Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Elephant No. 283: Fresco

Years ago, I was so keen on trying fresco that I bought a book. Unfortunately for me, buying a book often equates to having done the activity. So I've actually never tried fresco. My excuses are many: no appropriate wall, too messy, too involved. And, of course, the best excuse: if I can't do it in the traditional way, I don't want to do it at all.

A fresco is a painting on a plaster surface such as a wall or ceiling. Occasionally created on smaller surfaces, or even three-dimensional objects, frescoes have been produced since antiquity in all parts of the world.

Painting of Buddha, ca. 200 B.C., Ajanta Caves, India.

The word "fresco" means "fresh" in Italian, and refers to the fact that the technique involves applying paint to a wet plaster or lime mortar surface. When using wet plaster, the technique is called buon fresco, meaning "true fresco", and the plaster surface is called intonaco (Italian for "plaster"). Because of the chemical composition of plaster, the pigment will sink into the wet surface and be absorbed. As the plaster dries and reacts with the air, the pigment particles become fixed.

Frescoes can also be produced on dry plaster. This is called à secco ("dry") and, because the plaster has already set, a binder must be used to ensure that pigments bond to the surface. Traditional binders include egg, glue and oil. For anyone who paints on a surface primed with gesso (traditionally a plaster-based product), you're actually using a sort of ersatz à secco fresco technique.

Sometimes the techniques are combined, with à secco added on top of buon fresco. This became standard practice in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages, as did à secco on a dry, blank plaster wall. In general, buon fresco is far more durable than à secco.

Frescoes at the Villa of the Mysteries, ca. 65 B.C., Pompeii, Italy.

Interestingly, some pigments work only in the alkaline environment of fresh lime-based plaster, and some work only on a dry surface. Blue was particularly difficult in buon fresco, so blues were often added à secco.

There is also an intermediate form of fresco called mezzo-fresco. This is painted on nearly dry plaster—traditionally, moist but firm enough not to take a thumbprint. Mezzo-fresco allowed the pigment to penetrate only slightly into the plaster. By the end of the sixteenth century A.D. in Europe, mezzo-fresco had replaced buon fresco, and was the primary technique among artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Tiepolo.

Because plaster dries relatively quickly, artists working in buon fresco or mezzo-fresco could only do a small amount each day. A thin layer of plaster generally requires ten to twelve hours to dry and cure. Because artists had to wait an hour after the plaster had been laid, and had to stop about two hours before it dried, they had a period of about seven to nine hours to work.

Artists thus applied only the amount of plaster they could paint in a day—an area which became known as the giornata (or "day's work"). A wall-sized fresco could have as many as twenty separate giornate. Over the centuries, these separate areas have often become visible, in part because the border between giornate was often painted a secco, and the paint has since flaked off.

Visible giornate in fresco by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Venice.

In addition to painting the surface, skilled fresco artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael sometimes scraped into certain areas while the plaster was wet. Michelangelo, for example, was famous for creating indented outlines around his main figures before beginning to paint.

The earliest type of fresco is likely à secco, which was commonly used to paint the walls of Egyptian tombs. The earliest-known examples of buon fresco date to around 1550 B.C., and were found on the island of Crete. It is thought this form of fresco may actually have originated on Crete, later spreading around the Mediterranean basin. In Ancient Rome it was quite common to paint a fresco as a wall was being finished, making the painting an integral part of the wall itself, rather than a later work of art layered on top.

One of the world's most famous ancient frescoes, Palace of Knossos, Crete, ca. 1550 B.C.
Photo: SCALA/Art Resource, New York

Frescoes were also common in Asia. Some of the most outstanding frescoes in Asia are found in India's Ajanta Caves. Painted between 600 and 200 B.C., the frescoes feature stories from Buddha's life. Another elaborate series of Asian frescoes are found at Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka. Painted in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., they are considered medieval masterpieces.

The Ancient Maya also created paintings using a buon fresco technique, developed independently of European traditions. And, although Islamic fresco is rare, there are some fine examples at Qasr Amra, the eighth-century palace of the Umayyads in eastern Jordan.

Bloodletting Ritual, ca. A.D. 790. Temple of Murals, Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico.

Frescoes were particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Across Europe, many churches still feature fresco decoration, as do private homes and official buildings. Some of the most famous frescoes in the world are found in Vatican City, including Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which covers some
929 square metres (10,000 square feet).

Although fresco virtually disappeared following the Renaissance, it enjoyed something of a resurgence during the twentieth century. Much of this was due to artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, whose wall-sized frescoes led to the art movement known as Mexican Muralism.

The north wall of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" mural, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Today, there are fresco schools around the world training artists to produce new frescoes, as well as to repair existing ones. Many older frescoes have been damaged over time, partly due to neglect, partly due to vandalism, and especially due to moisture. Moisture is a particular problem in a city like Venice, which is built on a lagoon, but is also a problem in tropical countries, where a combination of heat and rain can wreak havoc.

Water damage to a fresco by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Venice.
Photo: © CNR-ISAC

Fresco still strikes me as quite daunting, but I decided to try it anyway for today's elephant. I bought a little wooden plaque to use as my surface, and decided to go the buon fresco route, just for the experience. I'm sure I will end up with mezzo-fresco along the way, and maybe even a secco, but I was determined to start with wet plaster.

