Sometimes I like to take my students to museums around where I live and talk to them about various old master techniques. One stop on my tour is always a portrait of a man by one of Rembrandt’s students, Jan Lievens.
It excellently shows all of the lessons a Rembrandt can demonstrate, yet is orderly enough in its execution that with careful examination the students can have an “Oh I get it!” moment. These “aha” moments are, I find much fewer and far between with Rembrandt, whose techniques are so intuitive that they can be extremely frustrating to piece together from raw examination alone. I also like to show my students Portrait of a Lady by Johannes Verspronck for its Verdaccio principles.
Here are the four steps to the Verdaccio technique:
1. The drawing in paint. I work on top of a warm imprimatura that is closest to burnt umber in color, and actually rather dark in value. I try for the color/value of the imprimatura to be the approximate color/value of the shadows of my main subject. When the imprimatura is fully dried I will draw in a similar color.
2. The piambura. In this step I build up the whites thinly so that the finished painting has a luminous and translucent effect. With this step I also create a blueprint for value and form right from the beginning.
3. The Verdaccio technique would be particularly advantageous for a bright figure against a relatively dark background. I would paint this layer in greens and pinks in a higher value key. The technique wouldn’t be quite so helpful where the subject matter is affected by multiple ambient factors, such as numerous reflected lights, or, more simply, a figure standing outside in the sun against green pastures and with the blue sky lighting up the shadows. In that case I think it’s much better to just paint what you see.
4. Final glazes for the Verdaccio technique. I execute these in thin transparent layers, usually opting for various lakes or colors similar in transparency and tint.
IMPRIMATURA: Italian for first paint layer; the initial stain of color painted on a ground and left visible in areas over subsequent transparent layers; usually made with an earth color like burnt umber
PIAMBURA: the lead white base that gives faces their luminosity
VERDACCIO: Italian for a green color that is part of the direct painting stage; the technique of underpainting in verdaccio became known as Verdaccio. Gottlieb uses chrome oxide; some artists use terra verde or a mixture of black, yellow and white.
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