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How To: Paint a Grisaille portrait With Liz Chaderton

Ready to try a new art technique this week? Wraptious artist Liz Chaderton explains the process of 'Grisaillle' portrait painting.

Have you heard of the grisaille (pronounced like the palace of Versaille) technique? Well in a nutshell, the word comes from the French for grey. It’s a term used in oil painting where translucent colours are laid over a monotone underpainting. I’ve used this idea in portraits with an underpainting of Indian ink and then watercolour on top. But then I came across the idea of building clear and glowing skin tones over a purple (yes, PURPLE) underpainting. There’s a fabulous Skillshare online class (Sadiesavestheday) if you are intrigued…

The idea is to paint a tonal portrait using purple and then to build realistic tones on top. Bizarrely the purple is neutralised and disappears under the subsequent layers, but it still gives great structure. If you don’t believe me take a look.

To be fair, you can select any staining, transparent colour to start off with, but dioxazine purple is so dramatic. It needs to be staining so that it doesn’t move around when you put new layers on top. If you are not sure about whether your colours are staining and transparent, you can test them by putting a little over a waterproof black line. Can you see any paint obscuring the line? If so, it is an opaque or semi opaque pigment. Let it dry totally, now take a damp brush. If you scrub at the paint does it lift off to reveal the white paper? You are looking for one which will not lift.

This first purple layer takes the longest as you are building the structure of the entire portrait. If you struggles to see tone, turn your picture into black and white on your phone/tablet. Don’t go too heavy handed, the purple is very powerful:

Now it’s time to select the next layer, but only when the first is totally dry. The complimentary colour of purple is yellow. If you put yellow over purple it will make a neutral brown. Select a transparent staining yellow, so the purple can mix with it like stained glass. I used quinacridone gold, but azo yellow might be good. Now paint where you can see yellow in your reference photo – again use technology and photo editing if you are struggling. If you think I’ve gone mad, think of the brown being the melanin in your skin and the yellow being the fatty layer we all have (some more than others!). It starts to make sense.

Now add a nice transparent red. It could be alizarin crimson or a pyrrole or pyrelene red. It depends if you want it warm or cool for your portrait. How about a quinacridone red or rose? What have you got in your palette? Think of this as the red oxygenated blood coursing through our veins. He’s starting to look more human.

The final layer is blue - this is our deoxygenated blood. Again wait for your painting to be utterly dry. Most blues are pretty dominant, so have a light touch. You are looking for transparent, staining colours again. Prussian blue or phthalo blue would work. Both are very fierce.

You could tweak from here, if you need to make anything darker, warmer or cooler. Right at the end you might use something a bit more opaque to calm a colour down. However the fewer layers you use, the more you will retain the freshness of you painting.

Hope you like this odd way of painting portraits. Once you have got the hang of it, perhaps try with a different first colour and have fun.

Find more tutorials by Liz Chaderton on her page

And don't forget to give her a follow @lizchaderton


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