I decided to work from a photograph today, just to see how detailed I could be. This is the photograph I chose:


I began with basic plaster of Paris, which I mixed to a relatively wet consistency. I've mixed plaster many times before to patch our home's lathe-and-plaster walls, and I always find it a bit tricky to get it right. Too dry and thick and it's likely to crack. Too wet and it flakes off. Sigh. I did think briefly about using a pre-mixed drywall compound, but I had no idea what weird fillers it might contain.

I didn't like the idea of making the edges perfect on this admittedly boring plaque, so I spread a thin, but rather eccentric layer of plaster. I smoothed it out a little, but I didn't care about having a perfectly flat surface.

Having no idea how fast I would need to work, I made sure my paints and brushes were already at hand. I decided to use blocks of artist-quality tempera paint, because I wasn't sure if the binder in acrylic paint would prevent it from sinking into the plaster properly.

While the plaster was still quite wet, I traced the general outline of the elephant. This gave me very soft depressions, rather than lines. For sharper lines, I would have needed to wait until the plaster was less wet. I wasn't sure if that would affect my ability to apply the paint, however, so the softer lines suited me fine.

I started with relatively thick paint to lay in some darker outlines. I was surprised at how easy this was. Although the plaster was quite wet, the colour remained on the surface in fairly precise lines. For lighter shades, I used a more watery paint with very little pigment in it. This made the plaster more watery as well, but that meant I could manipulate the surface texture, which I liked.

I kept painting with the blue until I thought it looked about as good as I could get it. I found the colour a bit bland, however, so I added a bit of black.

I still found it bland, so I added touches of orange and green to make it pop a little more.

The photograph below shows what it looked like when still wet. One thing that worried me was that the wooden backing had developed a slight warp—due to the moisture in the plaster, no doubt. I had no idea what this might mean as the wood dried. Perhaps the plaster will crack and pop off the board completely. It was going to take a few hours for this to cure completely, so it wasn't something I'd necessarily know in time for this blog entry.

If you decide to try this, here are a few tips.

1. I found it best to start with plaster that was about the consistency of buttercream frosting. At this consistency, it spreads nicely, but is still firm enough to work on almost right away.

2. To ensure the best bond between the backing and the plaster, mist the underlying surface very lightly with water before applying plaster.

3. For sharp lines, use saturated paint and a fine, relatively dry brush. For softer lines or shading, use a more watery paint and a wider brush. When the plaster is quite wet—whether because it's still very fresh, or because you've added water somehow, the paint will sometimes bleed and bloom.

4. Watery paint will reactivate the surface even after the plaster has begun to dry, so be prepared. When the surface became soft from a bit too much water, I used the brush to push the plaster into new lines and textures.

5. The more the surface dries, the more the paint will have a tendency to sit on top of it. When the surface is almost dry to the touch (but still soft enough to imprint with a finger), wet paint will suck into the plaster. You can use this to your advantage in creating washes.

I was shocked at how easy it was to make a fresco. It's actually a far more forgiving technique than I expected. I thought my brush would mostly push the plaster around and drive me crazy, but as long as I used a light touch, the plaster stayed put. And if I did want the plaster to move, that was also possible.

I didn't have a wide selection of colours in my inherited blocks of tempera paint, so I didn't play with colour as much as I might otherwise have done. If I were keen on drawing out this experience and turning this little elephant into something more painterly, I would probably try some mezzo-fresco as it dries, and even add fine details with an à secco technique.

It took me less than an hour from mixing the plaster to completing the painting, so it's definitely something worth trying. It wasn't near as messy as I expected, and I could have had hours of working time, if I'd wanted.

As a first experiment with what is often considered the most challenging form of fresco, this little elephant was surprisingly simple. It's no Renaissance masterpiece, of course, but it was so painless that I'm sorely tempted to try fresco on the walls of our house. Probably best to start with the wall leading to our unfinished basement.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Despite the fact that elephants were quite uncommon in medieval and Renaissance Europe, they were popular elements in frescoes.

Sometimes the elephants were part of heroic scenes, often featuring the exploits of Hannibal and his elephants. Sometimes they were included to commemorate a royal elephant such as Abul-Abbas.

One of my favourite European frescoes featuring elephants, however, is much more humble. Tucked away on a lower wall in the choir of the Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption in Gourdon, France, is a lone elephant.

Clearly drawn by someone who had never seen an elephant, the figure is the sole surviving fresco on the choir's lower wall. Although it is known that this charming little elephant was added to the church sometime during the twelfth century A.D., no one seems to know why. Perhaps it was a bow to the dimly remembered renown of Charlemagne's elephant. Perhaps it was because the story of Hannibal was still widely told. Or perhaps it was once part of a larger series of animals recalling the biblical story of Noah's ark.

Either way, the Gourdon Elephant, as it is sometimes known, is now considered an important French fresco. It has recently been restored, along with many of the church's other frescoes and carvings.

Elephant in choir of Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, Gourdon, France.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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