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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.

Albrecht Drer's "Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman"

Albrecht Drer's "Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman"

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.

Painting verdaccio in a Frank Covino workshop

Painting verdaccio in a Frank Covino workshop

Verdaccio Colors and Painting Supplies: Paints to Use to Make Verdaccio

Frank Covino's Verdaccio Approach to Realistic Art and Portraiture

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 10 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.

Frank Covino's "Controlled Painting"

Refined underpainting

Refined underpainting

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.

This image shows the completed underpainting 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.

Works in progress at a Frank Covino painting workshop

Works in progress at a Frank Covino painting workshop

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.

The author at a Frank Covino workshop, where I learned about verdaccio underpainting.

The author at a Frank Covino workshop, where I learned about verdaccio underpainting.

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.

Still Life with Plums

Still Life with Plums

© 2011 Nicole Pellegrini

Comments Welcome on This Classical Art Tutorial

Brenda Wynens on February 05, 2020:

Very informative and well written explanations. I loved it. I would be interested also in applying the flesh tones and where to do direct and indirect painting as Laura Rosser stated

Laura M Rosser on January 15, 2020:

Although I had a 7-day workshop with Frank Covino many years ago and have all his books, I never had the opportunity to seriously apply what I learned although I did one that was accepted in a national show and sold. Now, I am widowed and living where there is not anyone serious about doing really excellent work. At age 89 I am fortunate enough to have a commission of an adult and child from separate photos. I have done the verdaccio underpanting but need refreshing about how and where to do direct and indirect painting.

basha kline on March 11, 2018:

this art tutorial has been very useful and also gives an historic source of education for the use of fundamental portrait painting. Thank you for this information.

Michael on February 05, 2018:

Did Frank by chance give you the umber recipe for toning the canvas. I thought it was raw umber and pthalo blue but I don’t remember

Dora Origel on November 27, 2017:

I enjoyed the tutorial. But I have a ?. With OH green umber would that be value 1 right out of the tube? And when mixing values do I use Lead White or Titanium White. Also do you add any medium to colors? Love your work. I will never get to take classes with the Master Covino since he passed away last year. You were very fortunate.

GreenMind Guides from USA on April 19, 2014:

Great lens, very authoritative. Thanks!

Nicole Pellegrini (author) from New Jersey on March 20, 2013:

@wrapitup4me: Thank you for the comments!

wrapitup4me on March 20, 2013:

This is an amazing informative article. I had sort-of heard about underpainting and never understood what it was good for. Now I know. You are very talented also.

anonymous on March 14, 2013:

these painting are so cool

anonymous on March 14, 2013:

these painting are so cool

poldepc lm on March 04, 2013:

great lens; now I'm pensioned, I love to start "aquarel painting"....

norma-holt on December 31, 2012:

A new blessing on this lovely lens and may you have a wonderful, successful and happy 2013. Hugs

giovi64 lm on December 16, 2012:

Beautiful lens!

soaringsis on October 06, 2012:

Thank you for sharing.

Gabriel360 on July 19, 2012:

Fascinating lens! Thank you for sharing! God bless.

norma-holt on July 10, 2012:

Wow, I appreciate your sharing this lovely and valuable information. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012-2. Hugs

antoniow on July 05, 2012:

Interesting lens, nicely done!

Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on June 29, 2012:

Great article filled with very useful info for artists wanting to learn more about the Verdaccio technique. You do such lovely work! Blessings. :)

flycatcherrr on June 14, 2012:

I really enjoyed learning about Verdaccio here. I'll never be more than a poor Sunday-afternoon painter, but as a thorough-going history buff, it's fascinating to learn about the classical art techniques.

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on June 13, 2012:

OOPs, Meant "Now I know"...that's what happens when you type faster than you think. ha!

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on June 13, 2012:

Love these paintings. Know I know the technique! Thanks! Blessed!

sheezie77 on June 11, 2012:

Fantastic lens!

EnjoyLens on May 15, 2012:

Very nice lens! Thank you for sharing!

supersiva on May 06, 2012:

I love painting and drawing in pencils and crayons - But this lens showed me there is more to learn.

Rose Jones on May 03, 2012:

Amazing lens - pinned to my artboard and angel blessed. Wow.

MermaidDoc on April 29, 2012:

Wow, wonderful lens. Your paintings are really incredible.Congratulations on your Purple Star.

Dan from CNY on April 28, 2012:

You should join Deviantart or Nice article.

JoyfulReviewer on April 27, 2012:

Thanks for explaining this technique so nicely. Enjoyed your artwork that you showcased. ~~Blessed~~

Susanne Iles from Canada on April 27, 2012:

I've been using the Mische technique for years under my portraiture. However, since visiting your beautifully written by the way....I will be trying my hand at Verdaccio on my next figurative piece. The colours are warmer and seemingly "touchable" in your paintings. Thank you for taking the time to create, and teach, such a valuable lesson.

joannalynn lm on April 26, 2012:

Beautiful lens.

anonymous on April 26, 2012:

Thanks, very interesting topics on your lens.

