Notebook, 1993-

MATERIALS & METHODS - Painting - Fresco

Limitations & Advantages - Painting Procedure - The Wall - Sketches, Cartoons, Transfer - Secco Painting - Brick Walls - New Walls - The Aggregates - The Lime - The Mortar - Making the Lime Putty - Mixing the Mortar - Intonaco - Brown Coat - Plastering the Wall - Rough Cast / Trullisatio - Sand Finish

Pigments - Brushes & Tools - Bianco Sangiovanni

Pictured here is: "Wall-painting with partridges and hoopoes. Knossos, Caravanserai. 15th-14th century B.C." - Odysseus [Minoan Wall Paintings at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Greece]

F r e s c o

Fresco (Italian: 'fresh') - A method of wall-painting in which pure powdered pigments, mixed only in water, are applied to a wet, freshly laid lime-plaster ground. The colours penetrate into the surface and become an integral part of the wall. This technique is also called buon fresco or fresco buono (true fresco) to distinguish it from painting on dry plaster, which is called by analogy fresco secco or simply secco . Buon fresco is exceptionally permanent in dry climates, but if damp penetrates the wall, the plaster may crumble and the paint with it. Consequently the art has been practised chiefly in dry countries, particularly in Italy (though not in Venice), and seldom in northern Europe.

The technique is of great antiquity. Minoan and Greek wall-paintings were probably in fresco; those at Pompeii certainly are and the Roman writer Vitruvius describes a method much like that in use during the Renaissance. Fresco painting is also found outside Europe, for example in China and India. The Italian practice was described in detail by Cennini in the early 15th cent. The wall was first given a coating of plaster, prepared from lime and sand in water. On this rough surface (the arricciato ) the design was drawn in charcoal; next the assisting lines and some fo the main contours were incised, and the outlines and shading indicated with pigment mixed in water; thirdly the lines of the design were painted in a red ochre called sinopia , which was the chief red used in fresco (the other important red, cinabrese, was a mixture of sinopia and lime white). Until the introduction of the cartoon c.1500 the design was worked out directly on this first plaster ground or copied from a small sketch. A layer of finer plaster, called the intonaco , was now applied over one section of the rougher arricciato . This was the actual painting ground and was made very smooth. Each day just so much of the design was covered with the intonaco as could be painted on that day; no more, because the plaster had to remain wet during the painting. On this small area of fresh plaster the design--perhaps a head or a draped figure--was first drawn with the brush in verdaccio , a mixture of black, lime white, and cinabrese . Flesh parts received an undercoating of terra verde , a green earth pigment. The actual flesh tint was prepared in three tones by mixing cinabrese with varying quantities of lime white. For the drapery, or other parts where modelling had to be indicated, similar sets of three tones were prepared, as in the tempera painting of the time. Since blending was difficult, the final effects were produced by hatching. Finishing touches were sometimes added after the plaster was dry ( al secco ), but this of course had to be done with egg tempera or size paint instead of pure pigment and water. Vasari called it a 'vile practice' and the parts done al secco were liable to flake off, but many of the greatest practitioners of the art resorted to it.

The fresco painter thus had to work rapidly, before his plaster could dry; corrections were almost impossible, and he needed a sure hand and purpose. Further he had to work directly because his preliminary design was covered by intonaco. The colours available to him were few-- in the 15th and 16th cents. painters believed that only natural pigments were suitable for fresco--and apt to become lighter in drying; depth of tone was unattainable. But these difficulties and limitations themselves encouraged him to design his subject broadly and treat it boldly, and did much to foster the purity, strength, and monumentality of Italian Renaissance painting.

Giotto was the first really great master of fresco, and thereafter many of the leading Italian masters produced works in the medium; Masaccio, in the Brancacci Chapel, Florence; Piero della Francesca in S. Francesco, Arezzo; Raphael in the Stanza at the Vatican; Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel; Correggio in his work at Parma; Annibale Carracci in the Farnese Gallery. It became less common in the 18th cent. and Giambattista Tiepolo was the last in the line of great Italian painters who used it. It was revived in the 19th cent., notably by German painters such as the Nazarenes and Cornelius, but some notable decorators, such as Delacroix and Puvis de Chavannes, preferred to use the method of marouflage. In the 20th cent. the greatest exponents of fresco have been the Mexican muralists Orozco Rivera, and Siqueiros.

[Chilvers, Ian, Harold Osborne, and Dennis Farr, eds. Oxford Dictionary Of Art. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.]

Fresco - The procedure of applying colors to a wall of damp fresh lime plaster is called buon fresco painting. The pigments are usually ground only in water and painted thinly on the fresh plaster. As the plaster dries, the pigment particles are locked into the surface of the wall. Examples of the fresco technique survive from the Minoan period [1700 B.C.], the Pompeian period [100 B.C. to A. D. 79], and, of course, from the Renaissance. Contemporary fresco methods have not departed in any fundamental technical way from the ancient practices. More than any other painting technique, fresco painting has been associated with the aesthetic and technical problems of architectural decoration.

The painting in fresco becomes part of the surface of the wall, not an additional film. From this fact it derives some of its strongest advantages. When it is used by an artist who understands its potential and limitations, it can embellish and emphasize a wall surface and give the effect of having been made to the exact requirements of the room in which it has been placed. Because of the absence of a glossy impasto, it can be seen well from many points in the room without the interference of the annoying glare that is characteristic of a large varnished oil painting .

The general idea that a fresco must be a crowded, overpowering painting, involving hundreds of figures posed in heroic attitudes, ignores a large part of the past production in the medium. Fresco has served as a vehicle for ideas of great solemnity and fervor, as shown in the great Pompeian murals at the Villa dei Misteri, but it has also produced [p. 169] decorative, almost chic, effects in some of the Minoan frescoes at Knossos. The variety of effects possible in fresco is easily demonstrated by a comparison of the Mantegna frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua, the Pompeian frescoes of putti in the house of the Vettii, Goya's frescoes in the dome of the church of San Antonio de la Florida, and the murals of Orozco.

The difficulties and limitations of fresco are perhaps better known than are the advantages of the medium. They too derive from the role of the wet lime plaster in the painting procedure. First, the fresco palette is limited to those colors that are not affected by the strong alkaline action of the lime in the plaster. Also, since the pigments are not encased in a wax or oil binder, they are somewhat vulnerable to atmospheric impurities, such as hydrogen sulfide, and thus still more pigments are eliminated from the fresco [p. 170] palette. In addition the colors change considerably as the plaster dries out, and it requires more advance calculation to judge the ultimate color effect than is needed in many other techniques. Also, one can work in true fresco only as long as the plaster remains wet; therefore corrections and second thoughts are somewhat more troublesome to execute in this medium than in others. Finally, the fresco is, in almost all cases, permanently installed in the building and so is only as permanent as the wall on which it is painted. Moving a fresco is a much greater problem than moving an easel picture. Consequently wartime destruction and peacetime redecoration have taken a considerable toll of the important frescoes of the past.

Since the fresco technique involves important differences from conventional easel painting at every step of the procedure, it is best learned by firsthand apprenticeship to an experienced fresco painter. The following account of fresco painting is intended only as a general outline of the technique which may serve to interest some painters in its possibilities. Olle Nordmark's book Fresco Painting gives a detailed account of the tools, materials, methods, and equipment of the fresco painter. A knowledge of these details is necessary to anyone who wishes to undertake serious work in the medium.

[Kay, Reed. The Painters Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983. pp. 169-171]



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