THE SACRED ART JOURNAL
A Publication of the St. John of Damascus Association of Orthodox Iconographers, Iconologists, and Architects
FRESCO HISTORY AND TECHNIQUE
by Richard and Deborah Zuccarini
Church of Kurbinovo, Yugoslavia.
Although painting in fresco continued to be part of the basic training of artists; Francisco Goyo (1746-18288), for instance, painted in fresco, his famous piece, Saturn Devoring his Son, is a detached fresco fragment glued to canvas; it eventually became only part of the decoration of homes and churches. In the Baroque era, fresco became decorative ornamentation, used to merge the spectator space with the imagined space of mythology and allegory. In the gran salon vault of the Palazzo Barberini, Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) created a fresco that is for Roman Baroque painting what Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel is for Roman High Renaissance painting, the
grandest and most complete statement of its aesthetic ideals. Ornate architectural framework is all painted in three dimensions, figures escape their frames, the whole is breathtakingly dense. In Triumph of the Name of Jesus (II Gesu, Rome), Giovanni Battisti Gaulli (1639-1709) took the small step to convert Pietro da Cortona’s simulated spaces into three dimensional reality. Here, colorful three dimensional stucco work is combined with painted forms and superimposed on the architecture.
Baroque opulence gave way to the lighter, more personal style of Rococo. Fresco became even more of a decorative device, appearing as singular figures in corners and small scenes on ceilings. Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) used fresco for many decorative works in homes. Eventually the process was nearly lost.
At the beginning of the 19th cent. a group of young German artists formed a brotherhood to live and work in common, motivated by a desire to revive the religious brotherhood of St. Luke of the Middle Ages. Eventually they called themselves the Nazarenes, a name originally used by others in derision. They moved to Rome and lived in an abandoned cloister, S. Isadoro, where they became stylistically influenced by the High Renaissance. They felt that monumental fresco was exactly the thing to express their aesthetic ideals and, after much searching, were able to find one Italian old-timer who could give them the rudiments. They convinced patrons to allow them to experiment and today there are frescoes in the Zuccari Palace in Rome and in several places in Berlin. The influence of the Nazarenes was considerable. They were the first secessionist art movement ever created; stylistically, they helped create the classical style of painting. More importantly, to our minds, they kept fresco alive.
Recently, a fresco by Paul Gauguin (1843-1903) was discovered and Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was known to have bewailed his lack of knowledge of it. But, for the most part, fresco went the way of decorative art in general, few artists remembered its use and only Italian craftsmen kept its memory. Fortunately, they kept it long enough for Diego Rivera (1886-1957) to learn the technique during his travels to Italy, where he also absorbed the compositional
structure of wall painting in general. These skills he brought back to his home in Mexico and used them to help create what is now known as the great Mural Renaissance of Mexico.
Rivera, in turn, influenced and trained artists who eventually made up the W.P.A. in the United States, the government program which was responsible for so much of the nation’s monumental art. Many post offices, for instance, have been adorned with murals, some of which are frescoes. It is his method that we learned from his apprentices, Stephen Dimitroff and Lucienne Bloch. Muralists in their own right, they have frescoes all over the country, from San Francisco to Flint, MI, to New York City, and have passed their knowledge on to many students. A mural-sized fresco is a cooperative effort and demands, at least, one person to plaster while another paints. However, small, portable frescoes are possible for one person to attempt and we hope our instructions offer a no-tears, step-by-step process to make them.
Assembling the materials will probably be the hardest part, but if you go to a good supply house you should be able to purchase all the construction supplies at one time. You will need:
1. Lime. Must be high in calcium. Quicklime will give you the highest calcium content, but is very dangerous to handle, so I recommend a hydrated high-calcium lime. Bell-Mine is a good brand.
2. Expanded metal lath. Any metal used must be galvanized to prevent rust.
3. Portland Cement. Pure white.
4. Orange Label Sisal Paper.
5. Sand. Three (3) grades of clean, angular sand (or marble dust):
·#16 — or rough — for the first (or “scratch”) coat
·#18 — or medium — for the “brown” coats
·#20—#30 — or fine — for the intonaco (or painting) coat.
Sand comes in different colors, all of which will change your painting base color. White marble dust will give you a very white, sparkly finish; browner sand will tone down your finish some. During the Renaissance, many artists used volcanic sand, which left a slightly blue-grey surface. Experiment to find the background you like best.
6. Tools. The minimum you will need are:
· One 4 1/2 x 11-in, plasterer’s trowel
· One 5-in, pointed or square hand trowel
· One wood float.
