Fresco isn’t just a wall painting

“Daniel,” a detail from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, a fresco painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.

     If you read “The Da Vinci Code” you probably saw the word “fresco” in reference to painting.  But what exactly is a “fresco?” 

     If asked to define a fresco, most people would say that it’s a mural, or “wall painting.”  True, but real fresco is a wall painting of a special kind.  And murals are not frescos.  A mural can be painted on a wall in any of several techniques, including acrylics and oil paints.  Most murals today aren’t painted right on the wall, but are painted on canvas or huge specially prepared boards and then glued or mounted to the wall.  That makes them murals, but they are not frescos.

     When people visit Italy for the first time, they are sometimes surprised to find that some of the paintings they are familiar with from reproductions in books actually cover enormous wall surfaces, the same surfaces into which they were originally painted.  Notice that we use the word “into.”  True frescos are actually painted INTO the wall, not onto it.

     A real fresco is actually part of the wall.  The painter works with pure pigment, using only water as a medium to hold the pigment.  Timing is essential, because the artist paints directly on a fresh plaster coating as the plaster dries.  If the wall is still too wet, it won’t accept pigment; if it’s too dry, the pigment won’t enter the plaster and will powder off later on.  The painter must complete the work during the few hours when the surface is just dry enough to suck in the pigment and just wet enough to combine its own moisture with the water containing the pigment.  During those few hours, the plaster will absorb the pigment a fraction of an inch below its surface, and will hold it there.

     The fresco painter plasters only as much of the wall as he expects to be able to cover that day.  The next day he has to chip away any unpainted dried plaster and lay on a fresh area next to the finished work.  Every day’s work must be completed that day; it’s not possible to go back and make corrections or paint into yesterday’s work to unite it with today’s. 

     The fresco painter has to have the whole scheme visualized in detail before he works on any part of it.  If the color of any area must be changed, even slightly, he has to chip off the offending part and start over again. 

     An additional complication is that the color changes as the plaster dries.  The fresco painter is painting two pictures at once; one a picture in the colors he sees as he paints, and the other a picture in the colors he’ll see the next morning when the plaster has dried.  He has to match yesterday’s colors by remembering how they looked before drying, an extremely difficult task.

     Finished fresco paintings share the fortunes of the building itself.  It may be neglected, abused, or cherished.  If the wall cracks, the fresco cracks.  A fresco is so organically united with architecture that you have to be present in the building to get the full impact of the painting.  Mere pictures in a magazine or book do not give us a sense of the wall and location that are a vital element in fresco painting.

     Ironically, the author of “The Da Vinci Code” was in error when he called “The Last Supper” a fresco.  “The Last Supper” was an experiment by Da Vinci using tempera painting on DRY plaster.  ON, not INTO.  The painting took four years to complete and it was a disaster.  Humidity caused the paint to separate from the plaster on which it was painted.  Whole pieces of paint fell off the wall almost immediately, and it continued to flake and deteriorate for hundreds of years.  After 20 years of effort, modern experts have managed to more or less stabilize the piece, but it is a faded, blurry replica of the original painting.  If Da Vinci had used the true fresco technique, “The Last Supper” would still be as gloriously brilliant as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling fresco is today.

cc SOURCE: Art-to-Art Palette Journal print edition

Published by on December 2012. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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