Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Understanding the world of Buon Fresco

My newest art adventure here in Florence is studying the art of Fresco painting. More specifically buon Fresco which translates as "True Fresco". Fresco is an ancient technique in painting which dates to long before the renaissance. It is a method of creating very long lasting paintings by using ground earth pigments mixed with water and then applied to a wet plaster made from sand and lime calcium. There is a chemical reaction that happens when the earth pigments are mixed with the lime calcium. As it dries the colour becomes infused right into the plaster making it permanent. the colour becomes 'part of' the plaster as opposed to being painting 'on top' of it. This is why Frescos from over a 1000 years ago can still be seen at many historic sights with images relatively intact. Due to the chemical reaction that is necessary to bind the colour with the plaster only certain earth pigments with a certain mineral composition will work and react properly with the lime calcium. This means there is a rather limited pallet of colours to work with when doing 'True Fresco'. The word true refers to the process in which the colours actually become part of the plaster. There is another technique in Fresco called "secco" which means "dry". This means that some colours are mixed with an egg mixture similar to egg tempra and applied to the fresco once the plaster is already dry. There is no limit to the pallet that can be used in 'secco' painting, the downside is the secco colours are the first to disintegrate. Usually when seeing a damaged fresco the colours that are the most damaged or in many cases completely gone were done in secco.

My first class was spent learning many of the basics I just shared with you. After  a general overview and a brief history we began with the preparation - the technique of mixing plaster. 2 parts sand to 1 part lime calcium. Easy..... or not so much. After several failed attempts to mix a plaster that didn't crack after 3 minutes it became apparent to me that measuring and mixing plaster is lot like how my mother measures and mixes when baking. 2 parts sand to 1 part lime calcium really means: a 'bunch' of lime smooshed up, then some sand poured straight from the bag, then a smidge or two of marble dust for lustre followed by a dollop of course sand, stirred and then do the 'spoon test' - (very similar to my grandmother's test to see if the jelly will set or not) Does it stick to the spoon? Or slide off slowly with a sploosh or a plop? Once I started looking at the plaster like a homemade batch of muffins things improved.
On day two I came in excited to start painting. "Lets do a small landscape to start" suggests my teacher. Excellent idea I agree. A lovely Tuscan countryside with rolling green hills, bright blue sky, puffy white clouds and a little cottage or country villa...I love the idea. We get out the natural earth pigments to begin True Fresco. Well... talk about bursting my bubble before we even start! There's brown, light brown, dark brown, red brown, blacky brown,  browny green, yellow ochre (browny yellow), lighter reddish brown and tan. I admit I had a real moment of "what the F*&%!" There's not even a brilliant white to mix with these. I looked at my teacher with a 'what am I supposed to do with this look' She laughed.
So really there are two things that will make a Fresco painting seem bright and really 'pop'. One is using secco colours at the end, the blues, golds and bright reds but to really work in the buon fresco technique these colours are not part of the pallet. The other thing you can do is have a really good drawing, isolating the light and dark, controlling the values...gee there it is again, the basics of art. Just like in my first painting course here. It's all about shape, light and dark. It could be all in black and white and still seem bright if you get the drawing right. Ok I get it, bring on the browns! Oh and there is a 3rd thing that can help. There are in fact some brilliant whites that can be used one made from lead, the other made from zinc and a bright pink/red colour called cinnabar. Of course all of these colours will fry your brain and mess with your central nervous system but heck do they ever do wonders for a painting! There's a reason artist have received reputations for being flighty, outrageous and downright weird. Most of us are, but often it's not a personality trait...to many toxins.

Now that I can mix the plaster and prep the colours the process begins. Each day I do a "giornata" a small section that I can finish in one sitting. I start by mixing and laying a small area of plaster. Then I transfer a section of my image onto the damp plaster using a stencil I made earlier of the design. Then I paint it in a beautiful collection of browns. I have been working on areas approximately 6"x6" during a 3 hour period. Once I am pleased with what I have done or the plaster is too dry I cut off any excess plaster. The next day I will apply more plaster ensuring it is level with the previous layers, line up the stencil and dust little bits of pigment through the holes poked in the stencil. Then I will attempt to match the colours from the previous day and keep going. There is no going back to fix things once it is done for the day. Once the plaster dries the colours are permanent, you can not wash off or add to them to make changes. At first this was terrifying...now I find it liberating. No use stressing over something you can't change, might as well stay focused on the current section. It really forces you to let go of things and just get on with it!

