What is the Verdaccio Technique?

The Verdaccio Technique is an underpainting technique that originated with the early Renaissance Italian muralists.

This formula is applied by mixing black, white, and yellow ocher. Cuong Nguyen explains his method for creating realistic portrait and figure paintings. Cuong Nguyen - Pastel Live

Nguyen is on the faculty of the upcoming Pastel Live virtual art conference. This action-packed 3 days includes everything you need to succeed — from expert art instruction to career-level strategies and advice. [learn more about Pastel Live here] 

On Color Theory and Painting Realistic Portraits

BY CUONG NGUYEN
(www.icuong.com)

When I started sharing on social media my green foundation technique for skin tones not too long ago, I received a lot of questions about this method. Many people ask me where this formula came from and how I learned it.

Many of you will be surprised to learn that I discovered this method when I was a street painter.

Verdaccio Technique for portrait painting
This is one of my chalk murals on asphalt, using  the Verdaccio method. Based on this technique, I have created a formula that help create human skin tones color that is natural and vibrant.

THE VERDACCIO TECHNIQUE

Verdaccio is an underpainting technique that originated with the early Renaissance Italian muralists. This formula is applied by mixing black, white, and yellow ocher. This mixture will give a greenish-gray color, which is very effective for the darker shades of human skin. The Verdaccio technique was used by the artists as a value study that creates a foundation for the richer colors and details added later. Today we can still recognize this formula in the famous works of Italian artists, especially evident in Michelangelo’s famous “Sistine Chapel” mural.

Throughout history, producing realistic skin tones has proven to be one of the greatest challenges for portrait artists. Remnants left on murals and oil paintings on wood in 13th century Italy prove that since the Middle Ages, painters have been constantly searching for a recipe to mix human skin color. They already knew that if green was used as a background, the flesh tones drawn on it would “pop out” in a more convincing and authentic way.

Green is a complementary color to red, and placing these two together or on top of each other in a picture can create a very effective effect. Green can also diminish some shades of orange or pink tones. From this initial awareness, Verdaccio’s technique of foundation painting was formed.

However, this Italian technique has similarities with one used by Belgian oil painters. Belgian artists using the “dead layer” technique will start with raw umber and yellow ocher, then coat it with shades of white to olive green to black. This creates a feeling that the color will become transparent when the last skin color is added.

Painting street art - chalk portraits
The street painting festival in San Rafael, near the city of San Franciso, is one of my favorite festivals. This is a portrait of actress Vivian Leigh (starring in the popular movie “Gone With the Wind”), which I drew in 2014 at San Rafael festival.

FROM THE ASPHALT TO PAPER

In 2000, a friend invited me to join a street painting festival in San Rafael, California. At first I was a bit hesitant, because I had never painted on asphalt. Thanks to my friend’s encouragement, I decided to sign up to participate. The first chalk painting I drew was actually very small, only 4 x 6 feet, but at that time, it felt so huge to me. It took me three days to finish this very first piece.

Since then, I participated in many street painting festivals in the United States. My works are portrait-oriented. What I noticed is that the skin color of the faces in my painting was a bit red and was not very real.

Madonna of Peace detail
Detail of “Madonna of Peace,” painted in 1490 by the painter Pinturicchio. This is an oil painting on wood, owned by the Pinacoteca civica Tacchi-Venturi gallery in San Severino Marche, Italy. The painting is one of the few works signed by the young artist. You can still clearly see that the artist used the Verdaccio formula as a background for this picture.

After noticing this problem, I started doing some testing. I learned about the Verdaccio technique and I thought, if green foundation has been used successfully in oil painting, then it might work in pastel as well.

To put it simply, the technique of using green as foundation is based on a fundamental principle of coloration. Green is the complementary color of red. If you put these two colors side by side, they support each other and make both stand out. For colored skin, green creates a cool tone, like green veins underneath the human skin.

After applying the technique of using green as foundation to my street paintings, I saw a very positive result. The skin tone of the portraits in my paintings became more life-like and vibrant. As a result, I have won many street painting contests in and outside the USA.

Verdaccio Technique for portrait painting
Portrait of Mina – using Verdaccio as foundation. Pastel pencil on sanded paper.
Verdaccio Technique for portrait painting
Based on the basic principle of the Verdaccio method, I apply the green color as foundation for Alex’s portrait. You can clearly see the effect of green as the underpainting when the drawing is finished: Alex’s skin tone looks realistic and rich in colors.

Realizing the magic of this technique, I focused on how I could produce a formula that is similar to the technique I’ve been using on my street painting, which could be applied with pastel pencil on sanded paper. It took almost three years to experiment, but I finally came up with a very simple and extremely effective formula. I have taught this formula to many students in many countries around the world. My greatest joy is seeing even students who were previously afraid of color applying my technique to take their work to a new level.

Learn even more from Cuong Nguyen at Pastel Live! Register by June 30 and save up to $500. The event is August 19-21, 2021, with a beginner’s day on August 18. See the current faculty list at PastelLive.com.

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