What Is A Fresco Painting? Exploring This Timeless Art Technique

what is fresco painting

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Today, let’s talk about an ancient mural painting technique that is over 5,500 years old! Fresco.

A craft that has definitely experienced many upheavals throughout the centuries, some of which we may not even know about yet!

After all, there are still fresco paintings from millennia ago being unearthed to this day from some of the most ancient civilizations on Earth.

Want to learn the secrets of this ancient craft? Keep reading!

What Is a Fresco Painting?

Fresco painting is an ancient wall painting technique. The word fresco, derived from the Italian word “affresco,” meaning “fresh,” describes the process in which an artist paints pigments on freshly plastered walls and ceilings.

what is a fresco painting?
Fresco Painting by Battistello Caracciolo

This type of technique does not have a known inventor, but it has been seen in various countries worldwide throughout the centuries.

How to Paint a Fresco Mural?

The basics of painting a fresco mural, as mentioned above, is as simple as putting paint pigments onto wet plaster. Although, of course, there have been variations in methodologies over the craft’s long history.

BUT! You’ll learn more about that later….

For now, here’s how to paint a fresco mural:

1. Preparing the Wall

The first step to creating a fresco painting is to prepare the wall.

If you’re an oil painter, you may have previously applied gesso onto your canvas or panel to create a smooth painting surface.

The process and purpose of preparing the wall for fresco are similar.

preparing the wall
Wall Plaster by Brett and Sue Coulstock

You prep the wall by applying thin layers of unsealed lime plaster and allow it to dry for several days. Of course, to allow for a smooth painting experience, the layers must be laid and dried evenly!

2. Apply the Arriccio

Once the initial layers are dried, it’s time for the “arriccio” layer. The arriccio is a very thin roughened plaster surface (plaster mixed with sand).

It is applied AFTER the base layer of plaster and BEFORE the intonaco layer (that will be explained in a later step!). This is to provide a rough and porous layer for the intonaco layer to adhere to, creating a stable surface to work on.

As a bonus! This slightly rough layer also acts as surface texture for added depth and detail.

apply the arriccio
Contemporary Fresco of Earl of Tyrone

The arriccio layer, just like the previous thin layers, will also require several days to dry. After which, it’s time to transfer the design for the painting.

3. Transferring the Design

In fresco painting, the method of transferring a design is to use a “cartoon”, which is a term used to describe a full-scale preparatory drawing done on a piece of paper with the back of the sheet covered in rubbing powder or dust.

transferring the design
Cartoon for Fresco by Constantino Brumidi

You’ve probably heard of graphite transfer paper? Well, the principle is about the same!

For larger frescoes, there may be several cartoons prepared in squares. These squares will be puzzled back together and pinned with tacks onto the dry plaster so that the design can be traced with a stylus for transfer.

4. Apply the Intonaco

Finally, it’s time for the “intonaco” layer, AKA the most crucial layer for frescoes!

Compared with the rough arriccio layer, the intonaco is fine and smooth. Created by mixing marble dust and water, it is applied VERY thinly and in small sections called “giornatas”.

Painting by section in this way ensures that the pigments are applied only on WET intonaco, ensuring a chemical bonding that will result in a very long-lasting painting. It’s also key to giving fresco murals their characteristic vibrancy and luminosity.

apply the intonaco
Luna Quattro Coronati

5. Paint the Fresco

Now it’s time to work on the actual fresco painting.

For most fresco murals, pigments are mixed with water and then applied on freshly applied intonaco. As the intonaco dries, the pigments will dry with it, firmly adhering to the wall’s surface to create a highly durable fresco painting.

6. Add Final Touches

The fresco painting is technically complete once the intonaco giornatas are all dried. However, finishing touches can still be made after the fact with pigments and glazes.

Variations in Fresco Techniques

Now that you’ve learned how the basic fresco paintings are created let’s go over the different fresco techniques that have cropped up over its long history, starting with the so-called “True Fresco” technique, Buon Fresco …

Buon Fresco (“True Fresco”)

buon fresco ("true fresco")
Buon Fresco Painted by Giulio Romano

“Buon” in Italian can be translated as “True”, and in fresco painting, it’s used to describe the oldest and most long-lasting fresco technique.

It was described in the above how-to section, right down to the letter.

The benefit of this technique is that it can be used to paint highly intricate and incredibly durable frescoes. Making buon fresco the technique used for many famous frescoes, especially during the Italian Renaissance period.

Secco Fresco (“Dry Fresco”)

Opposite of painting buon fresco is Secco Fresco, also known as “dry fresco” or “fresco a secco”. Here, rather than bonding to the plaster itself, a separate binding medium is used along with the pigments after the plaster has been dried (examples of binders are egg yolk, casein, and glue).

secco fresco ("dry fresco")
Secco Fresco “Investiture of Zimrilim”

The disadvantage of this technique is that binding mediums are generally not as durable as buon fresco paintings. However, secco painting is still popular amongst fresco techniques because it allows fresco artists to create without constantly worrying about the plaster drying.

Mezzo Fresco (“Medium Fresco”)

Mezzo Fresco, also called “Medium Fresco”, is just as the name implies.

It combines the buon fresco and secco fresco techniques, wherein the fresco painting is done when the intonaco layer is ALMOST dry.

