Frescos: A Primer

April 1, 2003
Frescos: A primerAn ancient art meets modern technology.By Daniel Nass

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IS Continuing Education SeriesLearning OutcomesIS Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through the pages of the magazine. Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this issue's Continuing Education Series article. To receive credit, see the series of questions and follow the instructions.After reading this article, you should be able to:* Identify types of materials first used to create frescos and pigments.* Explain the differences between buon and secco frescos and the appropriate applications for each.* Discuss how integral pigmentation affects fresco durability.* Discuss how different tools affect a fresco's aesthetic.Fresco, as defined in the dictionary, means "fresh" and is Italian in origin. Historians theorize that this word—and the act of creating art—came together as a way of describing how imagery was created on wet or "fresh" plaster. While we can thank renaissance Italians for providing a catchy name for the technique, history tells us that early man also created frescos. The perfect, and perhaps most famous, example is a drawing of a horse on a cave wall in Chauvet, France, which dates to approximately 30000 BC.Artists, muralists and faux finishers may still utilize some or all aspects of the traditional fresco technique today. To today's design professional, however, the term fresco is most closely allied with specialty plaster systems; the resultant product is thought of more as a surfacing material than a work of art. Modern technology and materials have also played a role in this transition as their addition to the "mix" provides frescos with the durability and aesthetics necessary to adapt to the design community's current standards.Without question, frescos have a long and varied history and a non-static definition. While the horse drawn on a cave wall is considered a fresco by today's historians, it is dubious those artists actually used wet plaster as part of their technique. But, we know renaissance Italians did use wet plaster. When and how did the changes take place? What are the properties of the interior material commonly referred to as frescos today? The goal of this primer is to further examine the marriage of art and modern technology that comprise today's frescos. In the BeginningCave paintings are the earliest known frescos and have been discovered in France, Spain and Italy. Their ages range from 30,000 to 10,000 BC. Original materials included dirt, charcoal and vegetable-based colors. Primitive pigments were also derived from mineral deposits and were highly-prized. These items were then mixed with spit or animal fat to create a "paste" for drawing. Archeological excavations in France have prompted the thought that cave dwellers traveled far and wide to mine these valuable mineral deposits, which were dug right out of the ground in lumps, much like clay. To create a fine powder, it is likely that animal bones (pigment-stained bones have also been unearthed at many cave sites) were used as mortars and combined with various binders, or vehicles, to create the aforementioned paste. Historians further hypothesize that the paste was applied by smearing, dabbing or spraying. Large areas were covered using fingers or moss pads; twigs created linear marks, feathers were used to blend. A "spraying" method was achieved by blowing through hollow bones.Eventually, prehistoric man discovered that dyes created from animals or vegetable sources faded more quickly than pigments created from mineral deposits. Red, created from iron oxide deposits, was considered the most valuable pigment as it was associated with the most life-sustaining of bodily fluids: blood. Other colors such as black, yellow and sienna came from iron, manganese and hematite deposits. The Minoans, found on the Island of Crete, created a revolution in approximately 1,500 BC by discovering a method to spread pigment on wet plaster. It is at this point in the history of fresco that lime was introduced as a key ingredient although history does not reveal whether the Minoans added the lime to the wet plaster or to their pigments. Regardless of methodology, it is clear that the addition of wet plaster became the first step toward the fresco technique eventually perfected by renaissance artists. In the time between the Minoans and the 13th-century fresco artist Giotto, frescos were created in such diverse places as Europe, Egypt, China, India, Mexico and Russia. Techniques and materials were diverse, but certain common bonds existed. Colors were still primarily organic pigments as they were lime-proof. Lime, as a component in the plaster, was now universally used.
Is It Real or Is It . . .
Due to the diverse methods and materials used in the eras between prehistoric and medieval man, two terms came into use in approximately 1,400 to describe two very different forms of fresco creation.* Buon fresco, or "true" fresco, became the term equated with the use of color application to wet lime plaster, using water as the vehicle (or binder) that allowed the pigment to penetrate the plaster. As the plaster dried, the pigment became a part of, or bound to, the crystalline plaster structure.* Secco fresco, or "dry" fresco, became the term equated with the use of pigment applied to dry plaster using an organic medium as a vehicle. Early cave painters are now said to have used a secco technique.Even after the partial invention of the buon fresco technique by the Minoans, secco fresco was still used when working with certain rare pigments, usually formed from ground gemstones. So rare and precious were these pigments that they were used on a limited basis and only after the rest of the fresco had been completed—thus, already dry.True, or buon, fresco generally maintains its color integrity better as the pigment actually becomes part of the drying plaster's structure. Secco fresco is applied to the surface of dried plaster making it susceptible to fading and elemental wear and tear. One could draw a comparison regarding durability for our modern interior artists that the difference in choosing fresco as a surfacing material over faux or mural finishes is similar to the differences between the buon or secco techniques when considering longevity and durability.
