Fresco is a fairly simple art that takes little time to master. There is an added bonus in the  simplicity of materials.

Benjamin Long IV Fresco in Charlotte, North Carolina

Getting Started

To get started you will want to have a vague idea of what you want to draw. Will your fresco include people, or just objects? Either or both will need to be gathered and studied. If you have no background in fine art portraiture you may want to spend a few years on this to improve your technique and understanding the complexities of shadow, musculature, and draping. No biggie. If you can’t find a master to dedicate at least a decade of study under, a youTube video or two should do the trick. 

Next you will want to find a place to put the fresco. You can wing this, but please note, if you want the fresco to last forever, as they are apt to do if constructed correctly, a solid support structure that can handle a few tons of cured limestone application is best.

Sign in the foyer of Haywood Street, Asheville, introducing the wall that will become The Fresco

Arriccio

The mixture for the initial layer of fresco, the arriccio, is a combination of sand, water, horsehair, and ivory finish lime.

The slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) is quicklime that water has been added to. If you are unable to find this at your local hardware store you can make your own, just be sure to have the proper enormous underground storage containers for it, and don’t blow anything up. When you add water to quicklime (calcium oxide) it quickly heats up to 572 degrees until all the oxides of calcium and magnesium have converted to hydroxides. That reaction will melt most containers, not to mention irritate your lungs and your eyes. Please be careful. 

After you’ve aged your slaked lime a few years, you can add the horse hair and sand for grit. Horse hair can be a little tricky to find in large quantities  – you may want to make friends with a horse groomer, or three.

The back of a metal frame showing a prepared layer of plaster.

This initial layer of arriccio needs to cure for at least 6 months. While it does you can sit back, have a drink, take a vacation, or get to work on refining the sketches for what will be in your final painting.

For the sake of simplicity we’ll say that your fresco will contain a few people, as most do. Generally now is the time to get them to sit for a few hours while you draw their portraits, trying to bring life to their image, understand their souls, and translate that through charcoal and paper. Something like this:

Haywood Street artist drawing of Blue

If they won’t sit, or you don’t feel like it, you can draw from a photograph or memory, something like this:

Once you’ve rendered their likeness you can begin to draw the entire composition, which will later become what’s called a ‘cartoon’ – a full sized drawing you will later trace for application upon the actual wall. This cartoon will be a display of the tone of the work, ensuring that the composition is even and flows comfortably, moving the viewers eyes through the different aspects in a pleasing manner while also transferring deep meaning, perhaps about our relationship with God, nature, the universe, each other, or the meaning of life. Or perhaps it is just about your love of waterfalls or your mother. Whatever it is, ensure the composition makes some aesthetic sense. 

Cartoon

After completing your sketches you can move on to the large cartoon. ‘Squaring Up’ is a traditional technique used by artists through the ages to scale up and transfer pictures. Grid out your composition into small squares and then draw them into larger squares proportionally. The Egyptians used squaring over 5,000 years ago, and it was used by the masters of Fresco during the Renaissance as well. Like every architect has blueprints, a cartoon ensures the dimensions, perspectives, depths are mathematically and visually correct.

Frescoes need to be visually correct both close up and far away. A key method used by the Renaissance masters is the technique called ‘foreshortening’ – creating the illusion of space within a painting or drawing by object compression, as well and use of light and shadow. The cartoon is where you will work out all the structural and technical elements of the painting, composition and shading

First though, you’ll need to find paper the correct size, which shouldn’t be difficult if you painting is small. If it’s more than three feet you may have problems sourcing large enough paper but artists have found success in Florence, Italy, where Fresco is more commonly painted. After all, the word cartoon is from the Italian ‘cartone’ meaning large sheet of paper or card.

Once completed this drawing is traced (again, if the cartoon is smaller tracing paper of adequate size won’t be a problem – however if you are covering a wall of any size you may run into sourcing problems). 

Sinopia

The intricate tracing of the cartoon is imperative so it can be transferred to the prepared wall. The outline of the drawing on the tracing paper is pin-pricked and dusted with powder or ‘pounced’ – transferring the drawing onto the prepared wall. During the renaissance the artists pricked the original cartoon and transferred it directly to the wall. You are welcome to do this to save time, but it is recommended that you don’t destroy the cartoon in this manner as it is a good reference to have after you have plastered over the sinopia to paint.

