|Seated Male Nude (study for The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence)
by Agnolo Bronzino, 1565-1569, black chalk, 13 x 18 1/4, corners cropped.
Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.
||The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
by Agnolo Bronzino, 1569, fresco.
Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.
|The preparatory sketch on the left was the basis for the figure in the bottom
right-hand corner of Bronzino's fresco depicting the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, at right.
“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 a few weeks ago 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
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. 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 better understanding of how to sharpen your own drawing
skills, and to see the strong draftsmanship of contemporary and historic
masters alike, be sure to pick up Drawing magazine, available now.