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Grisaille & glazing colour

Surf art tutorial

This tutorial was put together especially for Club Of The Waves by Californian artist Tony Spineto. The steps in this tutorial tracked the progress of one of the artist's paintings as and when he'd completed each step. We hope that you enjoy, and benefit from Tony's expertise…

This painting demonstration covers a common oil painting technique called a grisaille, and the use of glazing colour. This technique was common among the artists of the early Renaissance. I typically don't paint in this fashion, rather I use an alla prima technique. However, I find this technique useful for achieving a realistic look. For this demonstration I have chosen to paint a small wave. I don't usually paint waves, but found that a wave proved useful for transparent glazes.

In order to follow along I think it is necessary to define a few terms to so we can keep on the same wavelength…

  • Grisaille - A painting rendered completely in black and white.
  • Alla Prima - A style of painting where, instead of building colours up with layers, the painting is done in one session while the paint is still wet. From the Italian word which literally means at once.
  • Gesso - An initial coating before paint is applied, which protects and prepares the surface, helping the paint to stick.
  • Glaze - A thin, transparent layer of paint. Glazes are used on top of one another to build up depth and modify colours in a painting. A glaze must be completely dry before another is applied on top.
  • Linquin - A drying medium that improves the flow and transparency of paint.
  • Linseed oil - Medium that improves the flow of paint.
  • 5 elements of shading - Highlight, middle value, core shadow, cast shadow and reflected light.

Choosing a reference photo:

Normally I use my own photographs and models in my paintings. I believe it is okay to rely on both as long as there is a basic understanding of light and shade (refer to the 5 elements of shading). Although models would be ideal it is not common for all artists. I chose a typical wave but manipulated the light and shade to my own desire. I will try to exaggerate the colours, but will probably stay closer to what I perceive as the perfectionist in me kicks in.

The composition is basic and uneventful, for I am only demonstrating technique. It is important when composing a picture that you follow some basic rules such as thirds, value arrangements and placement of elements. When I am working with a client, gallery or my own work I never deviate from the basics of composition.

Materials Used:

  • Quick dry white
  • Ivory black
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Prussian blue
  • Thalo blue
  • Thalo green
  • Burnt sienna
  • Titanium white
  • Linquin
  • Linseed oil
  • Fan brush
  • Filbert brush
  • Various round brushes
  • A masonite panel
  • Acrylic gesso, black gesso for the ground


Once the panel is sanded and ready to go I layer a combination of black and white gesso to achieve a middle value grey. I do this so I am able to judge my lightest lights and my darkest darks. The middle value is already done for me. I sketch in the composition with a white charcoal pencil.

Step 1

I need to find some reference photos of a typical 'peeling' wave that gets us all excited. I will be working on a Masonite panel that measures 5.5" x 24". I gesso and sand the panel between each gesso application. I do a basic value sketch to begin the creative process. This process will prepare me for a grisaille underpainting.

Step 2

Once I determine what sketch I like and arrangement of values I begin my grisaille underpainting. A grisaille is a black and white rendering of the painting without any colour. It is important to keep the grisaille very thin and not too dark. If it is too dark the colours will not glaze properly. Once the grisaille is dried I will redo it again slightly more opaque. Drying time with Linquin medium will take several days. I will see you back soon!

Step 3

The grisaille is complete. This took about 2 days to dry. I added the halfpaste, which is a translucent layer of a middle value grey. This will give the painting a 'ghost' like appearance. This will bring the grisaille to a higher key to lighten the underpainting. Once dry I restated (made them stronger) the highlights as seen below. The halfpaste will take 2 days to dry then I will be able to layer my colours over the grisaille.

Step 4

Using a thin mixture of Prussian Blue I glaze over the body of the wave. By glazing colour over the grisaille the shading (values) are already established. I glaze this blue mixture into the shadow of the white water. At this point I leave the highlights alone. I also glazed a thin mixture of Terra Verte in the distant water. This will take several days to dry. I will repeat the process until I achieve the likeness I am going for.

Step 5

Using thin glazes of Alizarin Crimson, Sap Green and Thalo Blue I am able to achieve a dark blue green. As seen below, the wave is taking on form. I used thin layers of Thalo Blue and Alizarin Crimson to achieve 'shadowing' in the white water. At this stage I am contemplating making the water darker. If I choose to do that I will glaze Burnt Umber over the body of the wave. In my next step I will dry brush the foam of the water and details, this will bring closer to finishing the painting. Dry brushing consists of using opaque without any medium on a bristle brush and lightly touching the surface of the painting. This adds texture and added depth as the underpainting shows through. I will be working more opaque to achieve a realistic look… Stay tuned…

Step 6

In this last and final step I glazed Viridian Green over the body of the wave. Once this dried I glazed Burnt Umber into the shadow side of the body of the wave to add depth. This is why the grisaille is important. Once dry I moved into the opaque dry brush stage to add more depth and details. Using combinations of Thalo Blue, Viridian Green, Titanium White and Burnt Umber I completed the details of the white water, reflections and wakes in the foreground. I added small details of clouds in the distance to bring the wave forward.

We are done!

I hope you enjoyed and learned a new technique. If you would like to ask any questions regarding this demonstration please feel free to email me by logging onto my website.

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