The verdaccio underpainting.

What is the verdaccio color? How it can help artists to make better portraits?
What is the verdaccio color? How it can help artists to make better portraits? Did you know that this color was fundamental for artists such as Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael?

The definition of Verdaccio according to Wikipedia is the following:

Verdaccio is an Italian name for the mixture of black, white, and yellow pigments resulting in a grayish or yellowish (depending on the proportion) soft greenish brown. Verdaccio became integral part of fresco painting where this color is used for defining tonal values, creating complete monochromatic underpainting. Often architectural details in frescoes are left in Verdacchio without any additional color layers, best example is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where you can clearly see verdaccio underpainting left as is on all architectural details of the composition.

But reading the Cennino Cennini Craftsman’s Handbook you realize that the true color used by the ancient masters was slightly different. In the book, Cennini, explaining how to paint a youthful face gives us the exact manner of how this color was mixed by Giotto:

And let us suppose that in a day you have just one head to do, a youthful saint’s, like Our Most Holy Lady’s. When you have got the mortar of your plaster all smoothed down, take a little dish, a glazed one, for all your dishes should be glazed and tapered like a goblet of drinking glass, and they should have a good heavy base at the foot, to keep them steady so as not to spill the colors; take as much as a bean of well-ground ocher, the dark kind, for there are two kinds of ocher, light and dark: and if you have none of the dark, take some of the light. Put it into your little dish; take a little black, the size of a lentil; mix it with this ocher; take a little lime white, as much as a third of a bean; take as much light cinabrese as the tip of a penknife will hold; mix it up with the aforesaid colors all together in order, and get this color dripping wet with clear water, without any tempera. Make a fine pointed brush out of flexible, thin bristles, to fit into the quill of a goose feather; and with this brush indicate the face which you wish to do, remembering to divide the face into three parts, that is, the forehead, the nose, and the chin counting the mouth. And with your brush almost dry, gradually apply this color, known in Florence as verdaccio, and in Siena, as bazzeo.

So the color was composed of yellow ocher, a bit of black, white and a hint of red (cinabrese). As you can see the recipe includes red (the complementary of green) in order to reduce the mixture intensity. In addition, the recipe does not include any green as suggested by some artists.

But how do we know that this was the actual color used by Giotto?

I explained this many times on my Italian blog. Cennino Cennini learned to paint from Agnolo Gaddi, a Taddeo Gaddi’s son. Taddeo Gaddi was the son of Gaddo Gaddi, that with Cimabue was one of the patriarch of Italian art. Taddeo Gaddi was the Giotto’s pupil for 24 years. In fact Cennini says:

But you follow this method in everything which I shall teach you about painting: for Giotto, the great master, followed it. He had Taddeo Gaddi of Florence as his pupil for twenty-four years; and he was his godson. Taddeo had Agnolo, his son. Agnolo had me for twelve years; and so he started me on this method, by means of which Agnolo painted much more handsomely and freshly than Taddeo, his father, did.

In the procedure to achieve the youthful face of the underpainting, however Cennini also uses the earth green and white, and explains how to use them to make a good underpainting:

When you have got the shape of the face drawn in, and if it seems not to have come out the way you want it, in its proportions or in any other respect, you can undo it and repair it by rubbing over the plaster with the big bristle brush dipped in water. Then take a little terre-verte in another dish, well tinned out; and with a bristle brush, half squeezed out between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand, start shading under the chin, and mostly on the side where the face is to be darkest; and go on by shaping up the under side of the mouth; and the sides of the mouth; under the nose, and on the side under the eyebrows, especially in toward the nose; a little in the end of the eye toward the ear; and in this way you pick out the whole of the face and the hands, wherever flesh color is to come. Then take a pointed minever brush, and crisp up neatly all the outlines, nose, eyes, lips, and ears, with this verdaccio. There are some masters who, at this point, when the face is in this [p. 45] stage, take a little lime white, thinned with water; and very systematically pick out the prominences and reliefs of the countenance; then they put a little pink on the lips, and some “little apples” on the cheeks. Next they go over it with a little wash of thin flesh color; and it is all painted, except for touching in the reliefs afterward with a little white. It is a good system.

After drawing with a large bristle brush, with liquid earth green he started to define the dark: under the chin, under the lip of the mouth, into the gap of the two lips, under the base of the nose, under the eyelashes, the end of the eye and then all over the face. Then using the verdaccio he started with creating the chiaroscuro of the face. Then he used the white for light area. I believe that the different shades of green were made by diluting the verdaccio more or less. In oil painting I think you may choose to use white or medium to create different tones.

Since the objective of the article was the verdaccio not go well with the analysis of the text Cennini, hoping to have clarified what color is  verdaccio, how to mix it and how to use it for a portrait underpainting.

The verdaccio underpainting is the equivalent of the dead layers used by Flemish painters and it was used mainly in portrait painting. Some verdaccio painting is still visible in some unfinished Leonardo works, in many decorations of the Sistine Chapel and many other works.

If you want learn more on Renaissance techniques I suggest to read The Craftsman’s Handbook (*). You can buy it on Amazon or download from this website.

* Disclaimer: the last link for The Craftsman’s Handbook book is an affiliate links and I do earn a commission through any purchases that you make. If you do make a purchase, I appreciate it! If you wish, send me an email so I can thank you personally.

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  1. well spotted about a little red in my description 🙂
    I left it out to simplify things a little, it’s under 0.5% of the mix…
    There is so little red that goes in a cinabrese – very light pink, which is lime white and red ochre, so it is simply a personal choice of the artist:

    1) yellow ochre
    2) black (vine black at that time and mars black now)

    both below under 5% (red is under 0.5%), make paint little less transparent, and a little softer

    3) lime white (very little)
    4) lime white + red ochre = cinabrese (very little as well) – perhaps what you said about complementary

    I personally do not even add white.

  2. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that
    it’s really informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if you continue this in future. Lots of people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  3. thanks for comment

  4. Hi thanks.
    I have an italian blog with same content that I update more often. Now I want to keep this blog updated. Stay tuned.

  5. The reference to the Renaissance recipe and method of underpainting (soto di pinto ) that you have lifted from Cennini is correct, but my adulteration of the formula for contemporary portraitists will create a product that is more archival. I have instructed my students to use Mars Black, Chromium Oxide Green and Flake White for Verdaccio, since these are among the leanest of oil paints produced today. Please refer to my DVD #12, Painting in Verdaccio, from our Art on DVD series, for a clear demonstration and supportive lecture regarding this procedure. Then, consider viewing DVD#11, Painting Like a Renaissance Master for a lecture analysis of the overpainting procedure, in full color, defended by my own work.

  6. Mr. Covino,
    It is an honor for me having you on my blog. When I talk about “some artists” I was referring to verdaccio user on Wetcanvas. But I think he was inspired by your DVDs. It’s important to know for me why do you suggest these color. If I well understand from your point these color mixed give a good verdaccio color and they are not fat … so they should dry quickly.

  7. Hi all,
    Just for clarification. When I said:

    In addition, the recipe does not include any green as suggested by some artists.

    I did’t want to say that these artists are wrong. One of these artists (verdaccio user on Wetcanvas) introduced me the first time to verdaccio several years ago, so I can only thank him. I only meant that their color is different by the one reported by Cennini.


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