From Grisaille to Verdaille: Monochrome isn't just Black and White

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

Often when I am teaching workshops I advise people to give thought to the powers of using monochrome techniques in their practice. Whether that be working in a single ink colour, drawing in pencil to begin with, or viewing their subject through a black and white filter. Allowing the other colours to be taken away gives the viewer a clear and precise piece of information, particularly handy for diagrammatic purposes or identification.

This is a very old, technique steeped with tradition. You could draw many familiarities from Leonardo Da Vinci’s scientific sketches from hundreds of years ago to contemporary studies made today. By cutting out the colour, the artist is allowed to concentrate purely on factual evidence from the subject. 


Leaves in monochrome
 A colour illustration edited to a monochrome version

Understanding 'monochrome' 

By the term ‘monochrome’ it is of an understanding that only one colour is used. In the purpose of a painting or drawing one colour is used, yet in many different tones. In scientific and botanical illustration it is typically black, although it’s not uncommon to see natural colours such as sepia or green. In photography it would generally be referred to as a black and white image.

Blossom in walnut ink

A drawing of Apple blossom using walnut ink gives an almost sepia effect


When considering monochrome there are many useful ways you can use it to help you when working on colour paintings. A tip I would offer if you are ever struggling with how much tone and highlights to use, is to take a photo of your illustration and put a black and white filter over it. The first image in this blog is a detail from my Lacecap Hydrangea. You can see clearly when it is in monochrome that the correct levels of tonal values have been added, whereas when viewing in pure colour from your source it can be hard to measure visually.



This is painting or drawing in monotone yet only using Greys coming from ‘Gris’, as the French word suggests. This also represents in one colour what is defined by a ‘Value Scale’. A value scale is a tonal scale made of one colour, so that could be sepia, grey, green or whatever you choose. Paintings executed from just brown is called Brunaille, and of green Verdaille. 



Grisaille painting, using just the colour grey


Grisaille is a technique that has been used historically by many artists, and allows one to truly study the values of a subject, using only the colour grey. It has been a popular method of painting in the Renaissance period and academia studies. The tonal values of an artwork are surprisingly more important than the colour. If you fail to replicate the tones authentically you will lose the realistic qualities. 

You may have come across this technique if you have ever used oil paints as an underpainting. Artists apply the paint with tonal values first in greys or neutral colours before laying down the actual oil colours. This isn’t as necessary in botanical or scientific illustration, as typically oil paints are not a preferred medium. That being said, it is possible to use the technique of underpainting in watercolours. It would be recommended even if you don’t paint with watercolour to use in your sketchbook for studies and in general practice, for learning how to view and reproduce tones accurately. 


Sketchbook study

Recording of a monochrome sketchbook entry


Monochrome sketchbooks

As many of you will know by now, I live by the importance of keeping sketchbooks. A popular way in which to record sketchbook studies, whether that is on a field trip or back in the studio, is to work in monochrome. Again, the limited palette of colour will block out the confusion and time needed to make accurate colour studies, and allow you to purely concentrate on your drawing and tonal values. A Sepia, or neutral colour makes a lovely basis for your study. Generally colours such as blue are reserved for more architectural or technical drawings. There are many amazing inks you can try, including oak gall ink or walnut ink. Both offer natural tones and due to their botanical nature both work beautifully with natural history or plant studies.

Above is one of my ink drawings made outside, and includes a few pressed flowers from the location. 


Ginger Lilly, botanical study

An accurate study, made using a fine liner pen


I hope that this blog has provided a little inspiration for your summer sketchbooks and studio work. To learn more about using monochrome, there is a full and in depth chapter dedicated to this in my book 'Botanical Art with Scientific Illustration'.


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