What is Verdaccio and how to use it in Your Paintings
Verdaccio Underpainting: A Brief Introduction
Verdaccio is an underpainting technique - and specific paint color - which originates from the Italian fresco painters of the early Renaissance. Created traditionally from a mixture of Mars Black and Yellow Ochre pigments, Verdaccio was used to establish tonal values in fresco painting quickly, creating a soft greenish-gray for the shadows of flesh tones. Architectural details in frescoes were often left in the pure Verdaccio coloring, hence we are able to still see evidence of it today in works such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes.
But what does Verdaccio have to do with modern oil painting techniques? As any artist can tell you, achieving realistic flesh tones is one of most challenging aspects of painting in color. But even early tempera painters of the Middle Ages knew that if they painted their figures first with a greenish hue, the flesh tones painted on top of them would "pop out" more convincingly and realistically. Green is the complementary color to red, and placing these two hues close together or on top of each other in a painting can create dynamic effects. The green can also "kill" some of the intensity of pure orange/pink flesh tones which can otherwise look plastic or doll-like on a painting. From these early realizations came Verdaccio underpainting techniques.
On this page I'll present a brief introduction to verdaccio underpainting: using and mixing verdaccio colors, how to paint and glaze over verdaccio, I'll show examples of verdaccio painting in use and also where you can learn more about the technique, including through workshops and books by artist Frank Covino. Covino is one of the strongest proponents of verdaccio and classical oil painting techniques today, and in fact is the artist from whom I learned many of the painting techniques I employ in my own work today.
Did You Know...?
Underpainting historically has sometimes been called "dead coloring" as it shows the flesh of a figure or body before the "life" of color has been added to it. Often a figure which was meant to be dead or dying in a painted image, such as a crucified Jesus, was left in the "dead coloring" itself or with only very little flesh tones added to it.
Using Verdaccio Color Today in Oil Painting
An Underpainting Technique for Realistic Fleshtones and More
Modern painting instructors teach their students how to do an entire oil painting first in a Verdaccio underpaint before moving on to color. Doing so helps students learn how to read values of light and dark more accurately, without having to think about color at all. It also makes the challenge of realistic flesh tones much easier to tackle.Verdaccio underpainting is a technique I have continued to use quite regularly in my oil paintings, sometimes only for the central figure itself, sometimes the entire painting as Covino taught me to do over the course of several workshops. In my other painting tutorials linked below, you can see step-by-step how I used Verdaccio underpaintings to create Old Master reproductions, modern portraits in a classical style, and even still life paintings. Here I will spend a little more time talking specifically about how to mix and apply Verdaccio for oil painting applications.
Monochromatic Underpainting: Separating Hue From Value - Grisaille, Verdaccio and the Purpose of Underpainting
What are some of the reasons for creating a complete monochromatic underpainting when working in oils, either in a Verdaccio or a French-style Grisaille (grey-scale)?
Of course, the underpainting is useful in refining an initial drawing and placing figures and objects more accurately for the painting. But perhaps most importantly it helps one establish proper tonal values for the painting, without having to worry about color, or hue, at the same time.
Two important concepts an artist must understand are hue and value. Hue is easy for most to grasp right away: hue is whether we see an object as red, yellow, blue, green or any of the other colors along the visual spectrum. Value is sometimes more difficult for students to understand, but relates to how light or dark an object appears.
Strip away all of the color from an image, as I have done above in the middle version with Albrecht Drer's "Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman" above, and you are left with only values ranging from pure white to pure black with which to see the image. This is a "monochromatic" image, although a monochromatic image can also be completed in an overall hue - such as with the "Verdaccio" version of the image to the far right.
Beginning artists often have a tendency to misread values, going for too much light/dark contrast and not seeing those middle tonal values properly. By completing a very thorough monochromatic underpainting, the artist is forced to carefully study and look only at the values of an image and not be distracted or mislead by color.
Formulas for Mixing Verdaccio Color and Values
Typically Verdaccio is made from a combination of Mars Black and Yellow Ochre pigments, combined in varying proportions depending on how green vs. gray the artist wishes. Tonal values are then created by mixing the Verdaccio with Flake White, or Titanium White if you have concerns about using lead-based paints. Mars Black is preferable to Ivory Black in that Ivory Black can have a "bluish" tint when mixed with white. Mars Black is a warmer black and also less oily; since a thoroughly dry underpainting is desired, Mars Black is also preferred to Ivory Black. Some artists will also add or use Chrome Oxide Green mixed with Mars Black for their Verdaccio, to achieve a more intense greenish color.For those who want to save time and effort, many paint manufacturers today sell pre-made Verdaccio colors, or another paint called "Greenish Umber" which works very well as a Verdaccio. This Greenish Umber is often what I use in preparing my own Verdaccio underpaintings.
