Buon fresco

As with other traditional painting methods, I try out different ways of using buon fresco as part of my investigation into the relationships between principle elements of painting: materials; support; surface; image; and ground

Meaning 'true' fresco, buon fresco is the method of applying pigments dispersed in water onto wet plaster to create durable paintings on walls and ceilings. This differs from fresco a secco, 'dry' fresco, the method of applying pigments mixed with a binder to dry plaster.

Traditionally, the wall or ceiling is prepared with three or more layers of plaster, made with varying ratios of slaked lime putty and aggregate such as fine sand. The buon fresco painter applies the paint to the intonaco, the final, smoothest, thinnest layer of plaster that contains less sand than the penultimate, coarser layer, the arriccio. The pigment particles, carried in water, are applied to the wet intonaco and locked into the surface during the chemical process of the slaked lime reacting with the air (calcium hydroxide, the lime, forming calcium carbonate when exposed to carbon dioxide). During this process, the pigments become embedded in a stone-like surface and therefore the painter's marks become a physical part of the painting-object.


The durability of the buon fresco painting-object is evidenced in the earliest known examples of the method, made by the Minoans of Bronze Age Crete around 2000 BCE. Imagery depicting Minoan culture, belief systems and their connection with nature has been very well-preserved within the intonaco surface that once covered palace walls and ceilings.

Rather than using the buon fresco method to make paintings fixed into the surfaces of walls or ceilings, I am testing the possibilities of intonaco on individual, layered supports of hessian (burlap), South Korean hanji paper, and marine plywood. Integral to their movable supports and limited in size due to the fragility of the thin layer of intonaco, these small buon fresco paintings are providing interesting, physical boundaries to test. 


There are also time-related questions, as buon fresco presents the challenge of working within the intonaco's curing time. Traditionally, buon fresco mural painters refer to the giornata, 'a day's work', as the amount of intonaco applied to the wall that can be painted before the chemical process has rendered the surface unworkable. By making small, autonomous buon fresco paintings, the giornata can vary greatly as I consider the multiple possibilities of incorporating pigment.

Buon fresco holds a huge history of presenting the image. It also offers the possibility of foregrounding elements of painting that traditionally make up the background of the image: the process; the materials; the support; and the surface. This is because a particular use of specific materials and the chemical process are so central to the physical form of the buon fresco painting-object. The problem I am currently working with is how to make buon fresco paintings which bring these important components to the fore, while also dealing with the image- an often-prioritised part of painting which is inseparable from the method and arguably, painting more generally. 

I am very grateful to Boston-based artist Sean Glover who kindly showed me the burlap-paper-plywood method of making frescoes that operate free from the wall.

 © 2020 Puy Soden