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What are Frescos or Fresco Paintings

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Florence cathedral dome

Florence cathedral dome

What is it?

Frescoes or Fresco paintings are simply put a method of wall painting. It's gone by different names in cultures around the world. In buon fresco(true fresco), pigments are mixed with water and applied to a damp lime-plaster(intonaco) and with water, the plaster absorbs the pigments and binds forming a picture as a permanent part of the wall.

The word fresco (Italian: affresco) is from the Italian adjective fresco meaning "fresh".

Even though 'Fresco' was mainly popularized and recognized through art in the renaissance era, these paintings actually date back their roots into ancient Egyptian, Aegean, and Indian lineages in different names.

From cave drawings to biblical instances, these paintings could be found around the world. The first known painting was found in ancient Egypt which dates back around to 3500–3200 BC, and the Investiture of Zimri-Lim found in ancient Mesopotamia (Syria) is another important painting that is now being displayed at Musée du Louvre, similar paintings have been also found in India around 200 and 600 BCE in the Ajantha caves.

Many acclaimed artworks such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rapahel's Vatican Stanza, The creation of Adam, are examples of Fresco art. These paintings are significant as they represent the works of the renaissance and other works in Europe which shaped the world we live in today.

How are Frescos made

The intonaco (plaster) is applied in sections called giornate, these are the artist's estimates of how much to be painted before the plaster sets. The layer called arriccio (layer of coarse plaster) is added below the area and will be given some time to dry. Artists sketch their compositions above this layer.

These kinds of paintings are hard to craft due to the drying nature of the layers. A layer will require ten to twelve hours to dry, and once it is dried, no buon fresco can be done. The unpainted intonaco must be removed before starting again the next day.

The range of hues used in fresco paintings is limited to lime resistant pigments such as earth colors which include:

  • Raw Umber
  • Red Earth(Iron oxide)
  • Green Earth
  • Raw Sienna

For white shades, ingredients such as slacked lime (burnt lime mixed with water), Bianco di San Giovanni (slacked lime that has been partly exposed to air), and chalk are used.

Examples of Fresco Brushes

  • Tondo- Round hog hair-brush
  • Muccini- Dome-shaped hog hair-brush
  • Riga- Pointed Hog hair-brush

Dry Fresco

Secco or fresco-secco(dry fresco) is another variation of this which is done on dry plaster. The pigments used in this require a binding medium, such as egg or glue which helps to attach the pigment to the wall. Even though Buon fresco is more popular a secco painting lasts better due to the roughened plaster, and a true fresco provides a much smoother texture. Authorities and artists have used secco works on a true fresco to cover up the wear over time and the missing hues.


The Dawn and Dusk of Fresco

Frescos were considered as a grand way for painting during its time, and thus it was used by the top tier of artists and was mainly used for the noble and the clergy across all cultures, and were found in chapels, temples, and palaces. This is evident from Indian palaces and temples which depicted Ramayana, Mahabharata, and many others from the holy Vedas.

During the renaissance, Europeans (especially Italians) were the ones who truly embraced this art and integrated them into their culture. When we study history we can see that at the time artists were given high importance as we see with Michaelangelo, DaVinci, and Raphael who were known as the "Big Three".

This made the artists of the time venture into new incredible works and create wonderful paintings for cathedrals, kings, and more.

Even though the paintings were mainly focused on biblical instances and about royalty, these artworks gradually paved humanity's way out from the old dark age of the medieval era and ensured the growth of all walks of life as years passed.

Changing Times for art

But since these kinds of paintings were quite expensive, more people switched to drawing on canvas, and also due to limitations of certain hues which weren't available because of the alkaline nature of the plaster.

The emergence of colonialism also pushed the artists to switch to canvas and this is how Fresco artworks became less prominent through time.

But since the 70's there have been several artists reviving these paintings, and in recent years, artists like Claire Tabouret, Pierre Yovanovitch have included Fresco paintings, and we hope this may gain traction in the following years.

Let me know which is your favorite piece of Fresco painting


© 2021 Jeevan Maria

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