Verdaccio technique – complete

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.

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18 Responses to “Verdaccio technique – complete”

  1. Robot Geisha Says:

    I appreciate the great detail you document in your art processes; I will continue to follow and take notes.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Lisa, I have meant to post a more detailed account of my own version of this technique, and I will do so at some point; but I’m a little behind. This month has been quite… trying. I don’t think I’ve ever let the blog go a whole month without a post before. I will try to get in another post this Sunday. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pablo T. Says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for making available your experiences with this technique; it’s very generous from your part.
    I think all your comments are correct…the technique seems to be following a “personal version” of the venetian school (of course…there were many venetian artists who developed their own personal versions of whatever their masters taught them…at the end we really can only have a good guess). Your concerns with the pigments and mediums are quite correct too.
    It would be interesting if you try more earthy colours because that is what the venetians had (transparent and opaque) and maybe only French ultramarine, some modern alizarin (like PR 177 for example), and some cad red light as your vermilion if you want to give some more punch in the Chroma department…these colours wouldn’t be too far from what the old masters had and are lightfast.
    In terms of mediums I think there is some evidence that some venetians used tempera grassa (temple graso in Spanish) for the ground, imprimatura, and underpainting and on top of that they continued with oils. This would accelerate the painting process manifold as these layers would dry in few hours and they won’t crack on stretch canvas because the oil in the emulsion gives the necessary pliability. Then you would have to decide if you continue with resin based mediums (then you must used solvents) or calcite, sun-thickened oil, and egg emulsions. There is historical evidence for both.
    I personally try to use more earth colours and I have been using the CSO medium proposed by Mr Louis Velasquez (http://www.calcitesunoil.com/) with excellent results. He has done extensive research and I found that his procedures and mediums are extremely simple, non-toxic, natural, you make them yourself, probably very close to what some old masters used, and versatile…being able to give effects that go from the micro fine details of the Van Eyck’s to the body impasto of Rembrandt…and everything in between. On top…the CSO medium dries in approximately a day.
    So probably if you stick to earthy colours, start with fast drying and low oil content paints (like raw umber), and use sound mediums that have been proven to work, your methodology will give you beautiful results and your work will last for few centuries at least.

    I hope this contributes positively to your practice…anyway, you are producing great work and your artistic mind is in the right path. Good luck.

    Best regards,

    Pablo T.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Pablo,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I am currently experimenting with different possibilities for this essential technique, using natural earths and other colors that would have been available to the old masters. PR177 is a nice replacement for alizarin crimson, and it’s a good suggestion if I were using modern colors; however, I’m specifically staying away from modern colors for this. Many of the modern realists seem to be interested in having their paintings look like old master paintings in style; but they enjoy the availability of modern materials in the process. I’m exactly the opposite: I don’t care if my paintings adhere to the older style or not; but I am very interested in using the older materials.

      My traditional palette is almost fleshed out at this point, but vermilion is one thing I haven’t added yet. There’s a sale on at Blick this month; maybe I’ll pick up a tube of the Michael Harding.

      Interesting about the tempera grassa. I’ve made some and tried it out; I wasn’t really thrilled with it, but then I only made it that one time, and there’s a good change I wasn’t doing it right. It’s definitely on my list to try again.

      I enjoy the chalk medium thing, I’ve ground my own chalk in oil and used it with other pigments to pretty good effect. If you like the Velasquez approach you should also check out Tad Spurgeon’s site http://www.tadspurgeon.com – he goes into much detail there about chalk putty and preparing homemade artists oils for painting.

      Thanks again for reading and contributing!

  3. Richard Morris Says:

    “This is the technique of Adrian Gottlieb that I am learning second-hand.”
    I find it funny that you think you are qualified to criticize the technique when you have only received second-hand information. Maybe you should take his actual class before making such claims.

    • sunsikell Says:

      Hi Richard, thank you for the comment. In response to your concerns I’ve altered my blog post above – in particular, I’ve deleted the offending sentence you quoted and replaced it with a disclaimer. I have no wish to be unfair to anyone or to make any unfounded claims, so I’ll be as clear and frank as possible:

      In this post I am critiquing a painting technique that was taught to me. (In particular, I am critiquing the materials used. I believe I am at least minimally qualified to do that much – I have learned a thing or two about art materials.) This painting technique was not taught to me directly by Mr. Gottlieb, and I have no direct knowledge that it is in fact the technique used or taught by him.

