Not For Anyone Else’s Eyes

“If the drawing is wrong, the fresco is wrong.” With that, master craftsman and fresco instructor Walter O’Neill began a fresco workshop that I attended at the Morgan Library & Museum, in New York City. Fresco painting has become somewhat of a lost art over the centuries even though many great art masterpieces have been created in buon or “true” fresco, the painting technique in which pigments are dissolved in only water and painted directly onto a wet lime-plaster wall. As the wall dries, the chemical reaction between the plaster and the air allows the pigments to fuse directly into the wall. Leonard’s The Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel works, and Raphael’s School of Athens were all created in this manner.


Correggio's frescoes in Parma, Italy, are some of my favorites. They are incredibly mind-boggling.
Correggio’s frescoes in Parma, Italy, are some of my
favorites. They are incredibly mind-boggling.

O’Neill stressed that fresco work was time- and labor-intensive, and that a successful fresco painting began with a series of drawings. First the artist completed initial, exploratory drawings to work through multiple composition possibilities and figure arrangements. These would lead to a more developed set of sketches after the basic layout for the painting was solidified. Aspects of these drawings, from an entire grouping of figures to the most minute, particular gesture, would be combined to form the final compositional drawing.

From here, the master artist would often assign a trusted apprentice the task of squaring the drawing for transfer. This process involved, literally, applying a square grid to the final drawing made by the master and creating larger drawings of each square in a consistent ratio, such as one foot per one inch, for example. The end result was a large-scale drawing, or cartoon, of the master’s finalized sketch.

All of the drawing phases that led to the final cartoon were subject to change, O’Neill noted. “A drawing was a working document or blueprint, and not for anyone else’s eyes. Changes could and would be made throughout the process as needed.” That’s because once pigment was applied to the wet plaster wall for the fresco, the time for deliberation and adjustments was over.


This cartoon or preparatory drawing was the basis for Bronzino's fresco depicting the martyrdom of St. Lawrence.
This cartoon or preparatory drawing was the basis for
Bronzino’s fresco depicting the martyrdom of St. Lawrence.

There are no opportunities to undo mistakes when working in this particular medium, so the drawings an artist used—the reference he would consult when applying pigments freehand to the plaster wall, and the large-scale cartoons that would sometimes be applied directly to the wet plaster wall and traced—had to be correct in order for the artist to go forward with the painting.

I left the fresco workshop with the clear understanding that an artist’s greatest ally can be his or her drawing skills. The end result of the fresco process could indeed be a beautiful, moving painting, but what allowed an artist to create the final product was surety of line and a deft drawing ability. For a fun and unique way to sharpen your own drawing skills, and to see how you can meditate and gather inspiration from drawing, try the drawing exercises in The Zentangle Untangled Ultimate Collection. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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