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.
Nguyen was on the faculty of the 2021 Pastel Live annual virtual art conference. This action-packed 3-day event 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
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.
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.
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.
After noticing this problem, I started doing some testing. I learned about the Verdaccio technique and I thought, if the 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 the 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 a 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.
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.
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