Lucinda Leveille – Grisaille technique

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Extraordinary fine artist Lucinda Leveille discusses and demonstrates her grisaille technique and tells us a little about herself.

Grisaille

A grisaille (pronounced griz eye) is simply a tonal painting, painted in a single colour, usually gray and it comes from the French word for gray – gris. Once the grisaille has been completed it is usually glazed with transparent or semi-transparent layers over this underpainting, but can stand alone as a finished piece. A grisaille used as an underpainting is painted in ‘high key’ tones to allow the subsequent layering of glazes to be fully utilized. In addition, when using a grisaille as an underpainting, it establishes the tonal relationships and unifies the work.

A monochrome grisaille, which is painted in any other colour is called a camaieu.

The term grisaille has been stretched to include monochromatic paintings in brown or green. However, these may be described using more specific terms: brown works may be described as brunaille, while those in green may be referred to as verdaille.

Van Eyck who is credited with perfecting the technique of oil painting, painted amazing flesh colours by underpainting with green tones before glazing with other colours. The grisaille technique was used widely during the Renaissance, due to the lack of colours that were available, glazing expanded the range of colours to produce a huge range of new colours not available to them.

Don’t forget too, pigments were very expensive and this gave the artist a relatively cheaper way of painting. It’s not to say that glazing should just be thought of as a cheap way of painting! The way light reflects through the many layers of transparent glazing is an incomparable technique – giving radiant results!

A grisaille is incredibly versatile – glass painters, engravers, metalwork, enamel workers all used this technique.

Illuminated manuscripts which were painted with ink widely used this technique because of the limited range of ink colours available. Oriental Ink and Wash painting, known as mo-shui in China, sumi-e in Japan Soomookwa in Korea all utilised this method.

Famous grisaille painters and a few famous works:

  • Giotto Robert Campin (c.1378-1444)
  • Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
  • Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482) – Portinari Altarpiece
  • Hans Memling (c.1433-94) – Last Judgement Triptych
  • Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) – Garden of Earthly Delights
  • Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506)
  • Michelangelo (in his Genesis fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling)
  • Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530), leader of the Florentine High Renaissance
  • Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569) – Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
  • Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617)
  • Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662)
  • Jan van Goyen (1596-1656)
  • Rembrandt (1606-69) – Ecce Homo
  • Rubens
  • Picasso – Guernica

How to paint a grisaille and glaze over

I am first and foremost an oil painter and being a devotee, I love the way this method really shows off the amazing qualities of oil paint.

It’s a relatively simple technique of painting.

Once you have chosen your subject, you need to assess the tonal range and start to paint as you would normally, but with just the one colour. If you are new to painting take a photo (or use a photo) as your reference and then do a black and white print or photocopy. This way all the hard work of working out your tonal scale has already been done!!

A grisaille is painted in ‘high key’ tones, which means that you will use the lighter tones of your gray scale. I like to use Payne’s Gray from the Norma Schminke range for my underpainting, it has quite a bit of purple in their recipe, but black and white is great too. Once I have completed the underpainting and it has dried you are ready to glaze. Obviously though, if you have chosen a portrait you would use a mix of black, green and white as Rembrandt and Rubens did.

When glazing, the best colours to use are your transparent colours and single pigments. If you read your paint tubes you will see on the labels:

  • transparency/opacity – whether you can see through the paint or not
  • pigment/binder – name of the pigment/s in the paint

These two are the ones that you need to take note of for transparent glazing.

You will need to use a glazing medium for the glazes as you have already painted quite a ‘fat’ underpainting. There are many available – Art Spectrum, Chroma and Windsor and Newton all make great mediums that are suitable. When glazing don’t forget that each layer must dry before another is painted.

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Lucinda Leveille – the artist behind the scenes

VE: Tell us briefly about yourself
LL: I have always wanted to be an artist – like my Dad, his Mum and her Father. I was lucky enough to earn a place at what is now the National Art School (I think) in Sydney – East Sydney Tech. (the old gaol). Five years later clutching a Diploma In Art in my hot little hand, I moved to the Gold Coast with my parents. Been told by a local gallery owner that I should look for a new line of work, I didn’t pick up a brush for just over a decade, encouraged by family I started to paint and sculpt again. Volunteer work led me to tutoring art.

VE: When you’re not creating visual magic – what are you doing?

LL: I run my husband’s business from home, which has given me the freedom to paint while answering business calls – the people on the other end don’t have to know that I am usually barefoot, in a sarong and covered with paint. Now I also incorporate tutoring, from a workroom at home, which all helps to pay the bills from my favourite art supplier.

VE: How long have you been practising as an artist?

LL: Besides the break in the late 80’s to late 90’s I have always painted and sculpted.

VE: How would you describe your work?

LL: Wow, that’s a hardie. My work at the moment is technically driven, due to the tutoring. I think most artists’ work evolves and moves through different styles, I know at one stage I was greatly influenced by Braque and analytical cubism, whereas now I am producing rather typical traditional type work, again though, this is influenced by the tutoring. And when you discover some new technique or material you’re off again on another tangent.

VE: What is your favourite subject?

LL: I love figurative work, landscape and am developing quite a fondness for still life. I don’t think I will ever get my head around portraiture though. My father always said you had to be a portrait painter to be really good at it – and I’m not.

VE: What kind of medium do you work with? Do you use any unusual techniques that might make your art teacher roll their eyes?

