Fundamentals of Fresco Painting
A difficult technique with unique artistic results
When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only had to stand with his head craned backwards and his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.
Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of the Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.
The second quality of fresco is that it must be made with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again. This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear-sighted designs.
One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.
The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.
In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.
If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.
With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for “plaster”) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.
If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.
The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.
Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.
The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.
In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.
The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.
Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.
Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the seccomethod.
Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.
When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.
The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.
The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.
One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.
Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.
In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.
Narcissus was not going to be an exception.
Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.
As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.
He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.
At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.
Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.
When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.
We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.
Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.
The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.
This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.
It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.
This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.
If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.
Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.
Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.
Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.
Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Sibyl Went from Sketch to Finished Painting
A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored
When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.
The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.
Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.
Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.
The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.
The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.
For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.
The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.
This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.
The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.
Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.
One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.
This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.
The Libyan Sibyl
Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.
The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.
Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.
The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.
The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.
The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”
The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.
Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.
Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”