Grisaille Underpainting Technique – Painting Demo by Karin Wells

About Karin

karin wellsKarin Wells is an artist of amazing versatility. She graduated with honors from both the New England School of Art and Design, Boston, 1965, and the Butera School of Art, Boston, 1986. Karin has enjoyed a career as an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and sign painter. She also taught Life Drawing and Painting for many years. She has most recently studied for three years at The New England School of Classical Painting in Greenfield, New Hampshire, under the direction of Numael Pulido.

To expand her craft, Karin has traveled throughout Europe studying the Old Masters. Her art reflects the deep influence of these great works. Karin demonstrates a remarkable facility for likeness and for the use of light.

The artist is a member of The American Society of Portrait Artists, Portrait Society of America, The Portrait Society of Atlanta, and The Copley Society of Boston.

To learn more about Karin and to view more of her amazing work, be sure to visit her website and blog by following the links below:



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Grisaille Underpainting Demonstration – “Sarge”

There are many methods and techniques that I use to paint a painting. Here is a quickie lesson in an Old Master technique method I sometimes use called Grisaille (or underpainting).

This is a completed underpainting (but not a finished painting) of my pooch, “John Singer Sargent, aka Sarge.”

I chose this subject as a demo because it shows how to handle a full range of value from black (the lab) to white (his blanket). The “darks” are not very dark and the “lights” are not very light in an underpainting.

Because Sarge refuses to sit for hours and hours, I used my camera and a single source of light to capture him in a typical pose.

I begin by drawing the dog on a toned canvas. I added the ball to make the composition more interesting.

I took the figure of the dog and divided it into light and shadow. I use very thick paint in my underpaintings – no canvas will show through.

Still using thick paint, I begin to blend the areas where light and shadow meet. The form is determined by how light and shadow meet – from very quickly and sharply to slowly and softly.

In an underpainting, when I define black and white first, all the other values easily fall into place.

When the underpainting is completely dry I will begin to glaze in transparent color and build light with thick opaque paint. This is what gives my work that “Old Master Look.” I do not use this technique in painting a landscape.

This is a palette of my actual underpainting paint compared to the color white. They are various mixtures of raw umber plus titanium white.

As you can see I only used 5 values. The deep shadows are not that dark and the highlights are not that light.

The extremes of value come in the top layers of color. The underpainting layer often reminds me of an old sepia photograph.


  1. Anonymous says

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  2. shirley stirling says

    Are you drawing with charcoal?
    Do you ever complete a drawing on paper and transfer it to the canvas? If so, how do you accomplish your transfer?

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