Lecture: Lance Bressow on fresco
Lance Bressow dazzled us with an insightful run-down of the lengthy and yet frenetic, precise and danger-fraught technique that is fresco painting. What follows is a description of an art form verging on a horror story. Fresco: it’s not for the faint of heart.
Lance trained in Florence under Narina Simi and later Pietro Annigoni, with whom he studied drawing, oil tempera and fresco. Ever appreciative of a good wit, he treated us to many of Annigoni’s wry jokes, and to stories of his amazing facility: One of the greatest marks ever made, Lance told us solemnly, he witnessed during the initial stages of a fresco on which he assisted Annigoni. In a great domed alcove of a church, Annigoni surveyed the curved wall before him, walked up to it and decisively chalked a mark: ‘I see halfway here.’ Lance and another assistant got their tools out and calculated the middle, only to prove him right.
Fresco has a strained relationship with time. Many people perhaps know that once your plaster is up, you have to work quickly and flawlessly with your paint, working into the still-damp plaster, and that corrections mean removing the surface and starting again. The painting must thus be worked in sections, with the joins carefully planned so that they are as discreet as possible. What surprised us more was the laborious preparation, planned out over years. Fresco painting is thoroughly schizophrenic, with vast periods of waiting punctuated by moments of high-energy and near-death.
But it is not only its simultaneous demands for fluency and accuracy that make fresco an extreme sport, waiting time aside. The materials add to the drama. Fresco starts out with a drum of crude quicklime, which has to be slaked. It’s at this point you probably need one of those rhymes like the ones that are supposed to help you not consume your alcohol in the wrong order: ‘Beer before liquor will make you sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.’ If you add water into the lime, it will explode. The lime must be added to the water. Even so, the ensuing chemical reaction makes for a lot of heat, so much heat that you can’t touch the drum, which makes things tricky as you have to stir it for hours—‘it takes forever,’ Lance admitted matter-of-factly. After that, it has to sit for at least two years—‘five is better,’ he added, to great effect. Annigoni would have a brick pit built by the fresco-prospective church in which to store his slaked quicklime, with a big lock on it. This was, Lance explained, to stop church-going children from falling in to the ‘mafia vanishing cream.’
Suited up in masks, hair coverings, and armed with angle-grinders, fresco-workers must prepare the walls for their first coat of plaster. The walls must be ripped up to make a good key, or tooth, to take the plaster. Sand, white cement and course marble are added to this rough and sturdy layer. The arriccio, the first coat, being up, you now have to wait another year. At this point, Lance delightfully produced a rusting bucket of tools, and proceeded to introduce us to his trowels. ‘Ah, a good bull-nose trowel,’ he said approvingly, and, pulling out another, ‘Ah, this one’s a gem!’ A hefty mason’s hammer also came out of the bucket, as did the delightfully clever contraption that is the chalk line. A demonstration ensued, with Lance marking a horizontal and a vertical on some paper on a nearby easel with a snap of the line.
Fascinatingly, Lance worked on frescos right here in Brisbane as well. Despite the lengthy time-investment, a church in Hendra commissioned a couple of frescos, including one of the Supper at Emmaus, which Lance talked us through. ‘The drapery on the St Luke was a killer!’ he quipped. Because it’s crucial to get it right, meticulous preparation is involved in the planning of the painting itself. He showed us a photograph of a model he constructed from posable wooden figures clothed in home-sewn robes. From this he developed the drawing, which must then be scaled up into a cartoon. Most of this work is started after the second coat, the arricciato, has gone up, which is tempered with sand and a little white cement. Only one more year to wait! Fortuitously, all this waiting afforded Lance time to go back to Italy to learn about applying gold leaf.
The cartoons are laid down on a carpet and punctured with a carpenter’s awl, ready to create a dot-to-dot transfer directly onto the wall. When the day to commence painting finally arrives, a fine layer of plaster is literally ‘thrown’ up on the wall—Lance grasps a nearby trowel and demonstrates the flick of the wrist—for reasons unknown to him, it creates the best surface. The cartoons are then held up to the wall and red dust is scattered through the holes to make the sinopia, the underdrawing. Lance recommends a visit to the Sinopia Museum in Pisa for a rare insight into this intermediate stage. On a photo of his Emmaus fresco, he traces where he made the subtle divisions for each day’s painting—six days’ painting in total. And the days were long: at 4am Gino, the plasterer, would throw up that day’s section of plaster, Lance would begin painting, a church service would take place, and Lance would continue well into the evening, only packing up for the day at 10pm.
The paint needs no binding medium, consisting only in distilled water and powdered pigment. Stiff hogs hair brushes are generally used, but Lance lauds the humble ‘horrid acrylic brush’—‘fabulous,’ he says, since they mimic the softness of sable without getting instantly torn up by the plaster. In concluding, Lance recommended we all get a copy of Cennini’s Craftsman’s handbook (Il libro dell’Arte) on our bookshelves, not least to show off to our friends at house parties, which covers even more of the specifics of fresco painting should we land ourselves a commission. ‘The Italian has an innate sense of craftsmanship,’ he tells us, full of admiration.
The audience in raptures after this rollicking journey, impressed but drained even at the thought of the arduous and long-term project that is fresco, one timid listener piped up: ‘So—is it really amazing to paint on then?’
‘Oh, it is the medium!’ Lance assured us without hesitation.
Come along to our public lectures after each five-week pose! We put on a fine spread of wine and French cheese and all stick about for a barbecue afterwards.