Painting the Figure with Terre Verte

by Damian Osborne


What is Terre Verte?

Terre Verte, or ‘Green Earth’, was commonly used from Medieval Times and through the Renaissance for the underpainting of flesh tones. The Romans used this pigment on their wall paintings even before then.

The green is complimentary to the warm reds and pinks of the flesh and makes the skin appear more natural.

The pigment is made from iron silicates and the most famous was mined in Verona, Italy. It’s a transparent, non-toxic pigment with a low-tinting strength and high oil absorption.


Winsor & Newton Artist's Quality Terre Verte
Winsor & Newton Artist’s Quality Terre Verte. I’ve had this tube for quite a while.


I particularly love this colour for touching up areas of the verdaccio.

It’s a fairly muted green, so not too overpowering. The Artist’s Quality Winsor & Newton brand that I used, had a fairly low tinting-strength, so if I applied too much, it was easy to wipe off with a cloth or even my fingers.


How did the Old Masters paint realistic looking flesh?

During the early Italian Renaissance, religious fresco painting was very popular. The Old Masters used green earth or terre verte in their underpaintings as a base colour for the warmer skin tones which they painted on top. 

Fresco painters such Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Correggio and Cennino Cennini borrowed the idea of a greenish underpainting from Byzantine artists. 

The green hue makes the flesh appear more life-like or realistic because it creates cool halftones. It acts as a complimentary and tempers the warm tones of red and yellow ochres.

Later artists began using brighter hues such as vermillion, naples yellow, carmine and madder lake. 

You can read more on how I create interesting halftones if you want to try something a little different.

Cennino Cennini wrote a treatise on painting called Il Libro dell’Arte. In it he discusses this green underpainting, called the verdaccio. 

Cennini mentions going over the verdaccio with this terre verte pigment, particularly in the shadows, to bring out even more of a green hue in the underpainting stage. See: The verdaccio underpainting by Salvatore d’Angelo

In my last blog, Painting the Verdaccio, I used Cennini’s traditional technique of mixing black, yellow ochre, white, and a little bit of Venetian red. No green pigment was added to the verdaccio at all.

The greenish olive colour comes from mixing the black (which has a blueish tone) and the ochre (which is yellowish).

Terre verte accentuates the dried verdaccio layer beautifully, and is applied as a transparent glaze. Due to the high oil absorption of this pigment, it works well in the earlier stages of the painting, adhering nicely to the ‘fat over lean’ rule.

It’s a very stable pigment, and extremely lightfast. It’s not affected by sunlight and doesn’t react to solvents. Good to know, especially as I’m using it as part of my underpainting.

I pretty much only used one brush here. One of my absolute favourites. A beautiful Rosemary & Co. handmade hogshair filbert. I was done in less than an hour.



I must say, she’s looking a little bit ghoulish at the moment.

In the next blog, I’ll be Painting the Flesh Tone and bring out more of the higher values, and get the flesh ready for the colour glazing stages.


Thanks for reading and please send me a comment below if you’d like to know anything more. I’m always happy to help. And hear good advice too!


Check out my figure paintings here.


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