A technique closely related to grisaille is verdaccio. Verdaccio is an Italian term and its root is the word verde, which means green in Italian. Originally defined as a color or mixture of colors, verdaccio is now often thought of as a method of underpainting in greenish tones. This technique is very close to a tempera technique, where the flesh areas were underpainted in greens.
Below is Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Most consider this painting to be a profound example of a verdaccio underpainting. It is also a textbook in chiaroscuro.
So exactly what color is verdaccio?
Cennini, in his Treatise on Painting (Il Libro dell’ Arte, c. 1437) mentions verdaccio numerous times, most of them regarding fresco:
. . . make verdaccio, one part of black, and two parts of ochre.
. . . with ‘verdaccio’ made of black, dark ochre, light red and white. Next, the shadows are painted with terra-verde (green earth).
Vasari (The Lives of the Painters . . . vol. 2, c. 1550) references Cennini but also defines the color as ‘a green colour made of ochre, white and cinabrese‘ (which is light red).
Eastlake (Materials for the History of Oil Painting vol. 1, c. 1847) considered verdaccio to be a dull green.
James Ward (The History and Methods of Ancient & Modern Painting, c. 1914) states that ‘verdaccio was a compound green colour employed by the Florentine painters . . . It consisted of a black and yellow ochre, and was used . . . in the underpainting of flesh tints, in a semi-transparent manner on a white ground.’ Earlier in the book he claims that terra verte (an earth green) was used very much by the Italians as the first or ‘dead-colouring’ layer in flesh painting.
Daniel Thompson, in The Practice of Tempera, c. 1962, describing brown colors for tempera says:
“Cennino mixed his browns out of black and white and yellow and red; and called the mixture ‘verdaccio’.” The word verdaccio means a nondescript greenish color, and this is just what Cennino’s mixture produces. Black and white and yellow ocher give olive greens, and adding a little earth red turns them into greenish browns. Adding more red kills the green, of course; so presumably Cennino’s verdaccio covered a range of brown to olive. It was definitely not a fixed color.”
The lighter areas in the detail (above and lower right) are the initial verdaccio layer. Monitor calibrations differ but in person these light shadows have a slight, cool greenish tint. Over this layer, a warmer and darker layer is evident. This brownish-tint is still translucent and therefore the optical result is affected by the verdaccio layer underneath.
Some question whether this painting is actually finished. One theory is that Leonardo was in the early stages of experimenting with a chiaroscuro technique and once he reached this stage in the painting he felt no need to continue.
Leonardo’s teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, only used tempera and therefore the verdaccio technique. There is good reason to believe that this is the method which Leonardo was taught. Evidence gleaned during restorations of his oil paintings show that some of his oil paintings are underpainted in tempera. The legend is that Verrocchio brought the technique of oil painting back to Florence after a trip to Venice, even though there are no known oil paintings attributable to him.
The painting below (The Baptism Of Christ in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence) is attributed to Verrocchio and Leonardo (painted while Leonardo was Verrocchio’s assistant). The angel in profile on the left and some of the background is thought to have been painted by Leonardo. These parts of the painting are in oil or oil over tempera. The rest (Verrocchio’s parts) are in tempera.
Whether grisaille or verdaccio, the main purpose is to orchestrate your drawing and values before worrying too much about color. For some, a strong secondary purpose is using this underpainting as a base for glazes.