Al-fresco

They say “Walls have ears too”. The proverb has a profound meaning towards being careful with your words, especially when you do not know the distinction between a friend and a foe. But I found it fits better to show how rich and profound history can be.

Fresco vs Mural

While almost all fresco paintings are murals or large-scale paintings on walls or ceilings, murals are not necessarily frescos. A mural is any large painting on a wall, ceiling or any other large structure and can be created using any medium. On the other hand, Fresco or fresh in Italian, is an old technique which involves thorough knowledge of arts, mediums and techniques. It also involves drafting skills, understanding of compositions, traditional techniques and history of styles and requires strong organizational skills. It stems from the practice of painting with a mix of water and pigment onto freshly laid wall plaster. As the lime-based plaster dries in the air, carbonation fuses the pigment particles within the plaster, making them a permanent part of the wall.

Fresco style of painting is considered as the most incredible technique of mural-making, is ideal for making large-scale wall pieces due to its monumental style, durability, and its matte finish – It increases the integrity of the wall and the painted image. While it may not permit blending of colours as seen in oil paintings, Fresco paintings have known to out-survive almost every other medium by ensuring clear shining color through majestic and decorative murals.

Types of Frescos

  1. Buon or True fresco is the oldest, most durable, and most common type of fresco. The paint mixture is a combination of pigment and room temperature water. The canvas for Buon fresco painting is a very thin layer of wet plaster, called the intonaco. The intonaco itself binds the pigment to the wall, so there is no need to use a binder. The most significant restriction when using buon fresco techniques is the rapid drying time of the intonaco plaster layer. Typically, the layer of plaster will take between ten and twelve hours to dry completely. Traditionally, buon fresco artists will only begin painting around two hours after applying the intonaco, and will finish two hours before the final drying time. Once the plaster has dried fully, the artist cannot paint any further without removing any unpainted surface.
  2. Secco or Dry fresco dispenses with the complex preparation of the wall with wet plaster, thus eliminating the time factor of buon fresco. The canvas here is a dried plaster wall, which is soaked with limewater and painted while wet using color pigments and a binder like tempura egg yolk, oil, or glue. The colours do not penetrate into the plaster but form a surface film, like any other paint. Secco is useful for detailed painting and for retouching true fresco. Blue pigments, for example, were difficult to achieve using buon fresco because of the plasters alkalinity. 
  3. Mezzo fresco, more popularly seen in 17th century, is a technique that combines the buon and secco styles. Artists paint on intonaco that is almost but not quite dry, so the pigment absorbs only slightly into the plaster. This allowed for a longer patining time and allowed for more artists flexibility.

You can read up more about some of the most famous fresco patintings.

Frescos in India

Being one of the oldest art techniques, a fresco tour to India would be rich in history and local culture. Wall paintings have been practiced from times immemorial. It is said to have its origin in the Shilpa texts (Vishnu Dharmottara Purana, 5th century C.E.; Abhilashitartha Chintamani, 12th century; Shilparatna, 16th century; etc.) which comprises of Indian art, methods of execution and preservation. In the beginning, the art form was primitive and the techniques were also very simple, with the paint being applied on the rock surface. Later, more sophisticated designs and paintings were made on walls which were prepared quite often with several layers of plaster.

Overall, there are five components of Indian wall paintings –

  • Carrier are the support on which ground is applied in preparation for patinting. In cave painting, rock is the carrier, whereas in fort palace mural paintings, the masonry is the carrier.
  • Ground (rough and fine plaster layer) – For rough plaster, a variety of options are available, ranging from brick powder, caustic lime, seasame oil, clay, gum and resin to animal glue and clay mixture and limestone, shells, bark extracts, curd, milk, and molasses. The ingredients of the rough plaster will be held together by organic materials (adhesive/ binder) such as gum, glue, and bark extracts. For fine plaster, the options range from a mixture made of seasame oil, clay, and resin to that of conch, oyster shells or white clay with gum from the neem tree.
  • Binder/ Adhesive – Organic materials such as gum and glue extracts are used as a binding agent.
  • Pigments – The Shilpa texts recommends the different types of pigments such as gold, silver, copper, brass, lead, tin, mica, ivory, lac, vermilion, indigo, orpiment, and myrobalan (from the fruit of an Indian tree), conch, cinnabar, red ocher, lamp black, lapis lazuli, yellow ocher, orpiment, and red lead.
  • Medium – While Vishnu Dharmottara Purana and Shilparatna suggests mixing the pigments in a gum solution, Abhilashitartha Chintamani advocates use of animal glue solution for the same.

Famous Examples in India

Fresco of India are one of a kind and the process of making one is equally unique. These ‘traditional wallpapers’ glorifies and redefines longevity.

>>>>> The largest concentration of prehistoric sites and rock paintings are found in Central India’s sandstone regions, which span three distinct mountain systems: the Vindhyachal and Satpura in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and a portion of Uttar Pradesh and the Aravalli in Rajasthan. One of the prominent sites that I had the good fortune of visiting will be the Bhimbetka rock shelters which showcases prehistoric surviving rock art in India because of the quality of pigment applications in the form of fine and controlled lines. Many shades of red were visible, ranging from scarlet to pale red to dark chocolate. Natural minerals were used to make these pigment.

>>>>> The art of wall painting in Rajasthan evolved into what is known as Rajasthani style after the 17th century C.E. Buon fresco is a common hallmark on the walls of Rajasthan fort palaces, a prime example would be Amber Fort. But my personal favourite would be the walls of the lesser known Sanghi Ji Jain Temple, nestled within the busy bylanes of Jaipur. Interestingly, Jainism did not get much royal support in the first few centuries after Mahavira. Textbooks claims only one royal patron for Jainism – Samprati, grandson of Ashoka, and ruler of Ujjayini. As a religion, there is no history of Jainism in written existence after Mahavira. However, when it comes to the matter of arts and architecture, the contributions of the Jains to the rich cultural heritage of India can be definitely described as significant.

>>>>> Bundela connections with the Mughal court and relations with Rajput princes around the reign of Vir Singh Deo (1602-1628) influenced their indegenous style — the “Bundela Style” in architecture, and an associated wall-painting style, Bundeli Kalam. Despite the influence from the painting styles of Rajasthan, Malwa and Mughal, Bundeli Kalam emerged with its own distinctive palate of style across central India, particularly in the Bundelkhand region which comprises of the princely states of Jhansi, Orchha and Datia. The exuberant paintings on the interior walls and ceilings usually depict a wide range of subjects – from Krishna Leela, Ramayana, Puranic tales and imageries to various forms of royal amusements. The technique initates with a layer of chuna-surkhi (lime + finely grounded brick used in plaster) plaster blended with a second layer of marble and shell dust, and polished with cowries and agate.

Datia Palace, M.P. – An embossed paiting (17th century) on the ceiling showing Bundeli dancers around a white local flower in the centre. The Rai Dance is a traditional folk dance of the Bundelkhand region

>>>>> Interestingly it is the Mughal period which showed a great boom of fresco art form, especially with extensive use as ornamental decorations within forts, palaces, and mosques. It became integral part of Mughal architecture. Due to prohibition of using living things in Islamic art, complex geometrical patterns were created keeping in mind the Islamic philosophy to create amazing pieces of art. Most of their work is based on buon fresco in which pigments are applied on wet antonico.

A wide range of artwork can be seen on the walls and ceilings of Mughal architecture – from inlay work, mosaic, to tile, stucco, carving, and paintings.

Do you see it now? Don’t you agree that the walls speak in louder volume?


Related (and not-so related) Posts:


3 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s