At Large  March 10, 2022  Nia Bowers

A Brief History of the Grisaille Technique

The Met. Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, 2007.

Franz Anton Maulbertsch, detail of The Glorification of the Royal Hungarian Saints, ca. 1772–73. Oil on canvas. 27 1/2 x 19 7/8 in. (70 x 50.5 cm).

Throughout history, art has experienced its fair share of trends. Grisaille took artists by storm several centuries ago and, although the technique is unfamiliar to many now, monochromatic schemes continue to play a massive role in the art world.

Literally meaning “greyness” in French from the prefix gris, grisaille first emerged as uncolored glass frames within late-medieval stained glass. As a painting style, grisaille reached its peak prominence during the sixteenth century. The technique was initially limited to underpainting—a base layer of paint often used to give the top layers of oil paint a deeper sense of color unity—but it soon took on a life of its own.

Grisaille evolved a benchmark of oil painting for several crucial reasons. The use of color in pictures led to many tedious obstacles. Artists desired to spend less time, skill, and resources on their artwork. Consequently, the European painters sacrificed full-spectrum palettes to enhance the production process for their pieces. Grisaille essentially operates as a “middle man” technique for monochromatic portraits and landscapes. Although the method was less time-consuming, oil painters had additional justifications for utilizing the painting practice. The artists strongly appreciated the appearance of their work using grisaille. The underpainting procedure gave their pieces a three-dimensional effect, resembling sculptures. Today, grisaille manifests as an aesthetic admired by many art masters and students. The technique permits painters to pay close attention to brushwork and composition without concerning color.

The Met. The Cloisters Collection, 1984.

Made in Rouen, Normandy, France, Grisaille Panel, ca. 1320–30. Pot-metal glass, colorless glass, silver stain, and vitreous paint. 127 1/2 x 36 1/4 in. (323.8 x 92 cm).

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder sits among the most observed and studied grisaille works. The Dutch painter painted the biblical scene in 1565, just four years before his death. Grisaille painting remained popular in the seventeenth century, but, like most trends, eventually faded.

Many Modern art movements were defined by their celebratory use of color. Nevertheless, Pablo Picasso revisited the grisaille technique in his 1937 piece, Guernica. The large oil painting presented the Cubist master's renowned style in greyscale, resulting in one of his most celebrated artworks.

Wikimedia Commons.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565.

While grisaille is typically executed in oil paint, there are several other forms, some quite eccentric.

At the Limoges school of enamellers in France, grisaille artwork gained further traction in a new format. Grisaille enameling involves the application of a pulverized white enamel paste onto a dark enamel base. In these artworks, light areas can only be rendered with several coats of white paste, while greys are achieved via more limited applications. The effect is uniquely luminous and grisaille enameling remains paramount in France to this day.

The Met. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917.

Miniatures by Jacques Joseph de Gault, Snuffbox with miniatures representing the Diversions of Love and dancing figure, miniatures ca. 1775, box ca. 1838–47. Gold; grisaille on enamel.

Grisaille eventually inspired bruinalle (brown-scale) and verdaille (green-scale). With the advent of these alternatives, the use of mediums like tea leaves or coffee grounds revitalized the monochromatic approach.

Tea may seem a rather peculiar medium to use in painting. Still, the green and brown shades one can achieve are undeniably lovely. After tea leaves are boiled, the tainted water can be used to create a painting similar to watercolor. The more water added, the softer the shade will be. The same steps are applied when using coffee grounds.

Hailey E. Herrera.

Hailey E. Herrera, Lone Tree. Folgers decaf coffee on paper.

These unconventional mediums facilitate the easy rendering of light, shadow, and dimension. As such, more often than not, the result is reminiscent of a traditional grisaille piece.

Grisaille’s unconventional comeback demonstrates that coffee and tea can serve as more than a customary refreshment. And what could be a better pairing than caffeine and craftmanship?

About the Author

Nia Bowers


Nia Bowers is a freelance writer and native of North Carolina currently residing in Chapel Hill, NC. She is a 2020 graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, GA with four years of archival experience and a natural bent for all things musical, historical, and literary.

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