What is Fresco Painting?

The word ‘fresco’ is originally Italian and literally means ‘fresh’ and the art of fresco painting actually involves painting on walls which are fresh well plastered. No binding agents are used and the colours are mixed with water. These are then directly applied to the surface. Thus the colours sink well into the plastered surface and results in the creation of a colour which is sort of glowing. This effect is not achieved when painting on usual dry plaster. It is because of this very effect created that fresco paintings are directly done on walls rather than on paper and then glued to another surface.

Fresco Painting

Fresco Painting in Mandawa Havelies, Rajasthan, India

A Short History

There is some dispute regarding which is the earliest form of fresco found. From what has been found till date, the earliest examples goes back to about 30,000 years. Some historians believe that the earliest known examples are from the island of Crete in Greece. Others opine that the earliest examples are found in Chauvet cave in France. Some other places where fresco paintings have been found include Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Altamira, France and Lascaux. Historians have found some evidence which has led them to believe that there was possibly some trade with these paintings from Crete thus leading to the conclusion that fresco painting was thus a very important art form at that time. The Egyptian tombs showcase some of the finest fresco paintings of the world.


Fresco in the church Mariä Verkündigung in Fuchstal, Germany

Fresco in the church Mariä Verkündigung in Fuchstal, Germany

Fresco paintings depict images from the daily lives of people, to what they do in their afterlives as well as a lot of images from the Bible and other religious texts. Churches and cathedrals under the Eastern Orthodox Christianity are good examples of this kind of illustrations from the Bible. The leading fresco painters of the Russian medieval age include the Greek artist Theophanes, Andrei Rublev and Dionysius. The artist Giotto led the trend of mixing this Byzantine art form with the Gothic, leading to the Proto-Renaissance.


Fresco art reached its peak during the Renaissance period. In fact, most cities of Italy, except Venice had their walls covered with fresco paintings. This included the churches as well. The best examples of this kind of paintings are by Michelangelo such as the Genesis, the Last Judegement and the Piero della Francesca. Once the high renaissance phase was over, fresco paintings became more of a popular art. These were then used for purposes of decoration. Canvas oil paintings and tapestries became popular and these were then used for decorating upper areas of the walls and the ceilings. Some of the best examples include works by Pietro da Cortona, Jacopo Pontormo, and Andrea Mantegna. Mural painters of the 19th century include Theodore Chasseriau, Puvis de Chavannes whose works can be seen on the walls of Paris. Revivals of fresco painting by artists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco led to the Mural Renaissance in Mexico. Another well-known fresco painter was Ben Shahn many artworks of whom were created by public funding.


Indian frescoes are also known all over the world. The rock-cut cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora date back to 200 to 600 B.C. These depict narrative episodes from Buddha’s life. Other examples of ancient and medieval fresco paintings are found in the Badami Cave Temples, Bagh Cave, Havelies in Sekhawati, Rajasthan, etc. Fresco paintings of the Chola period are also well-known.


Types of Frescoes

The two most used forms of fresco paintings are the Buon fresco and the Secco. The Buon fresco style involves the mixture of pigment with only water. A binding material is not required since this is applied on a thin layer of wet lime mortar or plaster and this wet nature holds the colour. A chemical reaction occurs when this colour applied plaster reacts with air. Secco paintings on the other hand are done on dry plaster. Hence, a binding material such as egg or oil or glue is used so ensure that the pigment sticks to the wall. Historians say that secco paintings became popular during the Middle Ages. Buon frescoes by their very nature last longer than secco. Also, secco paintings are often done over buon frescoes to add little details or to make some changes.


All art forms are influenced by the development and changes in the others. The same is true for fresco paintings as the superior form of art that is reflected in these paintings led to the overall refinement of the art of painting. The chemical reaction forms an important part of fresco painting and this takes about six to twelve hours. The biggest challenge with fresco paintings is they do not allow correction. Hence, only highly skilled artists are able to create fresco works and these eventually become historical pieces. They are thus representatives of rich histories. They signify the cultural roots of the country and remain intact for centuries.

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