Anna2of5 on April 26, 2012:

WOW!!! I knew nothing about this topic, before this lense. thank you for taking the time to create such an intricate lens. I feel there are a Lot of really talented people on Squidoo, I feel like I'm swimming in the deep section of the pool here. Again, Stunning.

strategista on April 26, 2012:

Sensational job of detail and presentation that really covers (pun?) the topic so well. Makes me want to take up those brushes again. Fabulous explanation of an expert technique. Congratulations

DebMartin on April 25, 2012:

I love your paintings. d

Willow Wood on April 25, 2012:

This has been lovelingly made and that always makes a lens enjoyable to read. Your painting skills are wonderful! I'm terrible at using oil paints but maybe I can improve with such a useful lens. Congratulations on winning a purple star!

infoguru19 on April 25, 2012:

This lens was very helpful and interesting. I taught ma a lot, Thanks.

Pip Gerard on April 25, 2012:

I thought I knew most things about art and painting but I never knew this! Fabulous lense... thank you for teaching me something today. congrats on your award. well deserved.

ny2nashville on April 25, 2012:

this was amazing- thank you for sharing with us!

StrongMay on April 25, 2012:


myraggededge on April 25, 2012:

Wonderful. Your art is beautiful and your explanations of the techniques are clear and informative.

Steve Weatherhead from Granada, Spain on April 25, 2012:

Great lens! Well written, interesting and informative.

nelchee on April 25, 2012:

Thanks for sharing your knowledge, I'm not an oil painter (yet!), but I may start in the future. Do you think this would work with acrylics?

cynthiannleighton on April 24, 2012:

Good job! Enjoyable experience.

cynthiannleighton on April 24, 2012:

Good job! Enjoyable experience.

anonymous on April 24, 2012:

Fascinating lens! It's a testament to how well-written and clearly explained it is that even someone like me - no art experience, can't even doodle - thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

anonymous on April 24, 2012:

This just outstanding work. Congratulations on the Purple Star!

DailyRogue on April 24, 2012:

I really learned a lot. I've been sketching for years, now want to try painting. Thanks for the info and resources.

jholland on April 24, 2012:

Thanks for sharing this tutorial. I learned a lot.

Sher Ritchie on April 24, 2012:

I love your lens. I've featured it on mine:

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on April 24, 2012:

I always enjoy your lenses but his one is truly deserving of a purple star. Congratulations.

CoeGurl on April 24, 2012:

Beautiful lens and very helpful!

Tolemac on April 24, 2012:

Your tutorial is quite excellent. Even someone with minimal painting experience should be able to apply this technique following your instruction. Love the John Sheppard piece. =)

karMALZEKE on April 24, 2012:

Beautiful. I really enjoyed seeing your art. Nice explanation and wonderful teaching tool.

karMALZEKE on April 24, 2012:

Beautiful. I really enjoyed seeing your art. Nice explanation and wonderful teaching tool.

June Campbell from North Vancouver, BC, Canada on April 24, 2012:

Excellent lens. You have informed me about a technique that I had never heard of before. Thanks so much.

gypsyman27 lm on April 24, 2012:

Very informative, and very well done. See you around the galaxy...

getmoreinfo on April 24, 2012:

Wow you are an amazing painter, I learned some new things about colors techniques on canvas from your lens. I am thrilled you are featured here on squidoo. Lovely work.

LivRiley LM on April 24, 2012:

I draw portraits using graphite and charcoal and am a huge art fan - especially the renaissance era. I've visited the Sistine Chapel to view Michelangelo's frescoes. The art and history in Italy is fabulous. I'm familiar with this technique so this lens was very interesting for me. The subjects really do start out looking like corpses, don't they?

anonymous on April 24, 2012:

Very interesting lens. I did not know about this painting technic.

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 24, 2012:

Thank you for this excellent lesson, I've been having trouble with pasty-looking skin tones and will try this method. Your work is exquisite!

cmadden on April 24, 2012:

Excellent lens and paintings! I have used underpaintings, but not quite like this - bookmarked for later reference.

Persephone Abbott on April 24, 2012:

This is the type of lens I personally find fascinating. Something I didn't know (I am not a painter), a word I enjoyed learning about and an idea of what I could appreciate more when looking at art.

Marc from Edinburgh on April 24, 2012:

Wow - I thought I was a good artist, but your work is off the scale! What a talent you have! Stunning! x

KittySmith on April 24, 2012:

The Purple Star is well deserved. What a fascinating lens, I have never heard of this technique either. I can see how it works very clearly from your description and examples. I look forward to employing this concept in m own work. You specify it for oil painting, but will it work with other mediums? I have never painted with oils, I have only used acrylics. I know the differences but have never felt up to tackling oil paints thus far. I am also curious to see how a verdaccio style layer would work with my digital images. My head is already wrapping around how I will do this.

mjdraper on April 24, 2012:

What a great lens. I have played around with underpainting filters on Photoshop but never really understood what they were about.