Sinopia is a dark reddish earth hue – named after Sinop, the city it originated from. It is traditionally used to pounce the wall and create the initial underlayer drawing, which is also called the Sinopia. This full drawing will be plastered over, and will be visible again only if the entire Fresco is removed from the wall. 

Artist Christopher Holt working on the Sinopia of Haywood Street Fresco, June 2019

After the underdrawing, or Sinopia is finished, plaster is applied over it in only the amount that can be painted in a day. This varies based on the difficulty of the painting and the skill of the artist as well as the planning that has been done before hand. 

Once you have transferred the cartoon, you are ready to plaster and paint! You have your plaster and paint ready, right? 

Color

I know I promised that fresco was simple, and the color is in fact one of the most simple parts. Fresco uses natural pigment, and unlike oil, acrylic, or tempura, there is no medium to be mixed – simple! You just need to source the pigments, such as raw umber, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, not to mention blue, which natural or synthetic is tricky mix with lime and have take to the wall without washing out completely. 

If you can’t find an art store in the US with the pigments you need, there are some great stores in Italy. If you’re smart you’re been racking up frequent flyer miles with all the supplies you’ve purchased so far and are due for a trip.

Natural ground pigments in Holt’s studio in preparation for The Fresco

With color there are somethings the masters would recommend. First – the colors must be ground very finely, to the perfect consistency, using a grinding slab. You cannot grind too long or too fine. If it is not ground fine enough, it won’t ‘pull’ correctly or the lime plaster may not take it. Also, planning and mixing your colors, and testing them out well before you paint the final fresco on the wall is a good idea, since the colors take a while to develop on the wall – you’re initially painting somewhat blind and may be surprised by the end result – which if incorrect will have to be chiseled from the wall and redone. 

Pigments and grinding supplies

As you have limited time before the plaster sets and you can’t add any more paint, it helps to have your colors planned out so you can have them mixed with distilled water and ready in a pallet while you execute that day’s painting.   

Plaster

The plaster, which has been aged for at least 2 years, needs to be mixed with some sand into a perfect consistency, then applied to the wall in just the area you expect to be able to paint in 10-12 hours. This is the amount of time the plaster will ‘pull’ the paint – if it is too wet or too dry it simply won’t allow you to paint on it. It’s good to figure out how much you can do in a day before hand, whatever isn’t done after it dries will have to be scraped off in a ‘day line’ – and the next day more plaster will be added up to that line. Again, planning can be helpful before this stage – perhaps figuring how to draw your ‘day line’ around buildings or people’s heads, as the line will be evident close up as a light line and works better for the composition if it’s not through someone’s nose or the middle of a beautiful swath of color. 

Buckets of aged plaster
Artist Caleb Carr practices the ‘dayline’ in preparation for The Fresco

Time to Paint!

Once you’ve put your plaster for the day up on the wall it’s time to paint! In a few hours. It’s probably too wet right away to take any paint – it will just spit it back at you. You need to trace your design up there, again, anyway. To do this cut the piece away from your tracing cartoon that has been pricked with holes, and line it up, perfectly, on the wall. If this piece isn’t lined up perfectly the entire composition you’ve spent months on will be messed up. Once it is in the exact position, pounce the pin-pricked holes with sinopia (you pricked the tracing with holes, right?). After you do this you can remove the tracing, and connect the dots. 

Pounced tracing from Cartoon

Take note, you can either use the sinopia to trace, or, if the red tone will not work for this particular piece (as you can’t erase or paint over color) another traditional technique is using Verdaccio – Mars Black and Yellow Ochre. Verdaccio was used for architectural elements of Renaissance paintings as well as skin tones, and can be seen most famously in the framed architectural elements of the Sistine Chapel. The underpainting can be used to paint in shadows and details. 

Now you can paint.

Hopefully in 8-10 hours you’ll have something you’re proud of. Then get your rest – because depending on your composition you’ll be up again to plaster and paint tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Hopefully you’re not covering 5,000 square feet like Michelangelo (that took him four years).

Remember, it’s okay if you mess up! You can just chip away your entire days work and start again tomorrow. 

Holt testing colors for The Fresco

Before you know it – Voila! You’re be done. Congratulations on your masterpiece.

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