Optical Greys Explained

Parent Area → Optical Grisaille & Underpainting

Current Area →Optical Greys Explained

Other Sections →
  • Optical Grisaille
  • Mischtechnik belongs to a parent-class of techniques called ‘indirect painting technique’. With indirect painting technique, we begin as sculptors and end up as stained glass makers. We break the painting process down into roughly two steps

    1: Optical gray Value Study (the rendering of the cartoon with lights and shadows)

    2: Optical color mixing (glazing, scumbling and direct painting)

    When we refer to ‘Optical‘ we mean ‘how it looks to the eye’. Therefore an ‘optical grey’ is something that looks grey to the eye – however it may not be make from ‘grey paint’, but from a thinly dispersed white. An optical color could be a purple created from a red glazed over a blue, where no actual purple pigment is present.

    Below : A very rare and useful photograph of a detail from the work of Ernst Fuchs, where we see the whites being used at various concentrations to create the different values of the objects represented. Notice how when left unglazed, the optical greys give the impression of being formed of translucent glass or crystal.

    Detail from ‘Self Portrait as the Emperor of Austria’ by Ernst Fuchs

    Here is a scan from Max Doerner’s book ‘Methods & Materials of the Artist’ where he describes optical greys :

    The first step we can imagine ‘sculpting’ the painting monochromatically (ie, without considering color) – almost like a classical marble statue. We think about where the light is coming from, lighting effects, shadows, and sculpt the design. The second steps of dealing with color come later.

    Please read the last paragraph again ^^^ if you’re unfamiliar with this concept. Imagine the painter at work, sculpting the entire image, with only white paint on his palette. They don’t have a range of different greys or midtones. They use just the white at different concentrations to achieve all the different ranges of anything higher in value than the tone of the imprimatura.

    Our imprimatura – the first stain of color/paint on the canvas – acts as a unifying mid-tone. So in value, it exists somewhere in the middle (although it can be made lighter or darker if the overall piece is high or low key). The white on the palette can be used to sculpt anything from the highest white, to the midtone.

    Anything underneath the mid-tone, the deeper midtones going into the darks must then be dealt with a dark pigment. But it is used like the white – transparently moving down from midtone to darkest dark.

    There is therefore never a real reason that the dark pigment should mix with the white pigment because in theory there is always some midtone bridge inbetween, which is the tone of the imprimatura.

    In practice its not always so easy and we may need a third pigment handy – the same hue, chroma and value as the imprimatura, so we can tune things up and correct things.

    The following diagrams and videos should hopefully help grasp this way of working. Don’t worry if its initially unfamiliar – it will become more natural with practice.