Archive for November, 2010

Verdaccio technique – complete

November 22, 2010
Verdaccio technique

Verdaccio technique

… well, sort of. The technique didn’t work out particularly well for me, as I made numerous crucial mistakes. But that’s not the issue. Any mistakes I made can be corrected the next time out. Trouble is, I don’t think there will be a next time, at least not following this exact procedure. I have some real concerns about this verdaccio technique.

This is a technique that I was taught by a student of Adrian Gottlieb. I don’t know for certain if it is in fact the technique taught by Mr. Gottlieb; it may not be. It is given as a technique that was used by just about all of the classic painters; however, I have yet to locate a single example of an old master that was clearly following this technique, which is: imprimatura and drawing; lights stated with white in the piambura layer; cools and warms stated in the verdaccio layer; and final transparent yellow glaze to bring it all together. (These stages are seen in my study at right; once again I must apologize for the horrific photography.) I have seen two or three examples of what look to be piambura layers, but that’s about it. Apparently some other examples do exist, as teachers of this method have purportedly taken students to various museum galleries to show examples. But this procedure could not have been as ubiquitous as all that; there are more than a few examples of old masters who clearly did not follow this technique, but some other: alla prima; grisaille; verdaccio (as it is usually meant, using black, white and either raw umber or terre verte); ebauche; or some combination of these or other techniques.

But far worse, for me, is the inclusion – and even the demand for – so many thoroughly modern materials. This technique is pushed, again, as being the way the old masters worked; but since it seems to depend so much on modern materials, one has to wonder what in the heck they used! Consider:

The first layer is the imprimatura, which is a transparent initial toning of the linen. In this technique the imprimatura is a mix of alizarin crimson and olive green. Both of these colors are synthetic organics (remember those? see this post if not); neither of these colors could have existed before the late nineteenth century.

After getting the drawing in, the next layer is the piambura. In it, the lights are stated using various combinations of lead white and titanium white. Lead white has certainly been around for a while; but titanium white didn’t hit the art supply shelves until the 1920s! If tradition is what is being taught here, why not just use lead white alone, as the old masters must have done?

Next layer is the verdaccio layer. In this layer, cools and warms (grayed greens and reds) are stated over the lights of the piambura layer. The green used is chromium oxide green. This is often considered a traditional color, but even it didn’t make its appearance before the early nineteenth century. If this is a technique used by all the old masters, then what did they use before then?

The red used, named sinopia (it isn’t – sinopia is a traditional earth pigment) is a complex mix of alizarin crimson, mars violet and transparent red oxide. The mars violet and transparent red oxide (especially the latter) are recent additions to the palette; but those might be considered as substitutions for the older earth colors. But then, why not just use those earths instead? It’s not like they don’t exist any more. Same with alizarin crimson; I assume this is meant as a replacement for madder lake, which again, still exists and is obtainable. I don’t have anything against the more modern colors; but when I’m learning a technique supposedly used by the classical painters, I personally would be interested in using some of their materials. (And even then, it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that all the old masters were using a mixture of burnt sienna, violet earth and madder lake for all of their warm skin tones, and that nothing else would do.)

But here is the kicker, worse than anything I’ve mentioned so far (in fact, before this the rest of it hardly matters at all): durability. Or rather, lack thereof. This verdaccio technique has been taught as a procedure that will give archival results. However, at this point everyone should be familiar with the impermanence of alizarin crimson. This fugitive color is used in almost all the layers of this technique, including the final, very thin glaze layer – where it will fade very quickly. (Considering the delicacy and precision of this technique, and that it is given as an archival technique, I find it ironic that the results intended will probably be effective for a few decades at most.) It is used there along with Indian yellow (it isn’t really Indian yellow, but yet another synthetic organic). But concerning the glaze layer, the problem is not only the pigments used. I’ve long been concerned about what the final glaze layer would turn out to be – as it turns out, the final glaze isn’t oil paint at all, but pigment in Canada balsam only!

Canada balsam is a natural tree resin, and like all natural tree resins, over time it will darken, yellow, and crack. Unlike oil paint, the darkening and yellowing of natural tree resins is not reversible by sunlight. In this technique, we’ve been pushed to use some Canada balsam (I didn’t) in the darks of the verdaccio layer; but at least there the amount used was minimal. But in the final glaze layer it’s all resin (the turpentine used to dilute it will evaporate off as it dries). Natural soft resins like Canada balsam are resoluble. This means that when some future conservator goes to remove the final picture varnish to replace it, whoops! There goes the glaze color! …Archival, indeed.

I’ll give this technique one thing: when done correctly it clearly can give good optical results. I may have messed up this one (it was my first try at a pretty complex procedure, after all), but I can see how one could get pretty convincing skin tones by following it. But there are plenty of other techniques that can give good results too. Techniques that are sounder technically, and have a much clearer historical pedigree.

Because it can give good results, and because I’ve invested a lot of time and energy, I plan to keep experimenting with this; in fact I started today. I want to see if I can come up with my own version of this verdaccio technique, but one that is archivally sound and makes use of actual historical materials.

oil on gesso

oil on gesso

I apologize for the very negative review of this technique, which some of you have been following here with interest. It must seem a bit of a harsh indictment; but I’m afraid it simply goes against just about everything I’ve learned about historical color and sound painting practice. I will of course continue to study and experiment with all kinds of traditional painting techniques and materials. Speaking of traditional materials, a friend of mine is making gesso panels. I’m trying one out now. It’s an amazingly smooth surface, which absorbs oil really quickly. I began by laying down an initial layer of cold-pressed linseed oil, which was promptly absorbed – the panel was dry to the touch after less than a day! – so I started working on it. The first layer is shown at right, using one of my favorite combinations of earth colors, raw sienna and violet hematite. After all the fussiness of the last few months, I wanted to just enjoy making a painting again. Actually, I wound up being a bit fussy with this one too – but only because I was having fun with the materials.

Ah, that feels good to say.