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What Is Fresco?

Fresco is an ancient art form where water-based pigments are applied onto freshly laid lime plaster, creating a vibrant, enduring image that becomes an integral part of the wall. This technique has adorned the walls of civilizations for centuries, capturing moments of history in vivid detail. Curious about how these timeless masterpieces are created? Dive deeper into the world of fresco with us.
Karize Uy
Karize Uy

Fresco is a painting technique wherein the paint is applied to a plaster wall, or the “intonaco,” that is still wet, so the wall absorbs the color of the paint while drying. This method makes the painting permanently set on the wall, evidenced by a matte, less shiny finish, as opposed to applying paint to an already-dried wall. Paintings usually done this way are usually on a larger scale than the usual paintings, which is why spacious walls are preferred surfaces. Probably the most famous fresco paintings are those on the ceiling of the Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel, where the Renaissance man Michelangelo painted many of the Bible’s most prominent stories and characters.

The meaning of the word “fresco” in Italian is “fresh,” most likely in reference to the fresh and still-wet plaster wall as the canvas. Historically, frescoes can be dated as far back as 30,000 years ago, when frescoes were seen in some limestone caves in France and Spain, with paintings of animals such as horses, lions, bison, and even the extinct mammoth. The use of plaster made of limestone began in 1500 BC and became prevalent in the Mediterranean regions like in Egypt, Greece, and Morocco, where the frescoes have religious purposes, as many of them were seen in tombs and burial sites. Samples of plaster painting were also found in some Asian countries, such as in India and Turkey.

The Sistine Chapel's ceiling holds perhaps the most famous fresco paintings.
The Sistine Chapel's ceiling holds perhaps the most famous fresco paintings.

Aside from the fresh plaster wall, another important component of a fresco painting is the paint itself. Traditionally, the paint is made from naturally-derived ground pigments, which are then mixed with water. The paint is then applied to the wet plaster by a brush, and both components are dried at the same time. Usually, the painter, or the “frescoist,” draws the general outline of the painting with red chalk or the “sinopia.”

Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous painting, “The Last Supper,” using the a secco type of fresco method.
Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous painting, “The Last Supper,” using the a secco type of fresco method.

There are three general types of frescoes, depending on the freshness or wetness of the plaster surface. The first type is the “buon fresco,” literally translated as “true fresh,” because this type uses the wettest plaster for the surface. Mixed with water only, the pigment is applied on the wet plaster, which fully absorbs the paint while it dries. To ensure its wetness, the plaster is applied on the wall part by part, according to how much work the painter can finish in a session.

The second type is the “mezzo-fresco” or “middle fresh,” as the plaster is only slightly wet, but dry enough for fingerprints not to be formed. This method allows only a moderate absorption of the paint. The “a secco,” or the “dry” type of fresco painting, uses dry plaster for the canvas, and this requires another binding agent for the pigment other than water, such as an egg yolk, oil, or glue. This allows the paint to bond with the wall, but does not really allow penetration. Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous painting, “The Last Supper,” using the a secco method.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a fresco, and how is it created?

A fresco is a type of mural painting where pigments are applied to wet plaster, allowing the colors to become an integral part of the wall's surface. The technique involves spreading a layer of plaster, called the intonaco, onto the wall and painting on it while it's still damp. This method, known as 'buon fresco,' ensures the artwork's durability, as the pigments chemically bind with the plaster as it dries.

Where can some of the most famous frescoes be found?

Some of the most renowned frescoes are located in Italy, with the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo in Vatican City being one of the most famous examples. Other notable frescoes include those by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" in Milan, and the extensive frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

What are the different types of fresco techniques?

There are primarily two types of fresco techniques: 'buon fresco' and 'fresco secco.' Buon fresco involves painting on wet plaster, which results in a durable and long-lasting image. Fresco secco, on the other hand, is painting on dry plaster, which allows for greater detail but is less durable. Artists sometimes use fresco secco to retouch buon fresco paintings once the plaster has dried.

How has fresco painting evolved over time?

Fresco painting has a rich history that dates back to ancient civilizations like the Minoans and Egyptians. It reached its zenith during the Renaissance in Italy, where it became a preferred medium for large-scale church and public space decorations. Over time, fresco painting has evolved with artists experimenting with different styles and techniques, but the fundamental process has remained consistent due to its proven longevity and the unique texture it provides.

What are the challenges associated with preserving frescoes?

Preserving frescoes poses significant challenges due to their vulnerability to environmental factors such as humidity, temperature fluctuations, and pollution. Over time, these elements can cause the plaster to deteriorate and the pigments to fade or flake off. Conservation efforts must be carefully planned and executed by professionals, often involving climate control, meticulous cleaning, and sometimes even detachment and reattachment of the fresco from the wall for restoration purposes.

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    • The Sistine Chapel's ceiling holds perhaps the most famous fresco paintings.
      By: Marco Desscouleurs
      The Sistine Chapel's ceiling holds perhaps the most famous fresco paintings.
    • Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous painting, “The Last Supper,” using the a secco type of fresco method.
      By: Juulijs
      Leonardo Da Vinci created his famous painting, “The Last Supper,” using the a secco type of fresco method.