How to Make a Fresco Painting

Affresco ( In English usage, “fresco” ). Painting done on freshly laid wet plaster with pigments dissolved in lime water. As both dry they become completely integrated. Known as “true” fresco, this technique was most popular from the late thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries. The common assumption that all mural painting is fresco painting is an erroneous idea. It is true that one can in fact paint on fresh plaster, or intonaco, to make a painting in affresco or a fresco. In true fresco the artist must start applying his colors on the wet (or fresco) intonaco as soon as it has been prepared and laid on the wall. The colors can thus be absorbed by the wet plaster. When it dries and hardens, the colors become one with plaster. Technically speaking the plaster does not “dry” but rather a chemical reaction occurs in which calcium carbonate is formed as a result of carbon dioxide from the air combining with the calcium hydrate in the wet plaster.


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    Create a full scale detailed compositional rendering. Develop your cartoon and make a pounced tracing.
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    Create your color study. It will be used for mixing the right color tones and for general color reference.
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    Prepare your plaster a few days in advance (the earlier the better - lime needs time to "adopt itself to the sand and gain plasticity) in proportion of 8 parts extra fine sand to 5 parts slaked (pitted) lime or so, with the least water possible.
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    Put three coats of plaster on your panel at intervals of 5 days in between the coats or "wet on wet". The scratch, brown/rough/float (arriccio), coat names reflect the grade of sand - coarse, rough, fine. After preceding coats are completely dry, depending on the size of the panel 2-7 days, apply an "Intonaco" - final, painting coat on the day of painting. In the beginning it is better to use a ceramic tile and only 2 coats "Arriccio" (base coat) and "Intonaco" (actual painting coat).
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    Prepare your colors. It will help to grind the base pigments with water into the paste in advance, storing them in sealed glass jars, this way in the morning (before the painting begins) there will be more time to prepare tone mixes. To start with, try about 12 different colors. Use freshly ground dry lime mixed with water as white (pigments mixed with lime and lime mixed for whites can not be saved). Your mixes should be done ONLY with distilled water. The best working pigments in fresco are the earth oxides and other mineral pigments. Some pigments will not work with lime plaster at all - some man made greens change to yellow when being mixed, as well as many other modern day pigments except the ones that specially formulated for the use with plasters. Test the colors in advance by mixing little portions of them with lime. Most art supply stores also have reference material on traditional fresco palettes.
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    Use soft, long bristle brushes. They should also be round, flat, and in many sizes.
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    Leave it to settle. Wait about twenty minutes after applying the final intonaco (painting plaster coat). Before starting to paint, make sure that the plaster is firm to touch (will not dent if pressed with a finger).
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    Tracing from the cartoon pounced along the lines with needle or pouncing wheel is laid over the plaster and dusted over with charcoal or simply incised (pressed along the lines) by the opposite end of a thin brush to provide the base guideline for the painting process. The under-painting is done with terra verde (green earth pigment) with shadows enhanced in umber (picture on the right) or with other colors, but remember in fresco it is not possible to completely paint out a "wrong" color therefore every tone should be carefully planned. Another thing to remember is that plaster behaves differently during the day - it will need more water in the tones at the beginning and the end of the day then in the middle and do not keep to much paint on the brush - it will result in "blobs" squeeze it slightly between the fingers before touching the plaster.
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    The end of the day for the fresco painter is the most pleasant stage. The plaster enters what is sometimes called "the golden hour" - painting is 3/4 done and plaster is in it's best stage. Time to finish the detail pickup and blend color tones by passing over and over with layers of transparent color at (this stage the color mixes should be "wet" again). Painter must work fast and precise at this stage because "golden hour" also means that plaster will soon "lock up" - stop receiving paint (the paint will change to much lighter opaque tone as soon a it touches the plaster - that is it put the brush down!). One thing to remember is that in the next seven or so days following the painting the fresco will be undergoing the curing stage and this is a confidence test for the Artist. Colors dry at different speed and plaster is naturally compacted unevenly although it looks flat and perfect changes to white faster in more compacted areas. These are to of many other factors that make color in fresco change into discouraging cacophony for the first few days after the painting is finished. But do not worry in about 7-10 days it will look even more beautiful and just a little lighter then the day it was painted.


  • This video from the demonstrates how to prepare "practice lime putty" from common construction Type S hydrated lime powder. Can be used for Lime Wash
  • In its essence, fresco or fresco painting is an - application of natural mineral pigments to a surface on which a following chemical reaction takes place: Ca(OH)2(s) + CO2(g) ----> CaCO3(s) + H2O(l)
  • Calcium Hydrate (burned limestone or marble mixed with water) combined with carbon dioxide resulting in the formation of Calcium Carbonate - limestone, marble. It is like "Painting with molten Marble".
  • Lime Putty the essential ingredient for the Fresco Painting hard to find and costly. Here is the video tutorial on how to prepare it from the common contraction Type S Hydrated Lime:

Things You'll Need

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Video of the tools (materials, containers, plaster support you will need.
Fresco video tutorial from the Fresco School

Article Info

Categories: Painting