Painting the Verdaccio
What is the Verdaccio?
Verdaccio is an Italian term for the greenish-hued underpaintings common to Early Renaissance Italian art. The root word ‘verde’ means green. In English we would say ‘verdant’.
Back in the Middle Ages, when religious frescos and egg tempera paintings were mainstream, artists commonly applied a verdaccio layer as an underpainting.
After painting the Imprimatura, as I mentioned before, they knew that a cool, greenish tone in the underpainting would cause the flesh in their subjects to appear more realistic in the final layers.
As oil painting became more popular, artists continued using this technique.
Due to the transparent nature of oil paints, light will travel through the upper layers of paint and refract off the lower layers.
The greenish tone is a complimentary colour to the warm, reddish earth pigments and pinks commonly used for painting the skin. Thus it creates a more balanced and life-like colour harmony. The verdaccio layer is also useful when painting swarthy or darker-skinned subjects.
The grey/greens enhance the shadow areas of the skin, making it appear more translucent. For example, the shadows of the eye sockets or beneath the jaw bone, the thin skin over veins, or the bones of the hand.
The tradition of painting with the verdaccio was passed down from Master to apprentice, beginning with the Greek and Byzantine artisans who were commissioned to paint the churches of Florence in the 1200’s.
This knowledge was passed on to the Florentines. Famous artists of the time were Cimabue, Giotto and Cennino Cennini. Their frescos were heavily influenced by Byzantine Art.
Cennini wrote an invaluable handbook for artists and craftsmen called Il Libro dell’Arte. In this book, filled with much practical advice for the young Renaissance artist, he explains mixing the verdaccio.
‘Mix one part of black, two parts of ochre.’
And elsewhere he says, ‘Mix a verdaccio made from Mars black, dark ochre, red (also known as cinabrese, light or Venetian red or sinopia from Turkey) and lime white. Next, the shadows are painted with terra-verde’
Cennini was also liberal with offering lifestyle advice to young artists, saying that we should study art as one studies philosophy or theology. To eat and drink wine moderately, and to save your hand from straining. Avoid heaving heavy stones, swinging crowbars and the like:
“There is another cause which, if you indulge it, can make your hand so unsteady that it will waver more, and flutter far more, than leaves do in the wind, and this is indulging too much in the company of women.” Wikipedia contributors, “Cennino Cennini,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Of Using the Terms Verdaccio and Grisaille Interchangeably and of the Origination of the Term ‘the Dead Layer’ Explained
The verdaccio is similar to the French grisaille technique, and you may often hear the terms interchangeably. But generally, the grisaille is predominately a tonal underpainting in black and white (sometimes sepias). Hence the root word gris, meaning grey in French, whereas the verdaccio is greenish.
Sometimes the verdaccio is also nicknamed the ‘Dead Layer’ because of the ghostly greenish cast of the subject’s visage, or even nick-named the zombie layer.
Romantically though, the intention is to achieve an effect of pale moonlight, with almost opaque highlights and shadows.
Some famous artworks showing evidence of verdaccio
Some great examples of Renaissance verdaccio paintings are Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi because the painting was only partially finished.
Also, one of his first paintings, done independently of his master Verrocchio, the Benois Madonna, is a charming representation and a clear break from the Byzantine and Early Renaissance ‘stiffness’ of tempera painting.
Of course, probably most famously, the Mona Lisa, if you look carefully, you’ll notice the verdaccio of the shadows.
Michaelangelo also used verdaccio in this tempera on panel painting, the Manchester Madonna.
That’s it for this week, please feel free to leave comments below. Next time, I’ll be Painting the Figure with Terra Verte and bringing out the cool shadow areas with this gorgeous pigment.
Check out my figure paintings here.