Once you have the lime at home you must slake it — that is, put it into water. You will need a plastic container with a lid, a new, clean garbage can works well. Fill about one third with water and sift the lime through your fingers into it, until it peaks. Add water and more lime until the container is full; cap it, and put it aside — somewhere where it won’t freeze — for a minimum of three months. This is done to prevent cracking; the longer lime slakes, the more elastic it becomes. Renaissance masters wouldn’t use lime less than three years old — but one month will suffice.
Now we have plenty of time to work on drawings and panel construction. Drawings are done to scale and a full-sized cartoon should be made. Once sizes are determined, panels can be made. This can be done any number of ways. I use particle board or plywood, exterior grade, 3/8-in, thick works well, up to about 24-in, square panels, 3/4-in. thick works up to about 4 x 8 foot. Anything larger constitutes a wall, and does not fall within the realm of this article. Each wall creates its own set of problems. I cut the panel to size and frame it with lattice to protect the edges, barbed nails or screws work best. Then I lay down a piece of Orange Label Sisal Paper to prevent the flow of moisture in either direction. Over this goes the metal lath, trimmed to size with tin snips, which is attached with U-shaped nails or staples, galvanized or stainless. Now you are ready for plastering.
Plaster is applied in five coats to a combined thickness of 5/8—7/8-in. This many coats are applied for three reasons: to give strength, to prevent cracking, and to extend the life (or painting time) of the final coat.
The first coat consists of 1 1/2 parts mixture of #16 and #18 sand or marble dust, one part pure white Portland Cement, and one part lime putty (slaked lime). These must be mixed and beaten until fully incorporated. The cement will cause this mix to harden, so don’t mix up any more than you can use in a short time.
Plastering is a learned craft, and difficult to explain without physical demonstration. The angle at which the trowel is held is most important, too steep and you will draw the plaster, too flat and the trowel will stick and pull the plaster up. Use the largest trowel for most of the plastering, the smaller will help a-round the edges. Plaster must be applied in long even strokes, smoothing as you go. Start at the bottom and work up. A firm hand is needed as plaster should be applied with as much pressure as possible. Each coat must be worked in all directions to insure against cracking. All this may sound vague, but after you have had some practice it will make sense. The first coat should be thoroughly scratched I use a small piece of the metal lathe as a comb and scratch in all direction. This should be given a few days to fully cure.
The next three (“brown”) coats consist of two parts #18 (medium) sand or marble dust, and one part lime putty. This mixture will not set up unless exposed to air, so mix up enough for all three coats and store in a bucket with a little water floating on top, covered to keep out dirt and dust.
The first coat must be wet down before the application of the second. I use a plastic squeeze bottle. Stand the panel on end and start at the top, letting the water soak down. You want the surface wet but with no standing water. The second coat is applied in the same manner as the first — worked in all directions — to a thickness of about 1/8-in., and “floated.” Floating is done by first wetting the wood float, then placing it flat against the surface, working in a circular motion, with light pressure, over the entire surface. Let the float do the work. It will smooth the high spots and make low spots evident. Work at the surface, taking plaster from the high spots and adding it to the low spots, until it’s a smooth, flat plane. This must also sit a few days to cure.
The second coat must be wet down before the application of the third. The third coat is applied, worked, and floated in the same manner as the second, and allowed to cure. In mural painting this coat is called the sinopia, where the drawing is enlarged, drawn on over the entire wall, corrected for perspective and other errors, all in red ochre pigment and water. The sinopia is then used for tracings of the work to be done each day. Because painting may only continue as long as the plaster is still wet, each “days work” (giornata) consists of the size area the artist can paint in about an eight hour period. After tracing, the final two coats are applied over just the area to be painted that day. While this is being done, the tracing is perforated. After the polishing of the intonaco is completed, the tracing is lined up in its place and pounced with a small cloth bag filled with black pigment. This transfers the drawing onto the finish surface with neat, black, dotted lines to follow. For panels small enough to be painted in one sitting, a full-size cartoon will be enough, as it may be perforated for final transfer, omitting the sinopia altogether.
It is imperative to have your cartoon and colors prepared before the final coats of plaster are applied, because the plaster will be drying — and time spent doing something else is lost painting time.
The proper pigments for use in fresco are oxides of metal, mostly earth colors — vine black, red ochre, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, raw sienna, viridian green, yellow ochre, terre verte (green earth), Mars yellow, Mars black, Venetian red. The pigments must be lime-proof and sunfast. Lime is caustic and will burn through most organic or man-made pigments; yet some more primitive methods have lasted 3,000 years. So, if you pay attention to details now, you will produce a piece of work that will be around a very long time. Daniel Smith, out of Seattle, produces a line of good quality pigments. All of the above are available through him.