The Controlled Palette Approach to Verdaccio Underpainting - Frank Covino's Verdaccio Approach to Realistic Art and Portraiture
Verdaccio Colors and Painting Supplies - Paints To Use To Make Verdaccio
Once you have your base green for your Verdaccio, the next step is to mix it in a series of values so you can begin painting. Just as a gray scale value finder shows ten values from white to black, so should your palette of premixed Verdaccio values.
In the picture above, you can see two paintings in progress with a range of verdaccio values laid out in front on the palette. They have been mixed and arranged on special "Controlled Palettes" as designed by Frank Covino. These palettes, available both in neutral gray or Verdaccio, are a great tool for making sure the value of your paint matches designated tonal values.
While at first it may seem like tedious work to mix and prepare so many values of paint so precisely, once you begin painting you will find how useful it is. Working with a monochrome copy of a painting as a reference, the artists in this workshop are able to quickly determine values and learn to really "see" them more accurately.If you're feeling lazy or are pressed for time, some manufacturers sell premixed "Verdaccio Kits" of 8 to 10 values of paint. While convenient to use, these premixed kits do not teach artists the skills involved in mixing their own paint values.Photo: Works in progress at a Frank Covino painting workshop.
How Refined Should A Verdaccio Underpainting Be?
Knowing When to Switch from Monochrome to Color
Different artists take various approaches to how far they finish the Verdaccio underpainting. Some only do it to a rough extent, to establish values and set up that green undertone on top of which to paint in full color. Others prefer to be very precise in their underpaintings, making it look as close to a finished image as possible before adding color. By being this thorough in the underpainting, you may only have to thinly apply glazes of color on top of the underpainting and allow the verdaccio to do the rest of the work!
I typically spend at least several days, and sometimes several weeks, working on getting my underpainting as precise as possible. This is truly the best stage, in my experience, to make sure that a portrait properly captures a likeness as well as I'd like it to, because correcting error much later on in the painting process can be difficult. However, a very confident artist may not need that much care put into their underpainting, especially if they intend to opaquely paint over the image entirely in color.
The image to the right shows the completed underpating for my copy of Titian's "Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap." This underpainting was refined over the course of a week, adding layers of paint to not only fully cover the original charcoal drawing but to make sure areas such as the background, hair, and gloved hand would only need thin glazes of color to complete.
Applying Flesh Tones Over Verdaccio Underpainting - Opaque Painting and Glazing Over Verdaccio
There are many different techniques for applying flesh tones over a finished Verdaccio underpainting. Of course, the underpainting should be fully dry before proceeding to flesh tones so as not to muddy the colors. Some artists such as Frank Covino continue with a very controlled palette of flesh tones, premixing the color hues and then making a full range of values from them. The photograph above shows Covino working on a student's painting, explaining the application technique for flesh tone color. However, for a more flexible approach one can use a simpler palette of Earth tones and Cadmium hues and mix tints as you go.
In shadowed areas, one can often simply glaze umber or sienna paints thinly over the Verdaccio, and let the browns and green interact to create beautiful shadows of realistic depth.The details of applying flesh tone colors are complex and subject enough for another lesson, and can be seen in application in some of my other painting tutorials.
Learning More About Verdaccio Underpainting in a Workshop
The Best Way to Learn is Through One-on-One Instruction
While books and websites can teach one, to an extent, about the Verdaccio underpainting technique, the best way to learn is through a hands-on workshop or class. As you might have guessed already, I highly recommend Frank Covino's Classical Painting Workshops for anyone interested in a highly in-depth, thorough education in the subject. If you cannot attend a class in person, his videos and DVDs can also provide much detail difficult to understand without seeing it in active application.
Frank Covino Workshop Video: Verdaccio Technique
This video focusing on Frank Covino's painting techniques and controlled palette will illustrate more examples of Verdaccio underpainting and how colors can be applied opaquely and in glazes for a realistic painting.
Paintings I've Completed Using a Verdaccio Underpainting - Examples of My Own Oil PaintingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Please let me know if you enjoyed this tutorial on Verdaccio underpainting and found it useful for your own artwork!
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© 2011 Nicole Pellegrini