The feature length documentary
High Fresco is slated for release in 2014
For more about the art of fresco and Ben Long, please see below
by Mark Wade Stone
While fresco is a monumental art form dating back to Egyptian and Greco-Roman
times, it achieved full flourish during the Renaissance in Italy. It
is from the Italians, then, that we derive the term itself, after affresco,
which means “fresh.” In the 15th and 16th centuries, fresco was a principal
technique used for a multitude of major commissions – Michelangelo’s
Sistine Chapel being most familiar to us. As a wall and ceiling decoration,
fresco is valued and acclaimed for its vibrancy of color and luminescence,
but as important, and barring catastrophe, it endures the life of the
wall. Though there currently exists only a handful of practicing fresco
masters, the technique is undergoing a North American renaissance, most
notably in North Carolina, Minnesota, California and Michigan. This
surge of activity in the final two decades of the 20th century, and
into the 21st, has caught fresco up to modern times, employing new technologies
to overcome inherent problems and accommodate contemporary architectural
Today, as in Renaissance times, frescoes may exist as a merely decorative
element -- a wall or ceiling border, for example -- or may follow traditional
compositional easel painting approaches in the manner of the Grand Masters.
The following is a description of method, termed “high fresco,” for
painting large-scale frescoes as practiced by American painter Ben Long.
Long worked for seven years alongside the late Florentine maestro Pietro
Annigoni, and is acknowledged as the maestro’s last apprentice.
What is Fresco?
Fundamentally, fresco is the art of painting water-suspended earth pigments
onto a damp lime plaster wall. It is a unique approach in that as the
painted plaster wall dries, it carbonizes to form a remarkably hard
skin of calcium carbonate, locking the particles of absorbed pigment
into place. Fresco becomes the wall. Thus, the methodology begins with
the element crucial to fresco: lime.
The Lime Pit
Creation of the lime pit typically takes place before, or concurrent
with, the artist’s formulation of preliminary compositional drawings,
since lime should, ideally, break down for no less than two years before
use as a prepared painting surface. A traditional lime pit consists
of merely mixing powdered lime and water in a hole dug into the ground.
Modern approaches usually involve lining the hole with a watertight
tank, or series of tanks, to better control contamination and handling
of the lime. Though care must be taken to guard against freezing temperatures,
tanks also may be located above ground.
By the time the pit is filled and capped, many gallons of distilled
water and quantities of the purest available lime will have been combined,
small batches at a time, and poured into the pit to begin the breakdown
of the mixture into a soft, gritty paste. The chemical breakdown of
the lime crystals, called “slaking,” must continue until it is smooth
enough to be used as plaster for the “skin,” or finished painting surface.
The Scratch Coat
In the meantime, many buckets of the partially-slaked lime will be combined
with sand (two parts rough washed sand, one part lime) to create the
“scratch coat,” a three-quarter-inch or more layer of foundation plaster
troweled onto an existing interior wall. It is to this roughly-scored
scratch coat that the final eighth-inch-thick skin is bound. The scratch
coat, applied in two or three layers several months apart, may be reinforced
by a membrane of metal mesh between the plaster and the wall. A typical
Renaissance-era wall consisted of brick, which allowed the finished
fresco to bind and dry with relative ease. Brick is not the common interior
construction material it once was, so products like Densglass mounted
on a reinforced masonry wall may serve today as a wallboard backing
suitable for the scratch coat. Large-scale frescoes weighing thousands
of pounds requires close consultation with the architect of the building.
The process of mixing water with powdered lime is fraught with hazards.
The combination produces a volatile chemical reaction, which creates
enormous amounts of heat and steam. A fifty-pound bag of lime should
be laid flat on the rim of a heat-resistant 55-gallon barrel containing
11-14 gallons of distilled water. Slitting the bag along its length,
the mixer then dumps the bag’s contents into the water all at once and
loosely covers the barrel with the empty bag to prevent splattering.
Within a very short time, the mixture will begin roiling, bubbling and
steaming, shaking the barrel with its vigorous action. Workers should
wear protective clothing and a Plexiglas face shield to avoid the 400-degree
spatters of wet lime and large volumes of steam escaping the mixing
barrel. Despite these discomforts, the mixer must remain at the barrel
using an industrial drill and extended paddle bit to ensure the batch
is completely blended into a loose slush before it is poured into the
pit. Once filled, the pit is then sealed in such a way as to minimize
exposure to pollution and other contaminants. The pit should be checked
regularly against water leaks and freezing. Additional distilled water
can be periodically stirred into the mixture to maintain moisture content.
Fresco painting technique, because of the repeated cross-hatching of
earth pigments onto the absorbent skin, resembles drawing as much as,
or more than, painting. Long before approaching the wall, the artist
begins with pencil, charcoal or conté drawings of models or other physical
elements that will make up the overall preliminary compositional drawing.