      If it is the case that I was misinformed – that Mr. Gottlieb is not teaching the use of alizarin crimson as an integral mixing and glazing color; nor Canada balsam as the sole binder of the final glaze layer; nor synthetic organic colors and other modern materials as the key to the painting techniques of the past – then I will certainly have to alter my post further, and to make it very clear that the technique I’m describing and critiquing actually has nothing to to with him.

      Right now, I can’t take the class, but I may try to do it someday; I am curious. If I discover that I’ve been in error, then I will certainly alter the blog post as I indicated. If it turns out that Mr. Gottlieb is indeed following the procedure I’ve described above, then in that case I’m afraid my critique will stand.

      Your drawings are outstanding – I particularly enjoy your portrait drawing demo on YouTube.

  4. salvatore Says:

    Hi all,
    on Internet I read several articles about Verdaccio. I have read some recipes and some of them contains greens pigments.

    In order to understand how old masters used that color and mixed it I did some researches. I discovered that in 1200 painting was not so diffuse in Florence and governor of city called some Greek painters to decorate some churches (see Vasari). There started to work Cimabue that learned to use verdaccio as underpanting of flesh color. Before apply verdaccio it did a line drawing and traced some dark area with terra verte (earth green) then on top of it applied the verdaccio.

    Cimabue taught the process to Giotto. Giotto taught the process to Taddeo Gaddi that was his pupil for 24 years. Taddeo taught it to his son Agnolo. Agnolo taught it to Cennino Cennini that reported the process in his Craftsman’s Handbook.

    No green pigment was used. Only black, yellow ochre, white and red. White in the english text is called white lime but actual italian name was “Bianco San Giovanni” literally translated “White Saint John” but I do not think it exists any more. Yellow Ochre was available at that time in two versions: dark and light. Cennini wrote to prefer dark if possible. The red was cinabrese. So no green is present in the mixture. Also the recipes provided by Wikipedia seems wrong because it does not cite the red.

    I wrote an article on this here.
    http://www.drawandpaint.net/verdaccio-underpainting/

    Let me know what do you think about it, I am very interested in this subject.
    Thank you

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Salvatore, thanks for commenting! A good article you’ve penned. You’re getting your information on verdaccio from Cennini, and it’s important for readers to understand a couple of things about this. One, Cennini was clearly writing about fresco rather than oil paints; further, he was writing in a time when oil painting was just starting to catch on in the north; there were some centuries for the technique to evolve after Cennini’s writing, so it could have meant something different to painters of a later era.

      However, the Cennini alternative certainly has more of a historic pedigree than the process I described in the post above, and you reminding me of it has given me some ideas.

      I wonder if the dark ochre mentioned by Cennini is actually raw umber, which has certainly been used a lot for underpaintings. Bianco di San Giovanni is still available, by the way, as a pigment from naturalpigments.com.

  5. salvatore Says:

    Hi,
    you are right Cennini book talked about fresco painting but I think same principles can be applied to oil.
    Today we know red is complementary of green probably red at that time was used to reduce color intensity.

    I didn’t know about naturalpigments.com, thanks a lot for link.

    • llawrence Says:

      Absolutely the same principles can apply in oil, I agree. In any case, chromium oxide green, as in the process outlined in the original post, would not have been used for underpaintings – or anything else – until the early nineteenth century at least. If that fits within one’s parameters, then it can work well, as it’s a very durable pigment – about as durable as the earth pigments. I wouldn’t be surprised if nineteenth-century painters used it in their verdaccio layers. But if one is after Old Master materials, then it would have to have been something more like what you described.

  6. alev guvenir Says:

    Thank you all, for the valuable content. I am very much interested in the topic. Just wanted to be notified of follow-up information.

    I have been experimenting underpainting vs. alla prima for a while.

    When I do underpainting, I tend to lose the fresh expression in layering_not losing color, but the expression of the face or gesture.
    On the other hand, alla prima has its own pitfalls. Definitely fresh, yet requires mastering skills of: medium and color.

    There must be a way to combine these techniques. I would appreciate if anyone would suggest a further source of information on this.

