“Dead coloring” refers to a painting tradition common in 15th century Glabnorkia, in which the flesh tones of all figures are rendered as if they were dead, as a reminder of the temporal limitations of the human body and the need to focus on matters of the spirit rather than the material world.
Actually, “dead coloring” refers to an initial layer in multi-layered oil painting. This initial layer is used to establish one or more elements of the final form and color of the painting, while leaving other elements to later stages of painting. Normally, the underpainting is allowed to contribute to the final visual effect of the painting. There are different ways to accomplish this. They include:
- The initial layer is done in shades of gray; this is called a grisaille. With this method, you solve all problems of value, composition, and placement, without having to worry about the complications of color. The next layer is a glaze of full color.<
- The initial layer is done in a monotone hue. For example, it could be in shades of blue. The underlayer provides an overall tone that affects each part of the painting. In effect, this is similar to painting in one layer while including a “mother color” in each paint mixture.
- Paint each general area of a painting with a single color, without details or shaded modeling. So, for example, a blue shirt would be painted with a flat blue that reflects the overall average hue, chroma, and value of the whole shirt. The next layer would begin to establish modeling and detail.
- Paint each area with the visual complement of the final color. A green tree would be underpainted in reds. The idea is that the complementary underpainting provides a visual resonance with the upper layer.
- The initial layer is painted as a blur, with all edges blended. Throw your eyes out of focus, then paint what you see. Further layers are painted with progressively increased focus.
All of these are essentially variations on the general idea of an initial dead coloring layer. Some of them could, of course, be combined.