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What Is Verdaccio and How to Use It in Your Paintings

Nicole is a fan of fanfiction and enjoys sharing her knowledge with her readers.

Section of Michelangelo's fresco of the Sistine Chapel

Section of Michelangelo's fresco of the Sistine Chapel

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.

Giotto di Bondone, Crucifix (detail), about 1290-1300, gold and tempera on panel.

Giotto di Bondone, Crucifix (detail), about 1290-1300, gold and tempera on panel.

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.

A half-painted face first painted in Verdaccio.

A half-painted face first painted in Verdaccio.

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.