are welcome Lois! Please let me know how you like them. Also, if I can help with anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  2. You know I love your front porch sketch, Annie, but I’m also liking your paint brush value sketch. It amazes me that having the gray scale underpainting doesn’t dull the colors when you paint over the ink. This is such a great exercise for studying values.

    • Hi Susan! This is a great way to get different values without having to mix a dark and light version of each of your colors. I agree it is a great exercise for studying values as it forces you to really notice all of the different values as you are painting in your ink wash. Thanks for the comment!

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