Pigments must be ground in distilled water to a state of suspension — that is, until each particle is completely surrounded by, or suspended in, water. I find this takes about 20 minutes for the softer ones and up to an hour for the harder ones. For grinding, I use a four-pound glass muller and a piece of glass, about 18—24 in., square. Place the muller over the pigment and work in a circular motion. Every so often draw the pigment back to the center with a palette knife and start again. Water may be added as needed; you will find a point where the muller just floats over the pigment, this is the correct wetness. To test for suspension keep a small jar of water on the side and touch a small amount of color to the surface; if it floats, it’s ready. Care should be taken to make sure the colors are kept clean. If they are kept wet they may be stored in jars indefinitely for later use. If they dry out, they must be reground.
Now, with all things assembled, we are ready for the final coats and, at last, painting. The third coat must be wet down before the application of the fourth coat. The fourth coat is applied, worked, and floated in the same manner as the third. This must be left alone after application, 15 minutes to an hour (depending on conditions) until set. The fifth and final coat consists of one part #20 sand or marble dust, and one part lime putty. NOTE: the fourth and fifth coats together are called the intonaco.
The final coat of the intonaco is applied as thinly as possible as it is only for smoothing the surface. Care should be taken to keep the trowel clean so as not to deposit any large aggregate or foreign matter into the intonaco, wipe the trowel off in between swipes. It should not be worked too much, smooth as you go. Use a side light to locate and remove all streaks and low spots. No floating is done to the intonaco, rather it is polished. In order to polish the surface properly, it is necessary to file the 4 1/2-in. end of your large trowel to a rounded edge. Once the intonaco is set, gently, using a tap and draw motion, beat the surface with this rounded edge. This will bring up the flat side of the angular aggregate and draw the lime up around it. A very hard, flat, and smooth surface may be obtained in this manner.
To test the surface for painting readiness, a brush dipped in water may be stroked across it. If the water is directly absorbed, the surface is ready. If it lays on top, you must wait. When the surface is ready, the cartoon is laid on top, correctly lined up, and pounced. If you prefer, the drawing may be gently incised into the plaster by drawing over the cartoon lines with a pointed, blunt tool, in which case you dispense altogether with the perforations and pouncing. A side light is essential for this method; both ways of transferring are visible in most wall-sized frescoes.
Much has been written about the application of color. I will give you some tips and some traditional rules, you should use what suits you best. I find that cheap bristle
brushes work best. Ox hair and sable are too soft and hold too much water. Also, they are expensive and, over a period of time, lime will eat whatever brush you use. Depth is best achieved by setting one’s values first. For this I prefer to use black, although I have seen other colors used. Pigment is applied thinly with water, waiting 15 to 20 minutes between coats, allowing the crystallization process to lock-in each layer. Once the “shadows” have been laid in, the color is traditionally applied in a hatching, cross-hatching manner, layer-upon-layer, light-to-dark, the white of the surface remaining bare for the lightest lights, being certain to wait the prescribed time for crystallization between each coat. The colors are transparent it may take several coats to achieve a decent shade. Hues and shades may be mixed either on the palette or on the surface through layering. If a little lime is mixed with the pigment it will become more opaque. Work until you feel the brush begin to drag on the surface. This means the plaster is too dry and any color applied after this point is likely not to adhere. If five coats of plaster are used, you should get about six to eight hours of painting time. If your work does not require this amount of time, fewer coats may be used. Never use less than three coats; use coats 1, 4 and 5, which will give you from two to four hours. Upon curing, the lime will whiten, and you may expect up to a 200/o color loss. This becomes more of a problem on day-to-day color matching when painting a large piece, but should nevertheless be dealt with accordingly on any size piece.
Frescoes are found all over the world in many artistic traditions: Tibetan monasteries abound with them; the Indian fresco buono is similar to the methods we use; Pre-Columbian frescoes are found in the New World; the Chinese of 3,000 years ago painted on lime-plastered walls of straw and cow-dung. In fact, the technique of painting with lime and pigment is so wide-spread, and so uniformly ancient, that no one knows who first thought of it. The raw materials are geographically fairly common and easy to collect and process. To take simple, everyday materials, sand and stone and colored clay, and mix them together to create long-lived works of incredible beauty is to partake in the magic of alchemy. We hope you are able to glimpse this magic through our brief introduction.
SELECTED LIST OF WORKS CONSULTED
Cunningham, Lawrence S., and John J. Reich, Culture and values: a survey of Western humanities, 2nd ed. New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1990. 2 vols.; see vol. 1.
Dimitroff, Stephen Pope, Apprentice to Diego Rivera in Detroit and fresco workshops manual, Stephen Pope Dimitroff, 1986.
Mora, Paolo, et al, Conservation of wall paintings, Glasgow, Butterworths, 1984.
Sporre, Dennis J., The Creative impulse, New York, Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Studenica, trans. Milica Hrgovic, Beograd, Knjizevne novine, 1968