The compositional drawing is typically made on a one-inch to one-foot
scale, though it has been suggested that using metric measurement greatly
facilitates transference of gridded drawings to full scale. These initial
drawings -- both individual sketch studies and the compositional drawing
containing these elements -- require an artist with a keen instinctual
eye for exactitude. Precision is critical when it comes time to enlarge
the compositional drawing to full-scale size.
Once initial drawings are completed, the artist may create more fully
refined drawings of certain elements – such as portraits – to fix them
even more firmly in the mind. In theory, this “fixing-in-the-mind,”
while appearing somewhat repetitive, is an important process throughout
the course of conceptualization. It allows the artist to not only embed
the subjects into memory, but to also discover new and serendipitous
aspects of the original inspiration for the composition.
An oil color study of the full composition, generally the same size
as the compositional drawing, should also be prepared. Color – rather
than detail, as in the drawing – is emphasized. The artist’s knowledge
of color, through experience in easel oil painting, comes heavily to
bear. Here the artist more fully visualizes how color may affect composition,
taking into account the “weight” of certain colors in balance with others.
The color study may result in minor changes and realignments of all
or part of the composition. The artist and colorist should then decide
which color pigments must be acquired.
In creating the “cartoons,” there is now a return to refined drawing:
charcoal and conté drawings enlarged to the full scale of the finished
fresco. The original compositional drawing, gridded with one-inch squares,
is transferred to large sheets of paper with a one-foot grid pattern
(again, a metric configuration may well be preferable). This is laborious
and exacting, but results in the ability to view the full composition
in terms of proportion and perspective. Relative weight and arrangement
of individual elements in the picture can be confirmed as properly balanced
and scaled to each other. The cartoons may also be mounted at the actual
painting site wall to allow the artist line-of-sight references.
Tracing and Punching
More importantly, the cartoon is a primary gauge used to ensure that
the accuracy of the original composition is maintained on the wall.
To this end, semi-transparent tracing paper is laid over the cartoon
and dominant lines are traced. The tracing paper is removed and punched
with a large needle every few inches along the traced lines. These tracings
are set aside for the sinopia process, and are used again when painting
Site and Pigment Preparation
A short time prior to approaching the wall, scaffolding must be assembled
as needed and grinding tables arranged at the work site. The artist
or colorist supervises a team of assistants in preparing mixtures of
pigments and distilled water, which will be rendered to a buttery texture
by grinding the colors on glass plates with heavy stone or glass mullers.
To whiten a color, slaked lime itself is often used. Mulling is labor
intensive – even tedious – but necessary to ensure that pigments and
lime crystals are ground finely enough to be drawn into the porous plaster
as it dries.
It is at this point – with the colors prepared, the tracings and punchings
completed, and a designated scratch coat area thoroughly misted with
water the night before – that the artist and crew are ready to approach
The punched tracings, with the essential outline information from the
cartoons, are affixed with string loops and suspended in place on the
wall from nails gently driven into the scratch coat. Small gauze bags
filled with red earth pigment are tapped – “pounced” – over the punched
holes in the tracings to create a dotted outline on the scratch coat.
The tracings are removed, and with drawings and cartoons mounted nearby
for reference, the artist follows the dotted outline to begin the sinopia,
or “underdrawing.” Though the scratch coat is rough and the drawing
(using red pigment suspended in water) is not particularly detailed,
it once again serves to fix the drawing in the mind and allows a final
confirmation of compositional correctness. The scratch coat is then
heavily misted with distilled water the night before painting.
The muratore, or mason, is then brought in to apply the thin lime plaster
skin over a portion of the sinopia designated by the artist. This application
is referred to as the giornata, figuratively translated as “work that
can be done in a day.” The muratore is generally directed to extend
the fresh plaster lay an inch or so beyond the borders of the giornata
to allow room for the artist to evenly trim the edges after the day’s
This, the final painting surface – called the intonaco – is an eighth-inch
layer of fully slaked lime and sand, mixed one-to-one on-site. It must
be neither too wet nor too dry for purposes of trowling and pigment
absorbency. Moisture content is an inexact science even for experienced
masons and fresco painters, and conditions at each site -- such as thickness
and absorbency of the scratch coat, ambient room heat and humidity,
temperature of the exterior of the wall -- must be accounted for. The
intonaco must be troweled smooth and flat, and checked from various
angles for irregularities. Spot applications of a watery mixture of
pure lime can smooth irregularities in overall surface texture.
Assisting the Maestro
As the muratore’s work is being completed and a second pouncing onto
the intonaco begins, assistants must prepare a table near the intonaco.