Frescos Reach Middle Age
Masters from the Middle Ages and Renaissance are credited for perfecting the fresco technique. Celebrated works by masters such as Michelangelo, Giotto and Raphael are excellent examples of frescos created during this era.Frescos were now made with plaster that consisted of fine sand, lime and marble dust that was applied in small sections. Therefore, large frescos consisted of many small sections pre-planned to make the "seams" invisible. Subject matter consisted mainly of religious subjects and personages newly depicted with human qualities in their facial expressions despite their sufferings and allegorical personalities. The fresco frenzy reached its peak in Italy in the 17th century when families commissioned renowned fresco artists to adorn villas and family chapels. Pigments were more readily available making it both practical and desirable to commission large and multi-colored frescos such as the Sistine Chapel's famed ceiling. While pigments such as Verona Green (made using the terra verte found in copious quantities near Verona) still were organically based, by the 18th century the valuable red iron oxide pigment was being reproduced synthetically. The synthetic version had all of the properties of its organic counterpart and came to be called Mars Red. Other synthetic pigments such as Mars Yellow followed over time. From there, usage declined until the 20th century when artists such as Diego Rivera re-popularized the form through his frescos located at the National Palace in Mexico City.
Modern Times
Modern fresco artists still create art, as did their Renaissance and prehistoric counterparts. However, today's design professionals typically equate the word fresco with a surfacing material for walls or other interior planes. It is often specified to emulate or re-create the aesthetic of costly stone (i.e., marble or travertine) or as a facsimile for geographic or "period" aesthetics (such as the interior walls of a Tuscan villa).Modern technology and materials have added new qualities to today's frescos. When specifying fresco finishes, it is important to understand how the pigment is added to the formulation. Quality fresco suppliers will use an integrally-pigmented system wherein the color is mixed into the plaster and becomes an actual part of the surfacing material (similar to the buon fresco). This is an important aspect as integrally-pigmented frescos provide higher durability and better color retention.Modern technology also provides today's fresco artisan with tools improved over the original animal bones, feathers and moss pads. Trowels are the applicator's main tool and the decision of what type of trowel to use is integral to creating a fresco's appearance. Trowels can be made of plastic or metal; each material having a different synergy with the fresco's ultimate outcome based on the friction it causes during application. Trowel shape also matters. A trowel with rounded edges provides a different pattern than that of a triangularly-shaped one. The rounded trowel might be utilized to create a smooth fresco while the triangular one might create a spatula-style pattern.Other considerations when choosing frescos should include maintenance and durability. While each fresco will have its own inherent performance properties in these areas, a quality vendor will offer guidance as to what type of fresco performs best in different types of areas. Generally, smoother frescos are not always appropriate for high traffic areas as they are difficult to patch and usually cannot withstand any type of abrasive maintenance. Other frescos are more appropriate for high traffic areas as they can be lightly sanded or abraded. Tensile strength and crack-resistance are two other properties to consider regarding durability. Maintenance programs or patch kits should be available as an option to the end-user.Today's fresco are also sustainable in that a quality fresco will be created from organic materials such as lime or aggregates. Innovative fresco vendors now utilize pigments that are chemical- and solvent-free, thus VOC emissions are low. Correctly chosen, frescos are applicable for use in all types of interior installations. Customization can be used for branding purposes; this application is readily seen in roll-out retail locations. Contract, hospitality, residential and healthcare design specialists can look at sustainable and aesthetic benefits for their end-users. In addition, frescos offer less potential for mold and mildew development behind the surface due to their superior breathability factor over many wall coverings. Results from an ASTM-E96 test will illustrate the material's performance data.Fresco suppliers have samples available or will create them if you request a custom product. In addition, a reputable firm will offer specifications, explain how to prep surfaces and offer a product guarantee.Another major and unusual point to weigh is the business model of the supplier. A vertically-integrated supplier will offer you a price that includes installation by that firm's master craftsmen. This methodology provides exemplary quality control and customer service. It also ensures that application is done according to the supplier's recommendations with the appropriate tools. Pricing, as it includes installation in this model, is comparable to vinyl or paper wall coverings.

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Daniel Näss is president of NÄSS Fresco Finishes, a supplier of integrally-pigmented plaster systems. NÄSS Fresco Finishes provide an opulent aesthetic combined with high durability and sustainable features such as low- or no-VOC emissions and a 70 percent recycled paper pulp content. Their products are available for overnight sampling in over 60 colors and application techniques. Or they can be customized to match any interior scheme. In addition, the firm offers installation by skilled artisans to ensure quality control and proper application techniques. Näss is a member of IIDA, AIA, NEWH, the Foundation for Design Integrity and the National Association of Store Fixturing Manufacturers. For information, visit

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