What on earth is a Camaïeu?

I'm here to set the record straight - well at least a little less tangled - if you're one of my fab Studiotalk members who's been enjoying getting to grips with the sight, sound and language of oils.

Oil painting is an old skill, so it's littered with terms which can be a little confusing to the casual painter. With this in mind here's a quick glossary of some of the more common terms I use in my weekly member's only StudioTalk lectures. This week's puzzler by the way was Camaïeu - it's one of those terms like deja vu which doesn't have an English equivalent but is really useful.

Tis isn't complete - although I'm pretty sure I have a fuller glossary somehow on this wretched computer - I'll post it in due course. In the interim here's how to tell your Camaïeu from your imprimatura.

Selected Terms Gesso - A painting ground comprising of binder, pigment and chalk. Also called a GROUND. A SHORT GROUND has a larger proportion of chalk than a LONG GROUND.

Bole - A gesso with the addition of a naturally coloured earth pigment. Yellow pigments are termed ‘Flemish’, reddish ones ‘Venetian’; hence Venetian Bole. An IMPRIMATURA is a translucent layer applied over a GROUND or a BOLE.

Rheology - The mechanical working properties of a paint mix. Tube Oil generally has a thick, stiff rheology which requires adjustment to achieve various techniques.

Vehicle - The generic term for a carrier for paint - typically a MEDIUM of some type. Vehicles modify the RHEOLOGICAL properties of paint, and may additionally modify other properties such as drying rate, or optical properties

Grisaille, Brunaille, Verdaccio - Traditional underpainting systems employing a monochromatic tonal scheme. grisaille is grey, brunaille brown and verdaccio, green.

Grisaille and glaze - A traditional system employing a grisaille underpainting with translucent to turbid to opaque overpainting

Ebauche - A baroque painting system based upon working from translucent to opaque and big to small. Ebauche may be refined with glazes to create a very INDIRECT appearance, or supplemented by wet into wet oils to create a more DIRECT finish. Ebauche to direct is often termed alla prima, or ‘fa presto’ painting. The determining factor from simple DIRECT painting is the initial use and retention of a translucent ebauche base layer.

Camaïeu - A 19th century underpainting system employing a restricted palette of translucent to turbid colours, called the ‘true system of oil painting’ by Sickert. Camaïeu grew in popularity over truly translucent ebauche in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many contemporary alla prima artists use a Camaïeu system. Camaïeu as used Impressionist painting is very greyed down so as to create a useful base for more saturated direct colour.


A translucent wash of colour which which sets a mid value optical coloured base for a painting

Colour Beginning

An interlocking wash of colours - often very saturated - intended to create an underlying optical foundation for indirect painting. Particularly useful in combination with turbid mediums to create turneresque effects.

Direct - Direct painting means placing colours wet into wet, as opposed to wet over dry. A modern method, it precludes the possibility of true OPTICAL COLOUR.

Indirect - Any painting system which employs successive layers of paint , wet over dry. For this to work successive layers must exhibit control over OPACITY. OPTICAL AND SUBTRACTIVE COLOUR

  • -  Colour is an interaction of a surface with light.

  • -  Optical colours are created by allowing light to pass through successive translucent or turbid layers of paint, for example layers (surfaces) of yellow and blue over a white gesso will create an OPTICAL GREEN.

  • -  Subtractive colour relies upon atomic mixing of these surfaces into a composite whole which will return a simple colour ; mixing blue and yellow to create green for instance.


- A simple measure of light or dark. Value is relative and proximate, and the Value scale may be used to create useful Key and Range plans.

Saturation - Intensity of colour. Saturation cannot be increased by SUBTRACTIVE MIXING, but may be reduced.

Hue - One of the six colour families, eight if one includes the achromatic colours white and black

Tint, Tone, Shade - A mix with white, grey or black respectively

Temperature - A measure of how warm or cool a colour is relative to it’s parent HUE, as determined by its place on the SCIENTIFIC OR TRIADIC COLOUR WHEEL.

Triadic colour Wheel - An arrangement of colours by HUE, and TEMPERATURE. Used for colour mixing (optical and subtractive). and colour planning.

Italianate and dutch palletisation - A descriptive term for saturation and value choices. A Dutch palette is dark, earthy, tonal and ‘old master’ in appearance, often upon a BOLE. By contrast an Italianate palette is more chromatic, typically employing a white or pale GROUND.

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