Verdigris

(Grünspan, vert-de-gris, verderame)

virdigris

Origin, History and Characteristics

Verdigris is the common name for a green pigment obtained through the application of acetic acid to copper plates or the natural patina formed when copper, brass or bronze is weathered and exposed to air or seawater over a period of time. It is usually a basic copper carbonate, but near the sea will be a basic copper chloride. Today, it is only rarely sold as an artists pigment due to its toxic nature. Verdigris was the most vibrant green available until the nineteenth century.

Green glazes of verdigris were commonly used in oil paintings of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries for the depiction of saturated green colours of drapery (see detail image below) and foliage. Today, these glazes are often covered with a brown layer and sometimes the whole glaze has become brown. Verdigris was consistency mixed with the same pigments; lead white, lead-tin-yellow and yellow ochre. Leonardo da Vinci had was not in favor of the use of verdigris in oil painting given that the pigment has a certain tendency to fade. He wrote around 1492:

The green colour made of rust of copper, Green made of copper, even when this colour is mixed with oil, loses its beauty like smoke if it is not quickly varnished. It not only goes up in smoke, but if it is washed with a sponge dipped in simple, ordinary water, the verdigris will disappear from the panel on which it has been painted, especially in humid weather. This comes about because verdigris is made from salt, which dissolves easily in rainy weather, and especially when it is bathed and washed with the sponge…

Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait
(detail of the green robe glazed with verdigris)
Jan van Eyck
1434
Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm.
National Gallery, London

"In his encyclopaedia of 1694, Pomet noted that French unrefined verdigris was mainly exported to Holland. After Pekstokk had refined it into a purer product it was re-exported to France. Thus Pomet claimed that all the distilled verdigris on sale in Paris actually came from either Holland or Lyon.

"Yet, until well into the seventeenth century, it appears that artists seldom purchased this remarkably pure ready-to-use distilled verdigris. A price-list of pigments purchased by painters in the De Mayerne manuscript only mentions 'ordinary' verdigris and not the distilled pigment. Inventories of four seventeenth-century Dutch shops specialising in the sale of artists' materials suggest that there can hardly have been any demand for distilled verdigris from painters. These shops had increasingly taken over the sale of pigments from the apothecaries."1

In seventeenth-century Holland, verdigris was not among the most expensive pigments, such as ultramarine and high quality red lake, which ran into several guilders an ounce, but among the mid-price pigments, which included indigo and yellow lake.2

Verdigris in Vermeer's Painting

Verdigris has been found in only two of Vermeer’s paintings, once beneath la ayer of natural ultramarine of the tablecloth of Maid and Mistress and again under a layer of brilliant blue paint of jacket of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Ige Verslype, who restored the latter work in 2010-2011, hypothesized that the underlying layer of verdigris was meant to intensify the upper layer of ultramarine of the woman's blue jacket.

  1. M.H. van Eikema Hommes, "Verdigris Glazes in Historical Oil Paintings: Instructions and Techniques", dissertation: Discoloration in Renaissance and Baroque Oil Paintings. Instructions for Painters, theoretical, Concepts, and Scientific Data, 2002, p. 85.
  2. M.H. van Eikema Hommes, 2002, p. 86.