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on April 24, 2012:

What a fascinating technique. I had never heard of Verdaccio underpainting. It makes perfect sense to me now that I have absorbed this article and your examples. Thank you for always teaching me so much about the intricacies of exceptional art. Congrats on your feature and Purple Star! Beautifully conceived and presented.

lesliesinclair on April 24, 2012:

Covino makes a strong case for art as science. I've never tried painting in this manner.

viscri8 on April 24, 2012:

truly great art tutorials series -- and the lens about the technique of verdaccio is amazingly crafted for any willing learner's benefit. Huge like and blessing from me!

tslizzy on April 24, 2012:

soo so awesome. like the lens. congratulation for the good work

KateHonebrink on April 24, 2012:

Awesome lens! Simply amazing how effective Verdaccio underpainting can be! I know next to nothing about painting, but I very much appreciate the talent and creativity it took to paint what you showed us in the lens, not to mention writing this very informative article! My hat is off to you!! Well done!! Congratulations on a great job!

anonymous on April 24, 2012:

very very beautiful lens.

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on April 24, 2012:

@ecogranny: P.S. Congratulations on your purple star and SquidooHQ mention!

Kathryn Grace from San Francisco on April 19, 2012:

I love your painting tutorials. You write so well and your paintings blow me away. I can feel those plums in my hand, almost bite into them. You are providing a wonderful service here.

Aquavel on April 04, 2012:

A very interesting read. This is an artist's tutorial and I love it! Thanks creating such a clear and comprehensive lens! And very beautiful too.

oxfordian on March 11, 2012:

What beautiful work! (How do you find time to write lenses?) :) **blessed**

anonymous on February 22, 2012:

Falling in love with this lens and your wonderful art :) Have wonderful times.. always.. dear lady :D

Delia on January 29, 2012:

OOPS!!! forgot the 'Blessing' on this lens from ~d-artist Squid Angel!

Delia on January 29, 2012:

This makes me wish I painted with oils! informative and well written lens with great art!

seosmm on January 08, 2012:

Really interesting. Very nice lens!

scss on December 17, 2011:

Another great lens! Highly recommend this technique. I also use a basic Yellow Ochre and oil to sketch out the paintings completely, before I begin to layer on the colors. Haven't incorporated blacks into the sketches - should try it.Helene Malmsio

JZinoBodyArt on November 08, 2011:

Thank you for introducing me to Squidoo! Your well-written and super informative lenses have set a great example for me and for many others, I'm sure. Happy Thanksgiving!

anonymous on September 23, 2011:


Gayle Dowell from Kansas on August 17, 2011:

Wonderful information and beautiful painting. Lovely!

Chazz from New York on August 14, 2011:

I am in awe of your talents and lenses. Blessing #2 on the Squid Angels Epic Back To School Bus Trip Quest. Your blessed lenses will both be featured on Wing-ing it on Squidoo, our lensography of some of the best Squidoo has to offer, as soon as the quest has been completed.

profilesincolor on July 31, 2011:

Wonderful Lens! Lovely work! :-)

VoodooRULEs on July 21, 2011:

This is a great lens! I'm going to bookmark it! Thank you!

RickBasset on July 16, 2011:

You are amazingly talented, in painting and lens making! I love your Cat portrait!Blessings from a Squid Angel!

daoine lm on July 09, 2011:

More than just an introduction to Verdaccio! This is an excellent lens.

Judy Filarecki from SW Arizona and Northern New York on July 09, 2011:

Well written article and demonstration of a techniques that many new artists overlook and could really learn from. Thank you.

serenity4me lm on July 08, 2011:

Very nice, you've convinced me.

OldStones LM on July 05, 2011:

Very nice lens. Thank you for the lesson.

sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on July 04, 2011:

nice tutorial lens on verdaccio underpainting. ~blessed~

Delia on July 02, 2011:

You certainly are a gifted artist! Yes, I believe hands-on workshop or class is the best way to learn is a goal of mine.

artshock on May 24, 2011:

Your work is fantastic!

akumar46 lm on May 17, 2011:

This form of painting is totally new to me.Thanks for such a tutorial lens.

cdevries on April 05, 2011:

Really fascinating! I'm a theater set designer and recently did my first black & white show - in a style like a '40s film where everything is in gray-scale and even the actors wear gray make-up. Very like verdaccio. I learned so much.

Nicole Pellegrini (author) from New Jersey on March 28, 2011:

@WildFacesGallery: Thank you so much! This technique has become one of my favorites for painting, so I enjoy being able to share it and explain it to others. I'll be working on more tutorials and examples showing verdaccio underpainting in action in the future.

Mona from Iowa on March 28, 2011:

Really nicely done. I knew nothing of this. Well I knew of the technique but not much in the way of real information. * Blessed*