Fig 1. Saint Seraphim's Orthodox Church, Santa Rosa, California, view to the east. The panel icons of the icon screen, and the Virgin Enthroned in the Apse are painted in egg tempera. The rest of the walls shown are painted in fresco. Frescoes are planned for the remaining walls, columns and arches, as well as the dome.
What is a “ Fresco”?
A Fresco is a wall painting in which pure pigments, ground only in water, are applied to freshly laid, still damp lime plaster. As the lime plaster dries, carbonate crystals form on the surface of the plaster, which bind with the particles of pigment, hardening around them, and adhering them permanently to the wall surface. In fact, the colors become an integral part of the structure of the plaster itself. This binding occurs only during the drying time of the plaster. Once the plaster has dried, further applications of color will not adhere. The time available for painting in fresco is rather short: usually up to 10 hours or so from the time the plastering is completed.1 For this reason, a large fresco is usually done in several sections, each finished – or at least almost finished – in one day.
It has become common in modern times to refer to any wall painting (or mural) as a “fresco,” but this is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. “Fresco” is an Italian word, which means, “fresh.”2 What is fresh is the plaster upon which the fresco is executed. Only paint applied to a freshly laid, damp plaster can accurately be called a fresco. All methods of painting where the pigments are mixed with a binding medium (egg yolk, linseed oil, acrylic polymer) and applied to a dry plaster are called, “secco” (Italian for “dry”).3
The art of fresco painting is ancient. Practiced in the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek art, it was brought to technical perfection by the Romans, who provide most of the surviving examples of fresco painting from the ancient world.4 Christians continued to make use of this medium, and wall paintings of churches throughout the Byzantine era were executed in fresco.5 Regrettably, it is very rare to see it used in Orthodox Churches today. There may be easier ways to create a mural, but none more beautiful or long lasting. One need only stand in a medieval Orthodox Church to experience the unique stillness and depth of a genuine fresco.
In this essay, I will briefly explain the process of fresco painting (the plastering and the application of colors) and show how we, in the icon painting workshop of our monastery, are using these techniques to paint churches.6 The accompanying illustrations are of frescoes that we have painted in Saint Seraphim's Orthodox Church, Santa Rosa, California, between 1997 and 2004. The construction of the church was completed in 1994, and its first frescoes were painted in 1997.
The Materials of Fresco Painting
The colors of the fresco are made by grinding pigments in pure water. We might define “paint” as pigment mixed with a binder or medium (such as egg yoke, linseed oil, or acrylic polymer) which binds the particles of pigments together and adheres them to whatever is being painted: walls, panels, canvas, or paper. In fresco painting, there is no binder added to the pigments. The wall itself is the binder. A stone-like paint surface forms due to the chemistry of the distinctive plaster, made from lime putty, used in fresco painting.
Lime putty is the component of the fresco that modern people would know least, but it is the ingredient in the painting process that must be examined in order to understand fresco painting. Lime was the essential building material of the ancient and medieval worlds, being the chief ingredient of the mortar and cement that held together most structures, buildings large and small. It was also used to make the plaster that covered the walls of these buildings.
Lime putty is made by burning marble or limestone (calcium carbonate) in a kiln, where it becomes “quicklime” (calcium oxide). It is then submerged in water, where it disintegrates in an explosive reaction, becoming, by its reaction with the water, a thick, viscous paste called lime putty (calcium hydroxide). Lime putty is stored in pits, or in large buckets where it will stay soft indefinitely, provided as it remains under water. Normally, the lime putty is left to age for many years, as its handling improves with time.
In fresco, the wall is covered with several layers of lime plaster, and the painting is done on the final, freshly laid layer of plaster. To make plaster, lime putty is mixed with sand (or another aggregate such as crushed brick). When the plaster is spread out onto a wall, the lime putty, coming into contact with the air, begins to dry, and it becomes calcium carbonate again (chemically identical to marble). While the plaster is drying, and only during this brief time, the carbonate crystals form a hard, invisible crust on the surface of the plaster, which solidly binds the pigments applied by the painter. In a sense, the lime plaster wall, together with the colored surface, becomes a marble sandstone. When the day’s work is complete, the edges of the finished fresco are trimmed, and the excess plaster is scraped away with a trowel. If, at the end of the drying time, the work is unfinished, or badly done, the plaster is scraped off, and the fresco is repainted the following day.
