Buon Fresco

In 2006 I went to Fresco School in LA. It was a wonderful weekend. I stayed in a hotel in Venice Beach and commuted to school. School wasn’t far, either. School was in one of Howard Hughes’ Hangars in what was once an airfield (and if I’m lucky I’ll remember the name of it…).

It had been — and remains! — a dream to paint buon fresco — that’s painting onto wet plaster. My teacher was from Russia — Ilia Anossov — and while I give him a “C” as an instructor, I give him an A+ as a person and fresco enthusiast. He gets a C because he took my brush out of my hand and finished my fresco for me (grrrrrrrrrrrrrr). Still, I really like the guy and loved the class. I even understand his impulse. He is a big-hearted guy and he didn’t want me to fail. Sometimes it’s hard to believe a student is OK with failing, and I was.

Class was two long days over St. Patrick’s Day. My hotel room was really a small apartment with a kitchen. When I arrived the first afternoon a random bum-like homeless guy at the parking lot said he’d watch my car for me. I don’t know what his story was but he was splendid and possibly he did watch my car. Strangely, he didn’t want any money. There are a lot of mysterious interactions in our world and at this point I’m half-way convinced that some of them are not with humans but with some other kind of human-like form of something. That guy was one of them.

So…on my way home from my first class I stopped at a supermarket to get something for dinner. I’d completely forgotten it was St. Patrick’s day wrapped up as I was in the magic and wonder of painting fresco. As I stood in line, waiting my turn, I felt a sharp pinch on my arm. “Huh?”

I turned around. An older woman with gray hair under a headscarf was grinning at me. “Sure you’re Irish,” she asked with a lilt in her voice. “Where’s your green? Don’t tell me your underwear. I haven’t believed that since elementary school.”

I cracked up. I admitted to being Irish and apologized for my lack of awareness over what day it was. We chatted.

I bought some gross food I cooked in a skillet in my apartment and went to bed. During the night, I heard intriguing sounds coming from upstairs and felt surprised at the nature of my hotel.

Before class even began we had to do two sketches, a value drawing and a color sketch because, when the plaster is ready, the artist needs to know exactly what he/she is doing. There is a small window of opportunity to paint. It’s a real “carpe diem” thing with plaster.

The colored sketch I hd to prepare for class — if I’d been smart, I’d have chosen something simpler.

We painted our frescoes on the back of 14 x 14 inch tiles — a perfect surface. All of it was wonderful to me. My fresco turned out badly, though there are worse out there. My teacher painted the two top apples, and they don’t’ look like apples to me. OH well… To my eye, the best part is about three square inches in one corner, the wicker chair. Luckily it broke a month or so later so I have never had to move it or look at it. (Featured photo)

I love the medium, but it’s complicated and expensive and needs a lot of space. The most wonderful moment was when Ilia showed us an old coffee can filled with dry pigment for ultramarine blue. The pigment was left over from the Depression when so many fresco murals were commissioned by WPA for public buildings. I got to grind that paint and use it. That was the best part of everything.

WPA paint. 💙

33 thoughts on “Buon Fresco

    • You’d think so but the wet plaster it is surprisingly friendly — a lot depends on the air, though. Here in the San Luis Valley, as dry as it is, it would be a little more challenging. The chemical interaction between the paint and the plaster is miraculous. I just love it. No other medium has any of that at all.

      I have a garage full of tiles (a little exaggeration) and I keep wanting to equip myself and do more, but the obstacles are real.

      • I had not considered the need for the right ambient temperature but it makes sense as regular plaster does off in a few days but lime plaster takes about five weeks. Thanks for this post as it would never have crossed my mind that some frescos were painted on wet plaster!

        • Temperature and humidity. There is only a very short time to paint on the wet plaster before it cures too much to do the magic with the paint. The old time guys called it “the golden hour.” You can paint up to that and as fast as you can through that, and a little bit after that. In wet plaster the minerals in the paint and the minerals in the plaster form a bond. It enchants me.

          Most of the Roman frescoes were not painted on wet plaster and, to my eye, they’re amazing in their liveliness, but that’s probably not about the paint.

  1. I’ve had interesting interactions with homeless people. None of them were bad interactions. Sometimes they were amazing. Once you get over the aesthetics you realize most are just ordinary people dealt a bad hand, getting by as best they can with what they got.

    The huge increase in the number of homeless in LA is indicative of a society that offers neither opportunity nor forgiveness. Your condition is affixed to you like a scarlet letter. Or maybe an Albatross. There’s no clear way out.

    I was a homeless person for a while, but that was back when hiring was done by local human beings and not a remote corporate HQ using AI to sort out the unemployable.