This table becomes, in essence, the painter’s palette. On it rests containers
– often bowls – of the ground colors selected for that day. These colors
are suspended in distilled water, and must be frequently stirred or
“spun” by an assistant to maintain suspension of the pigments. Also
on the table are containers of various size brushes, a hand-held palette
of mulled color, and several bowls of clean water for rinsing brushes.
An assistant must stand at the ready to hand the painter brushes, damp
sponges and maintain the containers of fresh water. If satisfied with
the pouncing on the intonaco, the artist proceeds, guided by these critical
The “Golden Hour”
An indication of the ideal painting surface, called the “golden hour,”
occurs when paint is immediately absorbed when brushed onto the wall.
Viewed at the proper angle to a light source, this effect can be seen
clearly as a reflective brushstroke that disappears promptly upon application.
The wall is said to be “taking” at that point. Should the wall be seen
as slow in taking, the wall is too wet, resulting in the brush “picking
up” – smearing or lifting color.
“Tearing it Out”
Mistakes cannot be brushed out or covered over, and therein lies the
high challenge of fresco. Errors in laying the plaster, or even painting,
may well result in having to scrape off all or part of the intonaco.
Variances in color or inappropriate appearances of lime patches and
the like can be corrected by creating a secondary painting surface of
egg tempera one year after the fresco is painted. But even when taking
correctly, the artist generally has a window of only several hours before
the wall begins to “lock up,” becoming too dry to take pigment properly.
As the giornata nears completion, the artist may occasionally direct
that the intonaco be sprayed with a fine mist of water, which acts as
a medium to draw pigments further into the wall.
The End of the Day
At the end of each day, a “day line” must be cut, which consists of
trimming the small amount of excess plaster left by the mason at the
edge of the intonaco. The day line should be cut and beveled with fine,
sharp and flexible instrument (a utility blade or trowel). Execution
must be precise, as other giornatas will be troweled adjacent to all
or part of the day line at some point. These new intonacos must be painstakingly
“married” to the previous day line so as to render the borders virtually
The scratch coat well beyond the giornata is likely to have absorbed
a great deal of moisture. Care must be taken not to over-water the scratch
coat for the next day’s painting if the new intonaco is to be laid adjacent
to the one prior to it.
Coordination and understanding of the fresco process is fundamental
to success. Inspired and informed by a sense of beauty; an acutely intimate
understanding of thematic resonances; an essentially rote knowledge
of every detail of the composition; a highly-attuned eye for drawing;
a fulsome understanding of color; as well as an appreciation for teamwork
and the time and effort it has taken to reach the painting stage, the
artists persevere with each day’s work until completion.
HIGH FRESCO - THE ART OF BEN LONG is a cinéma vérité documentary about the fresco triptych painted in 1992 at the Bank of America (then NationsBank Corporate Center) in Charlotte, North Carolina by the preeminent American fresco master Ben Long. Standing ten feet off the floor, each of the three frescoes measures a monumental 18' X 23'.
Wade Stone is a four time Emmy Award winning producer based in Cleveland, Ohio
- HIGH FRESCO, which follows Ben Long's work from 1990 to 1992, is Stone's
He can be reached at:
Storytellers Media Group, Ltd
2223 Carabel Avenue
Lakewood, Ohio 44107-5565 U.S.A.
mark [AT] storytellersmediagroup [DOT] com
video titles available from Storytellers Media Group, Ltd:
A WINDOW ON THE NATIONSBANK FRESCOES (1992, 20 min.) – Short
“sketch” of the finished documentary, summarizing two years of preparatory
work in Paris and the first several days of on-site painting. $15.00
+ $3.00 P&H
Coming Attractions: RIPPEROLOGY (2015) FLYING TURNS (2014) BROKEN ROSARY - THE FRANK DOLEZAL AFFAIR (2016) HIGH FRESCO - THE ART OF BEN LONG (2014)
Copies can be ordered through the above PayPal "Buy
now" buttons, or via the above address; checks or money orders
only when ordering by mail. Students may order at 10% discount.
Please allow 4 ~ 6 weeks for delivery.
Sites Real Color WheelJust
had to include this - a thorough approach to color by Hawaii-based
artist Don Jusko. This is a huge site, with lots of step-by-step
easel painting examples. Modern Fresco
Ilia Anossov - a diverse, original talent who has one of the
best fesco sites on the Web. Wet-Wall Tattoos Link
a to fine book on Ben Long by Richard Machal The Art and Nature
of Fresco A
site about the fresco technique and philosophy of Sr. Lucia
Wiley (1902-1998), a WPA muralist and painter - with a focus
on women muralists Ben Long Fine Art Site
promoting the painter's work..