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Making a Fresco

Grade Levels: 1 - 5

Objectives

Students will learn about fresco painting.
Students will create a piece of art in the style of fresco painting.

Materials

  • Pictures of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and the Stanze di Raffaello
  • Plaster of Paris
  • Water
  • A measuring cup
  • A large plastic mixing bowl
  • A rubber spatula or large plastic spoon
  • Watercolor or tempera paints
  • Paint brushes
  • Small foam plates (6" diameter)*
  • Plastic straws (cut to 1" pieces)
  • Ribbon, string, or twine

Procedure

  1. To introduce your students to frescoes, discuss the following information with your class.

    While the art of fresco painting reached its peak during the Italian Renaissance, examples of painting on wet plaster date back to 1500 B.C., and fresco paintings in caves were done more than 15,000 years ago.

    To achieve a buon or "true" fresco, artists use pure pigments and water to paint on wet plaster. Through this technique, the painting becomes part of the plaster wall or ceiling. An artist needs to work quickly and carefully while painting a true fresco because it cannot be changed once it dries. Several layers of plaster are applied to the wall or ceiling before the final painting layer is done. To make a fresco secco, an artist applies pigments to dry plaster. Egg, oil, or glue binds the pigments to the dry plaster. A fresco secco allows the artist to take his time and easily fix errors, but it is less durable than a buon fresco. In both techniques, the pigments are applied in layers.

    Frescoes were used for many large-scale works during the Renaissance, such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Since plaster dries quickly, it was important for artists to work on a buon fresco in small sections. To make it easier, artists planned drawings of their work, called cartoons. After poking holes along the outline of a cartoon, an artist would hold it up to the wet plaster and apply a colored dust, such as charcoal, through the holes. This transferred the outline of the drawing on to the wet plaster. Alternately, he could use a metal point to lightly indent the outline of the cartoon into the wet plaster. Frescoes do not require walls or ceilings; they can also be done on panels and tiles.

  2. Show students pictures of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's frescoes in the Palace of the Vatican. Discuss the similarities and differences in the works.

  3. Explain to students that they will be making their own small frescoes. Some students may feel inspired to paint a scene from one of the frescoes you have shown the class, while others may like to create an original painting. Depending on your time constraints, decide ahead of time if you will have students create a buon fresco or a fresco secco. You can complete steps 1–5 of the Fresco Secco Project in advance.
Buon Fresco Project
  1. Follow the package directions to make Plaster of Paris.
  2. Fill a foam plate for each student with Plaster of Paris.
  3. Near the top of the plate, insert a 1" piece of straw. Gently press it in to the foam, but do not puncture the plate. As the plaster sets, this will create a hole in the plaster for hanging.
  4. Let the plaster set until it is almost hardened but still wet. Distribute a plate of plaster to each student along with paint, water, and paintbrushes.
  5. Have each student paint the Plaster of Paris. Encourage them to be creative with their paintings. Remind them that the hole in the plaster is the top of the painting.
  6. When students are done painting, set the frescoes aside to dry.
  7. When the frescoes are dry, remove the straw and the foam surrounding each painting.
  8. String ribbon or twine through the hole at the top of each fresco. Display the frescoes around your classroom.
Fresco Secco Project
  1. Follow the package directions to make Plaster of Paris.
  2. Fill a foam plate for each student with Plaster of Paris.
  3. Near the top of the plate, insert a 1-inch piece of straw. Gently press it in to the foam, but do not puncture the plate. As the plaster sets, this will create a hole in the plaster for hanging.
  4. Let the plaster set until it is dry.
  5. Remove the straws from the dried plaster.
  6. Distribute a plate of dried plaster to each student along with paint, water, and paintbrushes.
  7. Have each student paint the Plaster of Paris. Encourage them to be creative with their paintings. Remind them that the hole in the plaster is the top of the painting.
  8. When students are done painting, set the frescoes aside to dry.
  9. When the frescoes are dry, remove the foam surrounding each painting.
  10. String ribbon or twine through the hole at the top of each fresco. Display the frescoes around your classroom.

Cleanup: If you have leftover Plaster of Paris in your mixing bowl, let it harden. Then, break apart the plaster pieces and discard them in the trash. DO NOT discard plaster down the drain.

*Foam plates are easy molds for this project because they are inexpensive and provide each student with a large surface area for painting. They are also easy to cut away from the plaster. You could also use foam trays, plastic plates, disposable pie tins, plastic soap or candy molds (available at most craft and hobby stores), or improvise your own mold with cardboard.

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