Sunday, October 02, 2011

Art and Nature: Fresco

Fresco with Dolphins
One of the oldest known forms of painting in the world is the fresco.  Ancient Egyptians painted frescos on the walls of their tombs, while the Minoans of Crete had them in their palaces.  And later the Romans painted frescos depicting scenes of daily life in their homes.  During the Renaissance, fresco painting became regarded as the “Mother of All Arts”.  Continuing in the 20th Century, various Mexican muralists painted frescos that commented on political and social issues in their country.

There are three different techniques for painting a fresco.  The traditional technique is buon fresco.  The paint is mixed with water that sinks into the layer of wet plaster.  No fixative is needed since the paint and plaster merges together as one surface.  

A secco is painting tempera or watercolor on dry plaster.  Since the paint lies on top of the plaster, a binding medium such egg, glue, or oil is necessary.  A secco is often used to paint over a fresco to either to make changes or to add blue paint.  (This color does not usually show up in frescos done by buon fresco.)  A secco is usually done on rough surfaces whilst buon fresco is done on smooth ones.

Mezzo-fresco is the third technique is used to paint a fresco.  In this method, the artist paints on nearly dry plaster.  The paint penetrates the plaster, but does not mix entirely with it.  In creating his frescos, Michelangelo used this method.

Painting a fresco had to be done quickly and carefully.  This meant that an artist needed strong organizational skills as well as a clear concept of the painting itself.  Since the wet plaster dries quickly, the artist has to finish within eight hours.  To correct any mistakes, the painter had to scrape off the plaster, and start over in the affected area.  A secco was a popular method to correct any minor problems.

One notable example of the enduring qualities of frescos is the “Fresco with Dolphins” (1500 – 1450 BCE) in the Queen’s Room at the Palace of Knossos; this fresco is typical of Minoan art.  It represents the Minoan aesthetics of beauty and art, which includes nature and sea life.  Bright blue and yellow, the fresco depicts dolphins frolicking amongst fish and sea urchins.  Even today, this fresco still delights people with its subject matter and brightness of colors.
Anossov, iLia, “Fresco Techniques in Painting”,,, 2005,

Boddy-Evans Marion, “All About Painting”,,,

Essak, Shelley, “All About Art History”,,,

---, “Guide to Art History”,, 2009,,

Janson, H.W. and Dora Jane Janson, “The Story of Painting”, Harry N Abrams: New York, 1966.

Roberts, J.M., “Prehistory and the First Civilizations”, The Illustrated History of the World: Vol. 1, Time-Life Books: Alexandria (VA), 1998.

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