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Friday, January 21, 2011

Fresco Painting

Over the last few months I've mentioned fresco painting once or twice. I've never talked much about exactly what it is. The term is Italian for fresh, probably referring to the fresh, wet or at least damp plaster into which the pigments of a fresco painting must be applied. As painting goes, historically, it was the highest realm to which a painter could rise. This was probably because it is a most unforgiving medium in which to work. Errors of judgement must either be darkened or the plaster ripped down. Basically, it is like watercolor, minus any binders, applied transparently into the wet lime mixture used to plaster the surface to be decorated.   

Jonah, Sistine Chapel fresco,
 1471-84, Michelangelo
As one might guess from such a modus operendi, as much time and energy went into planning the work as actually creating it. The overall scheme of things had to first be decided, rendered on paper in great detail, drawn to scale, then full-size drawings called "cartoons" created on massive sheets of paper, usually in charcoal.  Following this, a number of means were used  for actually transferring the images to the wet plaster. Some artists merely cut up the cartoons into the various shapes they were using and dabbed a little paint around the edge in a stenciling manner. Others created an image in the plaster with the handle of the brush by making an impression through the cartoon.  Still others made tiny holes about an inch apart all around the outline though which was daubed black soot, leaving a dotted outline of the figure.   
The real drawing though was done with the paint brush.  The artist had to literally draw in color inasmuch as only the barest of details could be outlined into the plaster. Here the artist's instincts ruled. Perhaps the most difficult part was that the work had to be created from a distance of perhaps only a foot or so from the surface yet be visually coherent from perhaps a hundred feet away.  Perhaps the closest thing in existence today is the work of those hearty fools who climb up on the flimsiest of scaffolding and paint billboards for a living.   

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