Underpainting

work in progress
   
Underpainting, iron oxide (test pieces)
watercolour, acrylic paint, paper, plaster, 2019

UNDERPAINTINGthe provisional and the indeterminate

Verdaccio is an underpainting technique and specific paint colour – a soft green-grey, yellow, brown. The vagueness of this colour description relates to the variable component parts and proportions of the mix. Recipes from the 14th century include references to vine black, Italian yellow ochre, lead white, raw umber and red ochre. In Renaissance frescoes, verdaccio was used to create single colour underpaintings, where chromatically it supported the overpainting of pink flesh tones. Left visible in some architectural features, the verdaccio underpainting occupies both a structural and sub-structural role in the composition.

Sinopia, a dark reddish-brown earth pigment, is a traditional colouring matter used for preparatory paintings and underdrawings. Other descriptors for the colour include red ochre, Venetian red, Spanish red, ocra rosso, terra di Sienna – all describe iron oxide, an earth pigment with ancient precedents. The first pigments used by early humans were ochres, and iron is the principle ingredient of all of them. The temporal register of the colour source shifts dramatically in this context – it is both foundational and fundamental.

I would like to claim that both fresco and underpainting techniques generate a withheld surface, and it is this witholding that sets up an oscillation between surface and substrate. The relationship between painting and ground is made indistinct through a process of absorption and submersion. Embedded physically in a cave, crypt or place of worship, frescoes have a material weight that contradicts their status as image surface. Perhaps this is why their study and conservation is steeped in the language of archaeology and geology – excavation, mapping textures, sample fragments, mineralogical techniques.

The durational characteristics of fresco are both numerous and complex. Materially, pigments are bonded into the matrix of the plaster offering long-term durability. In the short-term, technically they involve speed and precision – as Vasari noted in his Lives of the Artists (1568), “painting on the wall is the most masterly and beautiful, because it consists in doing in a single day that which, in the other methods, may be retouched day after day, over the work already done”. The temporal layers of fresco occupy multiple dimensions, where vertical seams and joins on the wall demarcate daily sections; and, on the horizontal plane, multiple layers contain the evidence of earlier paintings – preparatory images, restorations, revisions and preparations.

The idea of a painting as multiple-strata-composite, resonates with the techniques of transparent oil painting – as Sylvana Barrett and Dusan C. Stulik (Getty Conservation Institute) comment on the Flemish and early Netherlandish masters, “These artists conceived of the painting from its inception as a multilayered object with a structural separation of color and form. Volume, developed through highlights and shadows in a monochromatic underpainting, was followed by color embellishments”. Here, conservation and technical art-historical analysis subjects the multi-layered object to macroscopic scrutiny in search of meaning, insight and authentication – insubstantial layers thick with data.