En Grisaille and Velatura

Some words are delicious, and beg repetition. Two words from painting have been on my tongue repeatedly this week: “en grisaille” and “velatura”. They’re lovely rich words, made even richer when you learn what importance they had to many old masters painters.

I took a drive with some of my painting students down the 101 to the Getty yesterday morning to visit the collection. At the museum we have the good fortune to have an early painting by Rubens – “The Entombment of Christ”. Although it’s by no means one of his best works, being a square canvas with a rather clumsy composition in comparison to the the master’s fluid later works, it is an absolutely excellent teaching tool. Here’s a detail:


What’s wonderful about it from my point of view, teaching figurative painting, is that in this work Rubens let the body of Christ remain grey, to give the appearance of death; this means that you can see exactly how a really great painter used a grey “en grisaille” layer to build the underlying rendering, then adding a warm skin coloured “velatura” layer over it to bring in the flesh tones. 

Nearby, one of my favourite paintings in the Getty collection: Sweerts’ painting “Head of a Woman”. It’s a delicious small piece of work featuring a lovely white headscarf wrapped about the hair of a woman who seems to be lacking her teeth.


The work is rendered in exactly the same way as the Rubens, with a similar grey under-painting, then a quite pink veltura flesh layer, with highlights of vermilion and iron oxide worked into the lips and shadows of the head. You can still see the grey showing through the pink quite clearly.

Across the hall a wonderful painting by the Caravaggisti Valentin of Boulogne, who used a similar technique to paint his “Christ Drawing”, again with an en grisaille and velatura technique, although here he warmed the shadows with a burnt umber to get the characteristic warm shadows of a follower of the great “M”. 

Here’s a painting in the same gallery by the wonderful artist Artemisia Gentileschi.   




Look for her en grisaille layer, still visible beneath the pink of the velatura in the face and neck, and in the second image in this detail of the hand.

These are appropriately rich words for a rich technique. 

About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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