Wednesday, December 16, 2009

26_Summary so far

Fresco is something of the Holy Grail for painters, like casting in bronze is to sculptors, because it is so methodical and labor intensive. The artist cannot trot down to the local art store and come home with a bag of fresco paint in tubes, and start painting a buon fresco that evening. Just finding the basic ingredients was a major nosebleed, and then we had to prepare all our materials from scratch. We sifted the lime into water, and waited over 6 months for it to slake properly; then ground dry pigments into distilled water to make our own "paints." Also we encountered the problem of storing finished paintings, as frescoes weigh more than thin oil canvases. No wonder they rarely teach fresco technique in art schools.

Admittedly, we are not fresco experts. We have only come halfway so far, considering that our single large fresco still cracked. However, my intention was only to attempt fresco -- enough to push color, and blog about the pitfalls surrounding this ancient technique in the 21st century. For making the effort, we enjoyed the privilege of painting with the Maya blue of Bonampak, as well as with the other bright new Mayacrom® pigments, all of which looked beautiful on fresco. We found solutions at Home Depot more often than in the art store, and developed an artistic eye for industrial materials. Thus we nicely fulfilled my expectations, and became less intimidated by raw pigments and basic materials in the process. If I abandon fresco tomorrow, I should paint with more confidence in oil, which I acquired after diverging into this parallel technique.

However, when Gonzalo painted the large 3x5 foot fresco, he exceeded my initial expectations. Perhaps one of us will continue to reach for the Holy Grail next year. Hopefully this blog will serve as a step ladder, and lift the artist closer to that goal. I do not expect many people to read about our experiences here, but if this blog serves as a tool for creating a large flawless fresco masterpiece, then the writing effort will have been worthwhile as well.

This is the 3rd time I have tackled fresco. I learned from Jose Manuel Galindo, when he taught fresco painting on tiles during his class in the 1990s, at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. Jose talked about "La Retoma," aiming to resurrect the Mexican fresco school in contemporary times. After I moved to Albuquerque, JP and I indulged in a second cycle of fresco tile painting, about 2000. Then earlier this year, 2009, I found myself in the company of fearless sculptors in Tucson. When I looked around and decided that The Sculpture Resource Center lent itself to the messy fresco technique, I asked Gonzalo Espinosa to help. He not only consented, but enthusiastically looked forward to painting in fresco, convincing me to rekindle the elusive technique for the 3rd time. I could not have gotten this far, this quickly, without Gonzalo. Finding and preparing fresco materials consumed me so much that I never had energy leftover to design a fresco painting. Fresco is something of a community effort.

I figured that if I got the ball rolling, other people would help us perfect fresco with their suggestions. Sure enough, this happened. I would like to thank the following:

  • Gonzalo, for suggesting Hardibacker cement board as a support.
  • Ed, for suggesting that we use a putty knife, to mix small amounts of fresco plaster more thoroughly.
  • Mikee, for suggesting that we use a round trowel, to avoid ridges in larger fresco surfaces. Also for welding angle iron into fresco frames, and suggesting that we seal the frames with enamel primer, to keep the iron from rusting.
  • Eric, for explaining why a fresco plaster bloated with water was more likely to crack than a drier fresco plaster.
  • Paolo, for suggesting that we glue a fresco tile onto a frame, for final presentation.


So far the biggest setback has been the cracking in finished frescoes. Our water-bloated plaster was applied wetter than recommended by the books, and probably was therefore more prone to cracking when it dried. We should apply a drier final intonaco plaster in the future, which will probably demand one or more plaster undercoats to avoid cracking. However, additional plaster coats mean heavier fresco paintings, perhaps too heavy to hang in the living room. Our real challenge then, might be to make a lightweight fresco, on a support requiring the least amount of undercoats, so that the final painting will be light enough to hang on the wall.

As long as fresco remains such a delicate and finicky process, artists will be too intimidated to paint freely. Ideally then, we should mix a big batch of fresco plaster every weekend, so that whenever an artist is so inspired during the week, he can quickly plaster a tile and experiment with colors and brushing techniques. Eventually, once fresco preparation becomes second nature, fresco artists should be able to concentrate on the painted image. After all, it is the image, more than the technique, that is most important in the final analysis.


The below is a summary of the steps we followed to paint a small fresco tile:

  • Purchased hydrated lime from the tortilla factory
  • Sifted the dry lime into clean "reverse osmosis" water, sold at the Circle K
  • Waited over 6 months for that lime to slake into lime putty
  • Mixed that lime putty with 30 grit Superior Marble Sand (which I learned later was actually just 'cement and lime,' rather than marble or silica sand) from the construction store, to make fresco plaster
  • Soaked the Hardibacker tiles for over 30 minutes in distilled water, inside the plastic box
  • Pulled the tile out, and let it dry matte, so that there is no standing water on the tile
  • Troweled the fresco plaster onto the tile, using a round trowel to finish the surface, spraying the trowel with distilled water when necessary
  • Waited for the plastered tile to dry matte, so that it was firm enough to paint on
  • Previously we ground dry pigments into distilled water, to make a fluid color to paint onto the fresco
  • We painted onto the fresco tile with Chinese brushes. Gonzalo used bristle brushes
  • When finished, 3 hours later, we stored the tile in the covered plastic box for 3 days, to slow down the drying, hoping to avoid cracking

If we persist long enough with fresco, we might become as fearless as sculptors (thanks to Alison and Billy for being examples).

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