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

Fresco - Limitations and Advantages

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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