From The Artists Studio
Rockaway Artists Alliance
Fresco – Where Art And Science Merge
by Susan Hartenstein
The art of fresco is reported to be the oldest known form of painting, considered during the Renaissance to be the “mother of all arts.” Fresco painting is an art form that harkens back to the ancients of Egypt, Crete and Greece and is still practiced today. Frescoes can be found on the walls of second century catacombs, in pre-Christian caves and in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in China. Some of the great artworks of the world are painted in the fresco technique. Revived in the 13th and 14th century in Italy on church walls painted by Cimabue and Giotto, it continued to flourish in the 15th century with artists that included Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. It reached its zenith in the 16th century, with Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Palace and Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and Genesis in the Sistine Chapel. Continuing in Europe through the following centuries in the hands of artists such as Tiepolo, in the 20th century some of its most important practitioners worked in Mexico. Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco were two of the greatest of these, painting works of social and political significance in their country and the United States.
The drama, romance and fascination of the true fresco technique, or buon fresco, is that the work of art is not painted on a surface support-like canvas, but becomes a permanent part of the wall or ceiling and, in turn, part of the fabric of the building.
The artist, in a real sense, is also a scientist. Through chemical bonding of pigments with freshly laid plaster, the colors integrate with the surface as it hardens. The artist must be a master of these chemicals, their crystallizing times and other properties, for the finished product to have the intensity, permanence and brilliance inherent in the medium. It should be remembered that in Italian, “fresco” means “fresh.” The traditional Tuscan Renaissance method of fresco painting is still very much alive. The past is connected to the present through artists of the modern era such as Guido Nincheri, whose work can be found in venues that include St. Ann’s Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
To begin a fresco, full color paintings or drawings are made. They include a full-scale, exact sized drawing that will be transferred to the wall or ceiling. This is known as the cartoon. Then, layers of plaster are spread on the wall, each layer more finely textured than the last. The trullisatio is the first and coarsest. Its irregular surface helps the following layers to adhere. Several layers add strength and prevent cracking. Each layer is allowed to cure for several days before the succeeding layer is applied. The last and finest-textured layer is the intonaco. It is laid each day in sections, once the fresco process begins. The mestiche are prepared in advance. They are jars of distilled water or limewater mixed with finely ground pigment that will be used in the entire fresco. They are mostly earth tones. Interestingly, lime is a caustic alkali. When mixed with certain colors, that include azure and ultramarine, it will cause those pigments to break down. Therefore, those colors need to be added á secco, after the fresco hardens. A special undercoat is laid down first, before the colors are painted on.
As a guide for the final painting, a sinopia or sketch of the fresco derived from the initial drawings or paintings is brushed onto the arriccio, the next to last layer of plaster. The cartoon is cut up into pieces, each piece guiding a day’s work. To begin the fresco, the intonaco is laid down and smoothed in a giornata, a section that will take one day to plaster and paint. When that plaster is firm enough, the design from the corresponding section of the cartoon is transferred to the wall by pricking holes in the outline through which a fine pigment powder is dusted, or it is cut into the plaster with a stylus. Two or three hours after first laying the intonaco, water brushed on the plaster should be directly absorbed, not rest on the surface. Painting can now begin. It will continue for a few hours until the surface can no longer absorb pigment. In order for the fresco to have a unified appearance, that is, for each day’s work to match all the other day’s work, the artist must be able to anticipate how the color will absorb, drying and changing daily as the plaster cures. Fifteen to twenty minutes is allowed between glazes of paint. Thus, crystallization can take place to lock in each layer. The resulting crystalline finish is glossy and vivid. In the words of contemporary fresco artist Ilia Anossov, “the color becomes one with the plaster.” Any errors that need to be corrected after a day’s work cannot be wiped away. They must be chipped away.
Fresco painting is an exacting art and an exact science. It is time consuming and requires a thorough “working” knowledge of the properties of the materials involved and an ability to work rapidly and correctly while plaster is still wet. But, when done properly the result is a work of great beauty and permanence.