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Swift and Sure Strokes

Fresco Painting: History and Hands-on Practice

From the brothels of Pompeii to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the history of fresco painting is replete with

Fresco painting of chickadees on a flowering branch

stories of tragedies and triumphs. The oldest known painting medium, fresco means fresh in Italian and refers to the process by which water-based pigments are applied to fresh plaster. When executed properly, frescos can last ­for thousands of years. 

Gretchen Wagener Burau, an adjunct professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas and a library assistant at the Andersen Horticultural Library at the University's Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, explained this relatively swift yet exacting art discipline: "Depending on environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and light, artists have about eight hours to create their final painting on a layer of freshly laid plaster, also known as the intonaco."

Large frescoes, like those created by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, were generally built piece by piece. Each day the artist would complete a portion of the fresco. This area, or giornata, would be equal to what the artist could paint within those eight (or so) hours before the plaster dried. After a number of days, these sections would fill in the overall composition, forming the completed fresco.

Sounds simple, right? After all, isn't plaster a pretty forgiving medium? "It can be difficult to work with," says Burau. "After the intonaco layer is applied, it needs to be tested to make sure it is at a point where it will accept the pigment. The artist will then frequently use a cartoon or outline of the overall design to help with the placement of figures and details. If the plaster is too wet or the brush is too moist, it will start to pick up the surface, damaging the work."

"It is extremely difficult to fix an error. This usually requires the artist to chisel away a section and start from the beginning." There is a lot of pressure to get things right the first time!

Burau certainly knows of what she speaks. During her time at the Italian International Institute, she took a course from professional restorer Lorenzo Casamenti, touring frescoes he'd worked on throughout Florence and the surrounding area. More recently, she assisted renowned fresco artist Mark Balma when he painted The Transfiguration fresco in Stacy, MN.

Want to learn more and try buon "true" fresco painting for yourself? Join Burau for Fresco Painting: History and Hands-on Practice when it begins November 5, 2018. No experience necessary. Supplies distributed in class. (Note: course is no longer open for enrollment.)

Gretchen Wagener Burau, MFA, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is an artist and adjunct professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas. She studied fresco painting and restoration in Florence, Italy with professional restorer Lorenzo Casamenti, and assisted local artist Mark Balma with The Transfiguration fresco in 2012.

Published on October 3, 2018