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Underpaintings Help Keep Correct Values

Underpaintings Help Keep Correct Values

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Keep your lights and darks on track with a monochromatic underpainting.

By Michael Chesley Johnson

Whatever your medium, values make your design. They’re the visual signals that the eye translates as shape, light and shadow. Wandering from true-to-life values undermines the design you work so hard to capture. If you find it difficult to maintain correct values in your work, creating a grisaille underpainting will help you keep your lights and darks in line from start to finish.

Understanding grisaille

The word grisaille (pronounced gri-ZIGH) sounds fancy, but the term means nothing more than a monochromatic underpainting, usually done in black or gray. This method is most often associated with oil painting, for which the grisaille forms a foundation of value upon which glazes of color are laid. The transparent oil glazes take on the value of the areas they cover, creating great visual depth.

I’ve found grisaille useful in pastel, too. One must keep in mind, though, that pastel is an opaque medium, so the grisaille functions differently, serving as a tonal reference—a value map—for successive pastel layers. Quite simply, whatever value of pastel you lay down on the grisaille must match the value of gray it covers. In this manner, the grisaille disciplines your handling of values. The following demonstration applies the grisaille method to a pastel painting.

Step by step

1. I select a reference photo with a building that has architectural details. The grisaille method works particularly well with detailed and complex scenes like this and with scenes that are so color rich, the values are hard to determine. (At first glance, intense, warm colors look brighter than they really are.)

2. I create a gray-scale version of my photo in Adobe Photoshop. (Alternately, you can make a black-and-white photocopy of your reference photo.) Removing the distraction of color helps me see the values. I then overlay a simple grid, which will help me get the house’s proportions correct when I transfer the design to my surface. I also correct the tilt of the horizon and crop the photo a bit to improve the composition.

3. I reproduce my grid and transfer my design onto a sheet of sanded pastel paper, using a thin stick of vine charcoal. In the process, I mentally break up the design into large areas of four distinct values—darks, middarks, midlights and lights.

I select one chalk for each of my four values. I’ve found that gray chalks work well for this purpose, but you may also work purely with pastels. Mungyo makes a 12-stick set of grays in its Gallery line of semihard pastels. (If you desire great detail, consider adding charcoal pencils to your arsenal.) I block in each of my value masses with the appropriate value.

When my underpainting is complete, I spray it heavily with Lascaux fixative so the grays won’t mix with the subsequent layers of color. I don’t use odorless mineral spirits (Turpenoid) to scrub in the tones because I don’t want to lose the lines of my drawing, which is quite detailed. I let the fixative dry before moving on to the next step.

4. I select soft pastels that come closest to the colors of my scene, making sure the values I choose match one of the four values of my gray chalks. To add interest to an area, I may vary the color in a particular value mass. When I do so, I make sure the variant color has the same value as the original and also matches the underlying value of the grisaille.

5. My only departure from the grisaille in Victorian Lace (below, right) is to darken the foreground shadows a bit to push the eye toward the brightly lit house front. To avoid breaking up the shadow mass, I make the value of the flowers in the shadow only slightly lighter than the shadow itself.

Once you try the grisaille approach a few times, you’ll find you can more easily maintain your chosen values as you work.

Extra tips
  • Although I’m a big believer in plein air painting, I’ve found that painters learn the fundamentals of grisaille more quickly by working with reference photos in the comfort of their studios.
  • When you paint outdoors, you may not have time to create a detailed grisaille, but you can certainly lay down a broadly sketched version. Work in large, simple shapes.
  • If you don’t have a good set of grays, choose a set of neutral colors, such as four values of a dull brown.
  • During the early stages of creating your grisaille—before you’re working with much detail—feel free to use alcohol or refined odorless mineral spirits such as Turpenoid to scrub in the pastel.

My colors

Below are the colors, organized by their values, that I used in Victorian Lace.

Key to manufacturers

MV: Mount Vision Pastel Company
NP: Prismacolor Nupastel
S: Sennelier


  • MV 582 (dark brown)
  • MV 600 (purple gray)
  • S 191 (hot brown)
  • MV 540 (midnight blue)


  • S 451 (olive gray)
  • S 393 (ultramarine deep)
  • S 349 (cinereous green)
  • MV 71 (blue green)
  • S 260 (cerulean blue)
  • NP 448-P (Eden green)
  • NP 275-P (deep blue)
  • NP 265-P (ultramarine blue)


  • S 391 (ultramarine deep)
  • S 009 (red brown)
  • S 229 (chromium green)
  • MV 143 (steel blue)
  • NP 235-P (light blue)


  • S 119 (yellow ochre)
  • S 011 (red brown)
  • S 293 (Prussian blue)
  • S 230 (chromium green)

Michael Chesley Johnson is an artist and workshop instructor living in the Canadian Maritimes. To learn more, visit his website at or visit

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Watch the video: Portrait Painting Tutorial. Classical Methods Glazing u0026 Underpainting (August 2022).