Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nelson Shanks' "Duo Tones"

Here are some examples of Nelsons Shanks "duo tones", or limited palette paintings.  Actually, the term "duo tone" is a misnomer, as there are more that two tones.  These studies are probably more correctly termed "closed grisaille", as the initial empty light masses of the brown grisaille paintings are filled or "closed"   with color  representing the lights. The shadows remain as the grisaille mixture.  At Studio Incamminati we generally use burnt sienna, ultramarine blue and a little white (if necessary) for the grisaille.  This process can be used for completed studies, or can be part of a procedure for developing a painting (see Kerry Dunn previous post for an explanation of closed grisaille).

I included this example of the beginning stage of one of Nelsons' paintings, so you could see how the "duo tone" studies relate to the opening stages of a painting.


  1. Thanks for posting these pictures - it's a real pleasure to get a rare glimpse into Nelson's thinking process. These beginning closed grisailles look so completed in their own way, and yet so open. It's really beautiful. If you don't mind me asking, I have two questions:

    First off, the first two paintings are relatively cool in fleshtone colour (clearly done in natural light), and yet isn't the light in the grisaille supposed to be cad orange, cad green pale, white and a little dash of cad scarlet?

    What second question though, is the presence of a few colour accents. In the first portrait for example, there seems to be one main cool fleshy colour for the lights, but then areas of more intense hue like the orange on her breast, the reds and violets on her clavicle, etc. Does he make a closed grisaille and then start developing the rest of the painting with a full palette? Or does he transition by including some colour in the initial closed grisaille? The lines of grisaille and full colour palette seem to be a little blurred to me.

    Thanks again for posting these, they're amazing!

  2. Hi Alex,
    There are many possibilities of paint mixtures that can be used for the light in closed grisaille. The one you mentioned is what we often suggest students use in our workshops and classes, but its really just a generic mixture that works for medium or light skin types under artificial light. Cadmium red and cad yellow with a little black and/or white is another generic light mixture we sometimes use.
    The line between closed grisaille and the full color palette is a little blurry when one is considering how to begin a painting and how to develop it, and I think its important to understand that there is not just one correct way to start. I think of these different approaches as tools, and each artist will use them differently. I can't answer for Nelson, but I have observed that he often starts paintings with an approach that looks similar to a closed grisaille. But he might begin throwing in color at any time. When we use these approaches in classes or workshops (closed grisaille, color study), they are exercises, enabling the student to tackle one problem at a time. This is much easier than trying to address drawing, form, values and color all at once. I hope this helps!

  3. Natalie,

    Thank you for sharing these Nelson starts. I started studying these last week, and they have helped me to trust my eye and my first impression. I have been struggling with learning how to combine the black and white form painting and the color study painting into a finished painting process. I experimented with trying to build up the value and colors over time instead of going for a stronger first statement like I would in the color studies. This is one way, but my paintings were consistently darker and the colors were never as vibrant as they should have been. My value relationships were correct, but on a more compressed and darker level. I now feel free to use my color sense in the beginning of a painting to support the abstract shapes. I find it much more pleasurable just painting what I see and only using structural thinking as a troubleshooting tool.

  4. The last one is Pavarotti! Cool