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Grisaille art technique in the history of world art

History of occurrence. Western schools

The origins of grisaille lie in the early Middle Ages. Icon painters often used monochrome tricks due to the meager color palette and strict religious canons
The peak of its popularity in the Renaissance fell on the XIV century. Sculptors in preparatory sketches for works used chiaroscuro to convey a sense of relief on a plane. One of the first who applied this technique in painting was the French sculptor and artist Andre Beauvais.Monochrome images are found in such artifacts as the carved frames of the Psalter by Jean Berry, painting on the altar cover of the Narbonne Shroud, and miniatures in the manuscript The Hourglass of Jeanne d’Evreux (authorship of Jean Pucel).

Macedonian icon of John the Baptist.

Solid elements are also in the famous “Geller’s Altar” (“The Ascension of Mary”), made at the beginning of the 16th century by German craftsmen Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald.

A distinctive feature of the work of the Dutch school was the light, as if streaming from the paintings of Jan van Eyck, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt. It is conveyed by a mean palette of dim chamber colors.

Adoration of the Magi, Rembrandt, 1632


Grisaille was used in artists’ workshops for engraving sketches, writing deep portrait backgrounds, creases of clothes and draperies.



“Portrait of Martin Rickart”, Anthony van Dyck, 30th of the 17th century


Jerome Bosch used monochrome to create an additional emotional effect. In some of his paintings, against the predominant “gray” background, bright spots of contrasting colors sparkle alarmingly.


The Capture of Christ, part of the triptych Temptation of St. Anthony, Jerome Bosch


Refined and verified to the smallest detail, the school of Chinese calligraphy relied on the unity of graphics and painting.

Classical examples of oriental minimalism were ink paintings on silk, bamboo plates or thin rice paper.

Unlike the monumental oil paintings of the Renaissance, extant Chinese works of art are striking in their fragility and ephemerality.


Noble Lady with the Dragon and the Phoenix, author unknown


In Japan, there was a style of monochrome painting – sumi-e. It was based on a huge layer of the life philosophy of the Japanese people. The main tools were brushes, ink and paper scrolls.

Masters sought watercolor blur, airiness and lightness, often using only one color – black.



“Ducks in a Lotus Pond,” Tovara Sotatsu


Artists did not need workshops and various devices for creating masterpieces: all their belongings fit in a shoulder bag. Therefore, “road sketches” were a popular topic for most paintings.



“Contemplating a Waterfall”, Gayami, 1478


Often drawing and text complement each other, creating a unique creative unity of the word and image.



Reading in a Bamboo Shack, Shubun


Art of the XIX – XX centuries.
In the Victorian era, many artists used grisaille elements to illustrate books. The magical stories did not lose their color and volume, acquiring “otherworldly” features.



E. Dulac, “1001 Nights”


Such recognized masters of fabulous Victorian painting as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Henry Justice Ford, in addition to standard sepia, added variations of blue, green and lilac colors to the grisaille.


A. Rackham, illustration

Later, the idea of ​​monochrom laid the foundation for the creation of the famous canvas “Guernica”, written in 1937. Rethinking the artistic presentation of Bosch, Picasso in his indescribable style showed the horrors of the Spanish Revolution and the Civil War.



“Guernica”, P. Picasso


Few people know, but the famous American illustrator Norman Rockwell also has works made using the grisaille technique. His lively plot paintings, despite the monophonic gamut, completely convey the play of light and shadow and most resemble photographs.



The Sneak Finnegan, N. Rockwell, 1916


Light painting as an element of training.
Gradually, grisaille entered the basics of teaching painting skill. It is necessary to master the transfer of form, volume, transmit the depth of the image, to catch the scattered light. Most often, watercolor or ink is used for educational drawings.

Professional contemporary artists often use this technique in their work, rethinking the creative heritage of both Western and Eastern cultures.

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