Many Early Renaissance fresco murals were done in this style, gradually replacing buon fresco techniques around the 17th Century, primarily due to the unique subtle effect created when the pigment is blended on the nearly dried intonaco.

mezzo fresco ("medium fresco")
17th Century Mezzo Fresco by Gianbattista Tiepolo

Other Known Fresco Painting Techniques

The three previously described fresco painting techniques are the most commonly used. However, there are other types of fresco techniques cataloged by art historians:

  • Sgraffito Fresco: With sgraffito, the artist applies layers of color-tinted plaster and then scratches at the still-wet surface to reveal the color underneath. It was quite popular during the Early Renaissance as a wall decoration technique.
  • Faux Fresco: Faux Fresco is a contemporary fresco technique that imitates the look of traditional fresco using synthetic mediums (i.e., acrylic or latex paint.)
other known fresco painting techniques
Sgraffito Fresco “Maison Cauchie” by Paul Cauchie

History of Fresco – How Old Is Fresco Painting?

The most recently uncovered “oldest fresco art” is about 5,500 years old, making fresco painting a truly ancient technique! Its rich history has been summarized below:

Early History of Fresco

Fresco paintings have a long history dating back to some of the earliest known civilizations of mankind:

3500–3200 B.C.E. – Wall Paintings in Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis

wall paintings in tomb 100 hierakonpolis
Tomb 100 Hierakponpolis Wall Painting

Many of the oldest frescoes are from Ancient Egyptian Tombs. The oldest one unearthed thus far was dated around 3500 B.C.E.!

1450 B.C.E. –  “Bull-Leaping” Fresco

"bull leaping" fresco
“Bull-Leaping” Fresco

Sometime during the Bronze Age, the Minoan civilization, which resided on the island of Crete, also created many fresco wall paintings.

Like the Egyptians, the images portrayed are of their various sacred ceremonies and other aspects of their daily life. The case is true for the “Bull-Leaping” fresco shared above. It depicts an important piece of Minoan culture.

470 B.C.E. –  Tomb of the Triclinium Frescoes

tomb of the triclinium frescoes
Tomb of the Triclinium Frescoes

The Etruscan civilization doesn’t show up much in art history books. However, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t participate in developing the craft. There are many monumental frescoes unearthed today from Etruscan tombs, an example of which is shared in the image above.

480 A.D. –  Sigiriya Frescoes

sigiriya frescoes
Sigiriya Frescoes

In today’s Sri Lanka, there is secco fresco art from 1300 years ago painted on cave surfaces in the palace of King Kaspaya. Some critics believe the subjects to have been members of his harem, while others believe they are depictions of celestial nymphs from legends.

Pre-Renaissance Period “Fresco Revival”

Stepping into the common era, there was a fresco revival centering on religious works from Russia and Greece:

1164 –  Byzantine Frescoes

byzantine frescoes
Church of Saint Panteleimon (Source)

In the 12th Century Byzantine Empire, many churches were decorated with glamorous gold-flaked frescoes. These frescoes were known particularly for their bold and vivid colors, which are still maintained to this day.

1375–1376 Frescoes in the Baptistery, Padua

frescoes in the baptistery, padua
“Paradise” at Pauda Cathedral

Pre-Renaissance frescoes can also be found in the baptistery of Pauda Cathedral, built during the 13th century. The one shared above is titled “Paradise” and was painted between 1375-1376.

1340–1410 –  “Theophanes the Greek”

theophanes the greek
“Theophanes the Greek”

An early example of “icon art” is the fresco “Theophanes the Greek” by a Byzantine Greek artist born in 14th Century Russia.

Renaissance Period “Perfecting Fresco”

As with many classic mediums and painting techniques, fresco witnessed an age of revival and renewal during the Italian Renaissance. Along with this period of innovation came many famous fresco artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Giotto di Bondone, and more.

1481–1482 –  “Delivery of the Keys”

delivery of the keys
“Delivery of the Keys” by Perugino

“Delivery of the Keys” is a religious fresco by Italian Renaissance artist, Pietro Perugino. It can be found in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Rome!

1495–1498 –  “The Last Supper”

the last supper
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

The famous oil painter Leonardo da Vinci also tried his hand at painting frescoes during this period. However, rather than following conventional practices, he created a secco painting using tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic (commonly used on wooden panels).

This unconventional approach to fresco painting led to one of his best-known masterpieces, “The Last Supper”, being very difficult to maintain.

1508–1512 – Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

ceiling of the sistine chapel
Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo

Speaking of Renaissance frescoes, one cannot forget Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco art. Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is by far the most famous fresco in history. Not only because of their beauty but because of Michelangelo’s effort in painting each fresco on the very high Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Fresco Painting Today

In the modern era, fresco once again experienced an arts and crafts movement centered in English and Mexican circles. Most pieces created today are either faux frescoes or small frescoes done on small wooden panels. However, you can still see the occasional large mural like the one in the picture below.

fresco today
“Prometheus” by José Clemente Orozco (1930)

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Oldest Fresco?

The oldest-known fresco was found in Tomb 100 Hierakonpolis. It was dated to have been painted over 5,500-5,300 years ago.

Why Do Fresco Paintings Last So Long?

Frescoes last so long because of the strong chemical bond between the wet lime plaster and pigments used. Such a bond prevents the pigments from deteriorating and also offers water resistance as a bonus.

It should also be said that, because the areas most frescoes are painted are shaded, the harmful effects of direct light are also avoided, prolonging the life of frescoes even more.

What Materials Are Used in Fresco Painting?

The most basic materials used for fresco paintings are mineral pigments and lime plaster. The dry pigments are mixed with water and applied to the wet plaster.

What Is the Most Famous Fresco in the World?

The most famous fresco in the world is Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel. But many also argue for the sake of Raphael’s Stanza murals.

what is the most famous fresco in the world?
Raphael’s “Rooms” (Stanzas) (Source)

Final Thoughts: Create History!

How about it? Are you feeling inspired?

Fresco art has been around for a very long time, and it’s not going away anytime soon!

You can experience the joy of participating in the creation of history yourself by creating your own art, whether it be painting murals on the walls of your own room or going for another classic medium like oil painting.

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