Plastering the Walls
Normally, several layers of plaster are trowelled onto the walls to be painted.7 The first layer, made with a high proportion of gritty sand, is scratched with a metal comb before it dries, leaving it very rough. The next layer is a little smoother, made with finer sand, and a higher proportion of lime putty, but left rough enough to hold the final layer of plaster. These two layers of plaster are usually put onto the wall ahead of time, and may be left to dry for a very long time. The final layer of plaster (the painting layer) is to the wall applied one small piece at a time, immediately prior to painting, usually the night before. The plasterers apply a section of the final plaster only as large as the painters can paint in one day. In the past, fresco could only be executed on a stone or brick wall, limiting its use considerably. The 20th century has offered an invaluable aid to fresco painters, and that is “expanded metal lathe,” a heavy wire mesh that can be secured to any stable structure, (even a sturdy wood-framed wall) which can hold heavy layers of plaster in place. Portable frescoes (large and small) can also be made with this valuable material. The metal lathe allows for frescoes to be painted in buildings formerly considered to be impossible to fresco. Many of the frescoes at St. Seraphim’s Orthodox church are held in place by metal lathe.8
The Design of the Iconographic Program of the Church
Before designs for individual wall paintings can be drawn, the overall iconographic plan for the church must be made. A detailed discussion of this plan lies outside the scope of this essay. In very broad outline, however, the plan is developed in 3 cycles: (1) the Dogmatic Cycle: a large, central icon of Christ in the dome (if there is one),9 then a large icon of the Virgin and Child (or Virgin in Prayer) in the apse; (2) the cycle of the Church Festivals at the top of the walls or on the ceiling; and (3) the cycle of the Saints at the ground level, surrounding the congregation.10 Several books and articles describe and explain this eloquently, but the best guides are the ancient churches themselves, particularly those of the 11th to 15th centuries, which set the iconographic before us with a clarity and simplicity that need little explanation. It can be very difficult to apply the traditional plan to newly built churches, which may utilize architectural designs or components that do not correspond to any of the traditional architectural plans. In this case, the iconographer must understand the tradition well enough to design a program for such a church that fits the building structure, yet remains faithful to the theological arrangement of the icons. Once the overall plan has been established, the designs for the individual icon murals are made.11
Fig 2. Left, a toned drawing, the cartoon for a fresco of St. Basil the Great. Right, the finished fresco. A tracing was made from the cartoon, and transferred to the wet plaster to make the fresco.
Drawing, Preparation and Transfer of the Cartoon
For most applications, including iconography, fresco demands that the subject and composition be entirely worked out ahead of time. Minor corrections are possible, but it is safe to say that every minute counts and every brush stroke is permanent. This necessitates the elaborate cartoons and sketches typically used in fresco painting. The initial design of the fresco is worked out in a small drawing. A grid is drawn over the sketch, in order to be able to redraw it at any scale. A full sized cartoon is made, containing all the details of the finished fresco. A tracing is then made of the cartoon, which will be used to transfer the drawing of the cartoon onto the wall. In our workshop, we make full sized cartoons on toned paper, allowing us to study the light shapes of the icon as well as the lines and shadows (Fig 2). A large composition may require several full-scale cartoons that are then pieced together. Finally, it must be said that the use of cartoons and tracing seems to be a relatively modern practice. Close examination of the great Byzantine frescoes of the 11th to 16th centuries demonstrate that the initial drawings on the walls were done directly on the fresh plaster “freehand,” with compasses and rulers to mark proportions.12
Designing a fresco involves other challenging preparations, in addition to the discipline of making a good drawing. The fresco may be high up on the wall, or on a curved surface, and drawings and designs may need to be sized, altered, and sometimes even “distorted” to fit the architecture. A drawing called a sinopia13 is often sketched directly onto the rough plaster that will eventually be covered with the final painting layer. Why make drawings that will only be covered up by the plaster? As a working fresco painter, I have noted at least three purposes served by the sinopia. First, it serves as a guide for the last layer of plastering, particularly when the composition is large, requiring several sections of plaster. Second, it allows the painter to see the whole composition of the wall while painting a small section of it (Fig 3). Third and most importantly, it is the final step in the design of the fresco, enabling the painter to see it in relation to the rest of the church. The mural icon differs from the panel icon with regard to the context in which it is viewed. The panel icon, although often part of an ensemble of icons, may be seen by itself, as it is portable. A mural icon, however, will only be seen as part of the greater ensemble. It is of the utmost importance that the individual parts be properly proportioned and laid out in relation to each other and the whole. Seeing the interior of the church as a whole is particularly important when painting an Orthodox Church, as the entire church is seen as one large icon (see below.)
Fig 3. The east wall showing the sinopia drawing of the fresco of the Ascension.
An example of the usefulness of the sinopia can be seen at St. Seraphim’s Orthodox church, where the dome in the center of the church was recently reconstructed. The original dome (not yet painted with icons) had been poorly built, and tended to leak in a heavy rain. When the new construction was complete, the interior of the new dome was plastered with the first two layers of lime plaster for fresco. While the scaffolding was still in place, we seized the opportunity to design the whole dome program (the Pantocrator, Angels, and Prophets), and put a sinopia drawing on the second coat of plaster (Fig 4). When the scaffolding came down, and the drawing was visible from the ground, we were able to note some changes of scale and proportion that we will make before the painting commences.
Fig 4. The sinopia drawing of the dome: The Pantocrator surrounded by Angels and Archangels, the Prophets are shown in the drum below.
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