    Best Regards,

    • llawrence Says:

      Hello Alev, thanks for reading and commenting. You can subscribe to the blog, or, when you post, there should be a checkbox you can select that says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”

      I agree about the danger of losing freshness through careful layering techniques. It is one reason I’ve shied away from this technique – though I continue to experiment with traditional materials in this vein, and at some point I’ll post a followup. In the practical concerns of trying to finish paintings for my portfolio, I’ve been using layered techniques only as necessary – when I know I need a glaze over drapery, or I want the temperature depth of opaque lights over transparent darks, that sort of thing. When layering is needed, I’ve realized I can paint with some expression in the underpainting itself, then glaze and scumble over in thin layers, keeping some of the original gesture expressed in brushstrokes of the underlayer.

      I was recently at the Timken Museum in San Diego, and I noticed in the old portraits a common tendency: brown transparent darks, but thicker, opaque lights that looked as if they’d been painted directly. The paintings I looked at were a Rembrandt, a Hals, a David and a Rubens. I’m thinking that this basic procedure was the common practice; the procedure described in the original post – glazing of Indian yellow over reds and greens – upon further research appears that it may have been an invention of Sir Joshua Reynolds. More as I find out more!

      Thanks again – please follow along, I promise I’ll start posting more regularly again!

  7. alev guvenir Says:

    Thank you so much for your feedback. I will continue to follow. Best,

  8. Back to the Student Palette « Sunsikell Says:

    […] readers may remember the posts on the so-called verdaccio technique from some time ago, and may see a connection here. I have long been thinking of getting back around […]

  9. Paul Baswell Says:

    The original recipe for Verdaccio is mars black it would have been called Vine Black Italian Yellow ocker (not the synthetic Americana version not enough red) and lead white there is no red.
    Also Real Alizarin Crimson is Red Lake not the synthetic stuff and its only fugitive if its mixed with and color that has Bromine or calcium which are mixed in most modern paints as fillers.( read the painters chemical Bible he explained the hole thing). There are many brands of pure quality Williamsburg or Gamblen just to name two that do not use these fillers.. If you note in most of the old text they say only to glaze with red lake this is to avoid the fugitive quality’s of the paint ones it is dry you can put paints containing the aforementioned chemicals over it with out this impermanence taking affect. I am well studied in this technique Adrian Gottlieb dose not use a true Renaissance technique though its technical skill is not in question for aesthetic beauty..

    • llawrence Says:

      Paul,

      Thanks for commenting. Mars black is, of course, a fairly modern pigment (didn’t enter common use until the nineteenth century); vine black is something very different. (Mars black is a synthetic iron oxide, vine black is made from calcined young grapevines and similar.)

      I have read in several places that madder lake does better in light when painted as a glaze. Personally, I think it’s likely that a glaze of madder fades just as much, but that when applied as a top-level glaze the fading simply doesn’t impact the picture as much. Which alone is reason enough to practice as you say. But this is all conjecture on my part; the lightfastness testing of glazed vs. mixed madder lake is on my agenda, but it’s still in the future.

      I hadn’t thought to try the same thing with alizarin crimson, but now that you mention it, I will. I’d been wanting to compare alizarin with natural madder anyway. Word now is that natural madder, contrary to older wisdom, actually ages better than alizarin. When I finally get around to doing the tests I’ll find out for sure.

      I agree that Gottlieb’s method can produce excellent results, as I’ve seen some of them. I’m still working on my own version of this (almost there, actually).

  10. Paul Baswell Says:

    yes modern Alizarin is pretty unstable Hollben makes a natural version that is much longer lasting their words not mine yes the mars i use is made by Williamsburg and is in fact made from grape vines its pretty green when mixed with Italian Yellow oker not the synthetic yellow the artist Chemical bible has all of this info well tested and vary detailed there is over a 100 years of test data there

    • llawrence Says:

      Paul, the Williamsburg Mars Black is Mars black – PBk11 synthetic iron oxide. It’s not vine black. The closest thing they have to a vine black would be their Lamp Black (still not quite the same thing).

      I couldn’t find any information about Holbein’s alizarin crimson being more stable. When you say ‘a natural version,’ that makes me think of madder lake, and they definitely don’t have that in their lineup. I’m curious… do you have a link you can post for us?

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