A grisaille is a monochrome painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral colour. It can also be referred to as a dead underpainting layer, as people have the hue or appearance of corpses when painted like this.
In the Low Countries a continuous tradition of grisaille paintings can be traced from Early Netherlandish painting of Pieter Brueghel the Elder to the circle of Rembrandt, and Jan van Goyen.
A grisaille may be executed for its own sake, as underpainting for an oil painting (in preparation for glazing layers of colour over it), or as a model for an engraver to work from. “Rubens and his school sometimes use monochrome techniques in sketching compositions for engravers.” Full colouring of a subject makes many more demands of an artist, and working in grisaille was often chosen as being quicker and cheaper, although the effect was sometimes deliberately chosen for aesthetic reasons. Grisaille paintings resemble the drawings, normally in monochrome, that artists from the Renaissance on were trained to produce.
The artist develops the image by building up shadows, highlights and details to produce a desired contrast. Grisaille results in a detailed image that looks like a carefully rendered marble statue lacking any color. In fact, grisaille is a French word meaning ‘gray.’
To create a grisaille painting, you begin with canvas that’s been toned, or painted all over with a mid-tone neutral color so that it is not white. This color will eventually allow the light areas of the composition to come through.
First you draw the subject on the canvas. Then you begin to add areas of shadow using medium shades of gray. Now, some artists have different ways to approach this step. They may begin to block in darker areas first or they may begin laying some lighter areas. Whichever variation is chosen, you start with general forms and work toward more detail. And you don’t begin with either the extremely dark shades or the extremely light tints. You work them gradually, building up to the areas of brightest light and darkest shadow.