Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in fresco. Diego Rivera created his most significant masterpieces in this medium, as the Mexican School started with a fresco revival. Giotto still lords over the beginning of the Renaissance with his fresco masterpieces. This dignified technique, however, goes back even deeper in time, used by masters long forgotten. About 500 AD, Indians in Sir Lanka painted frescoes at Sigiriya. Around the time of Christ, Romans were doing frescoes in Pompeii. 1500 years earlier, Minoans painted their palaces in ancient Crete in fresco. Before Columbus, ancient Americans painted frescoes in Bonampak and Cacaxtla .

Bonampak, photo by Jacob Rus:

However, today the fresco technique remains elusive. Although art schools are popping up all over the country, few teach the time honored tradition of fresco painting. Maybe because fresco walls are more difficult to cart around than bronze statues, defeating the advantage a painter has over a sculptor, by adding excessive tonnage to his portfolio. More likely it is because fresco is a messy and labor-intensive skill, which can fatigue the creative impulse of even the mature artist. Perhaps most significantly, fresco painting does not fit in well with our architecture, the glass and steel high rises and strip malls, so there is little demand. Today the medium is a great nuisance, and yet fresco still remains something of the Holy Grail of all painting techniques.

One cannot go down to the paint store and buy fresco paint in a tube, like he can oil, acrylic or watercolor paints. The colors are merely pigments ground in water, no glue added. The lime support, however, is the binder in the buon fresco technique. As the lime drys, the surface entraps the pigments and embeds them into the wall. Thus one might more correctly ask for fresco lime at the store, rather than fresco paint. However, the art store will not carry any fresco lime either. Fresco then remains all the more elusive, practically unavailable commercially, except for in a few small specialty outfits. Even then, the only cost-effective and feasible way to approach a wall is to start fresco from scratch, making the attempt all the more intimidating.

If fresco is such a nosebleed, why make the effort? Searching deeply to justify the undertaking, I ran across a quote from Orozco that best articulates my motivation (in the preface to "Fresco Painting," by Gardner Hale ):

"The artist himself may prostitute the medium to broadcast his vanity and mediocrity."

Nothing motivates my artistic muse more than vanity, unless it is the snob appeal of tackling fresco. Hopefully, within a couple of months, I will be able to advertise what a mediocre painter I am with my first fresco. However, I worry about my plan backfiring, as there are too many good artists in Tucson, and indeed, in all the Southwest. As soon as I hand over the brush to someone else, we might turn out a rather decent fresco painting, say on the 3rd or 4th try ... or eventually, just as long as we keep at it. My basic goal here is to get the ball rolling, mostly to see where it will take us.

Here I will blog all the details of reviving the ancient fresco technique in the 21st century, including the drawbacks and failures. If we actually succeed, I intend to streamline all the steps in this experiment, rewrite and self-publish a cheap 'how to' fresco book on Lulu.

This is actually my third attempt. I started working with fresco in the mid 90s when I helped Jose Galindo (educated at La Esmeralda in Mexico City) with his fresco class at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. Later, just after the turn of the millennium, JP and I pulled off a few fresco tile paintings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hopefully we will become more ambitious in Tucson. However even if we only get started, that is excuse enough to set up this blog.

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