    • My brother preferred being homeless. Some of the most inspiring among my students were homeless and doing whatever was in their power to change their lives. During Covid, if I’d been in CA, I would have been homeless. It is really “There but for the grace of god…”

      • I was living in a 10 year old Chevy van in the early 1980s. It had come here from back east and nobody wanted it because of the rust so I got it for a few hundred dollars.

        When I first came to California I lived in a gold 1965 Comet wagon. I know I was a lot younger back then but it was not a bad way to live. Kind of light on the material side but a lot of freedom.

        I suppose today it would be a lot more difficult to climb out of that situation. Housing is insanely expensive. Corporations won’t hire people who don’t have exactly the right background and “No fixed residence.” doesn’t look good to their algorithms.

    • Now you’ve done it! 😂

      Most of the paint used to paint fresco is mineral based paint — paint from clay and rocks. It’s intrinsically crystalline in nature depending on the minerals that make it up. Fresco plaster is gypsum as well as limestone based so it is also crystalline. The mineral paint is painted onto wet plaster. The top coat is called the intonaco and it’s somewhat different than the two coats beneath it because it has a different job. When the plaster cures, it gets very hot and that causes a chemical reaction between the plaster and the minerals in the pigment. The pigment become a physical part of the plaster. This makes a painting that is essentially a rock. Another thing that happens; the colors and the crystals in the plaster refract and reflect light giving a buon fresco a kind of luminosity.

      Painting on dry plaster the chemical bonding doesn’t occur. The colors used on dry plaster might also be vegetable colors rather than mineral colors.

      IMO first buon fresco was painted in limestone caves by prehistoric human. I’ve seen some caves in northern Italy where something like buon fresco was done by these guys. In that place there is ochre, naturally colored clay. Red, yellow and green (Verona green ❤️) It’s so cool. Anyway these people ground the clay, saturated the limestone wall outside their caves with water, held their hand on the west limestone, and blew the powdered ochre onto the wall. A similar chemical process happened there. And those handprints have been there in pristine condition for 10s of thousands of years. A lot of the pictographs we find all over were similarly created with local clay on wet rock that has lime in it.

      One advantage would be longevity, I guess. Otherwise it would be whatever the artist is hoping to achieve with a painting. It’s a question of painting IN a surface or ON one. The Sistine Chapel is all buon fresco. The first time I really SAW what it was was in Milan in the painting gallery in the Castello Sforza. There was a fragment of the god Pluto. It was mostly Verona green, though I didn’t know about that yet, either. I was able to get very close to it and see what it was doing. Wow. Later I saw it again in Padua in the Baptistry of the Cathedral. Two colors in particular — one was lapis lazuli ultramarine blue. I just fell in love with it.


  2. I always thought it would dry very fast, an unforgiving medium. I guess the shades of colours also change as the plaster dries. You must know how to compensate for that, I suppose. You had a good pointer there about simplicity. There must be a lot to master here.

    • Plaster doesn’t really “dry” — it cures, which is a chemical reaction. The colors remain very pure because of the gypsum crystals (or marble or travertine) — there is some old fresco (and new) done on plaster that has travertine and of course Michelangelo used marble. Humidity can affect that a little. I was amazed at how much time there was to work and there’s a strategy — you do large areas before the golden hour and details during the golden hour and touch up in the last little interval. I loved it. It felt to me as if I had a partner in my painting. It said, “You have to stop now.” 🙂 A little bit depends on the substrate, too. It’s important to know your skill level, and what you hope for in the end — those two things tell you how big you can work. Before I ever really KNEW anything about it I poured some plain old plaster into a Tupperware box and waited until the right moment and did a watercolor into it. I wasn’t far wrong. The hardest part is getting the plaster onto the surface. That takes physical strength because essentially this is water and ground up rocks. Sorry I could write about this all day. 😀

        • It was a huge experience for me. In Verona I was wandering through San Zeno, and some guys were restoring some old frescoes. They’d hung a sheet between the area where they were working and the passageway for privacy and to keep the dust out. I just sat down on a pile of plaster in sacks and listened to them talk. I wanted to be them. They were talking about sandwiches, salami, their wives, kids, school and just working away restoring a medieval border over an archway. My novel, Martin of Gfenn, is essentially about learning to paint fresco and then painting it as they did in the 13th century on the outside of buildings and then finally inside a small chapel. The protagonist has leprosy so ultimately he can’t continue. It’s the story of someone fighting to be an artist. It was a lodestone.

  3. This was a wonderful snippet from your life! I think your ‘C’ was a fair grade. Teaching requires patience and acceptance of imperfection, after all that’s how we learn and creativity is so personal.

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