LL: I mostly work in oils, I adore the Archival range of mediums, which allows the oils to dry flexible. This negates all the worry about ‘fat over lean’ – really freeing up your work techniques in regard to impasto and glazing. One of my other favourites is encaustic painting (wax) which gives the painting surface an amazing glow.

When I sculpt in clay, I don’t fire my pieces, but let them air dry for ages. When they are ready to go I use car bog to cover them and then sand them, finally using wet and dry – to hopefully a perfectly smooth finish. Then I have them painted by guys who do 2-pac kitchens. Finally mounting them on a base, so they shouldn’t get chipped. And my sculpture teacher from art school would certainly roll his eyes!

VE: When you develop your work, does your image evolve as a result of exploration and the behaviour of the medium, or do you have a plan and work towards making the materials respond to what you have in your minds eye?

LL: I try to work out a plan with a few thumbnail sketches in regard to line, balance, composition and tone; and of course, this is influenced by the medium I am working with, but the plan is fairly flexible and loosely resolved. Most of the time you will find that the painting tells you how it wants to be painted, unfortunately sometimes that happens when you are already half way through and it decides it needs to go another way.

VE: Have you had any art titanics – real shipwrecks that you couldn’t retrieve but really increased your learning curve?

LL: I recently tried to do a ‘pouring’ painting – starting with very liquid acrylics simply poured onto the canvas, but with a design in mind – more of a controlled pouring you could call it. Anyway, after the pouring you glaze heavily with oils and then come in and paint the negative space while leaving the pouring as the shape you want to describe. After the third attempt I was satisfied, not ecstatic mind you, but satisfied. The previous paintings were unsalvageable due to fact that there are lumps and bumps on the canvas from the pourings. I do know how to manage this technique now though! (sort of)

VE: What do you believe makes an artwork creditable or noteworthy – not just yours, anyone’s.

LL: The competency of the artist – I need to be able to see the structure behind the work – the basics – colour, perspective, balance, composition, brushwork etc. The techniques and the knowledge of materials need to be blatantly understood by the artist.

VE: What kind of art training have you had?

LL: 5 years full time study to gain a degree in fine art. Plus thousands of hours developing my skills in a studio, further studying – it never ends.

VE: Do you feel that your schooling/training has had a major role to play in your development as an artist? Why?

LL: Yes, I am a firm believer that you can see the building blocks of design, colour theory, perspective, knowledge of materials, techniques etc in a finished work. Working and learning in an entirely ‘art’ environment, opens your eyes to other ways of thinking, seeing and doing, having an incredible array of different materials, equipment and teachers gives you the opportunity to learn widely – there is no substitute for this education.

I recently read an article by a gallery owner who said that he was approached by new artists looking for representation every week, many come in and present him proudly with their portfolio and say ‘you’d never know I haven’t had any formal training would you?’ He doesn’t say it to the ‘artist’, but he thinks ‘ yes I really would”!

VE: If you feel stuck, where do you turn for reference and inspiration?

LL: If you treat your art like a business, you turn up for work every day. Brett Whitely once said that when he didn’t think that he could possibly paint anything that day, he still turned up at his studio at 9am and tidied up, cleaned brushes, or whatever, at the end of the day if nothing was still happening he stayed until the work day was finished and turned up the next day and did the same thing until he could create.

I do relatively the same thing. Nowadays though, after the tidying and cleaning and throwing out of old canvasses, I hop on the computer and look for some inspiration, look at art books and look for something that catches my imagination.

VE: How would you describe your creative process?

LL: If I see or hear something that says ‘paint me’ – then I simply start. The piece will tell me where to go and how to proceed. Fairly instinctive I suppose.

VE: Tell us a little about your trials and tribulations?

LL: As an artist, I create. What I don’t do well is sell myself. I have found it really hard to approach galleries or agents over the years, so that they can do what they do best and sell artwork.

VE: How have you promoted yourself, and which methods have been effective?

LL: Websites are a must. Sometimes competitions can work for you. I did some live painting at the d’Arcy Doyle exhibition and have had a good response from that. People like to see what you are doing and meet the artist, but for me the best promotion was having solo exhibitions: one was with Bruce Watling and another was in Toorak in Melbourne.

The follow up sales were good and trickled in for quite a while. I think if you are serious about selling your work and want to earn an income from your art, you need an agent, or galleries that promote your work. They have the contacts, the know how and the experience in their field. As an artist you need to be able to produce a consistent body of work so they have something to sell.

VE: If you could live in any time era – when would it be and why?

LL: Around the late 1800s and early 1900s – the whole world of painting changed.

VE: What has been your biggest hurdle in your artistic career?

LL: Taking to heart negative criticism. Approaching galleries.

VE: What has been your biggest triumph in your artistic career?

LL: Two solo shows in two years and having the confidence in my abilities to pass my knowledge on.

VE: Do you feel you have changed as an artist? Either in attitude or technique?

LL: I am not as thin skinned as I used to be, but I guess that comes with age. And you can see the ‘maturity’ in my work.

Visit Lucinda’s gallery page and see her amazing work.

Lucinda offers comprehensive workshops and tuition from her home. Contact Lucinda to book a session.
Her next three workshops focus on sketching techniques. She offers workshops on many other mediums and techniques throughout the year.

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Sketch-workshop-with-Lucinda-Leveille