I have had the chance to visit some great Frescos by great masters such as Giotto and Agnolo Gaddi with my teacher as a guide. It is inspiring and looking at these paintings I can see that these painters certainly have been able to create bold, bright moving images using buon fresco. So since getting over my own colour delusion I have come to really love fresco. It is such an eclectic mix of skills rolled into one process. Part painter, part baker, part construction worker, part chemist and part alchemist. I may yet be able to turn led into gold or at least turn a concoction of sand and a whole lot of brown minerals into something stunning!

First day, trying to make a plaster that wouldn't crack!

Beginning the process, preparing to paint two faces.

End of the day, two faces done, excess plaster has been removed.

My teacher Giulia helps me to apply the spolvero (the stencil pattern)

Last face stencilled in and ready to start.

I receive pointers from the pro. My teach Giulia.

Painting the base colours with verdaccio just one of the many 'browns' we use!

Kai comes to school with me one day and creates a fresco of his own! 
He finishes in one day, little speed painter. (using the non-toxic colours of course)

Visiting Santa Croce church to see the real deal. These Fresco do not look brown and dull.
It can be done, I am inspired!

This Fresco was painted by a friend of Michelangelo and adorns the top of his tomb.
Apparently this  reddish purple is a pigment that can be used in buon fresco! 
It is now my personal mission in life to find this colour before leaving Florence. Some pigments are harder to come by than others! 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Charcoal and Other Messes

First I must point out that not all the stories and photos in this blog are in chronological order. Sometimes I have not finished writing about one event before I get swept up into another. What can I say, it's a busy life and an overwhelmingly inspiring place. Usually I have not totally processed one event before being submerged into the next.
So, to backtrack a little, at the end of February I completed my first workshop here in Florence. A 6 week intensive drawing and painting course with much emphasis on the human figure. Having had very little previous experience drawing the human figure I was not sure what to expect. I was very pleased with my results and came out of the experience with a whole new respect for realism as well as many of the art materials we used. In the past I always hated working with charcoal, it is messy and impossible to achieve any sort of detail. How utterly wrong I was...well to a degree, it is true - it is incredibly messy... but with a wooden batten, a bit of sandpaper and a lot of patience it is amazing what kind of detail can be achieved. (the sandpaper is wrapped or attached to the wooden batten and the charcoal rubbed along it into a fine point)
Drawings come out with the precision of a photograph in black and white. What an eye opener for me. I had far better success with the charcoal than I did with the paints in the end. Although I did not manage a great portrait of my model Elley, I did manage to make a great friend in her. Elley was ever so patient with my grumbling, complaining and mumbling to myself throughout the process. I'm sure I began to embody the typical stereotype of the half mad artist who has inhaled to many fumes and ingested to many solvents. Elley did not seem too concerned that I might lop off my ear and stick it in the mail at any given moment, in fact she was even willing to sit for extra sessions for me as I attempted in vain to capture her likeness in paint. In the end I came out with a portrait that could pass... as a picture of her long lost sister. The painting in itself is not great, but does bear some likeness to her. The learning curve on the other hand was great. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge throughout the entire course with some results coming out stronger than others. The trick now becomes integrating the new knowledge into what I do. Something that can be easier said than done.
Not to worry, I don't have to figure it out just yet, as I have already embarked on workshop number two! I have switched schools, saying farewell (for now) to the Florence Academy of Art, and have now started at the Leonardo Da Vince School of Art to take a 4 week course in Fresco! Buon Fresco to be exact which translates as "True Fresco". There are no modern modifications, techniques, tools or pigment here... it's the real deal, it's painstakingly slow and hard...but I love it... so far.
I will write more about the Fresco experience next post. Cheers!

This is my final charcoal sketch, two weeks of work. 
(Roughly 24"x 20)

Portrait in oils (of Elley's long lost sister)
Thanks for being so patient Elley!

The beginning of the Fresco process...this is after day 3 of work.
(The full panel is roughly 12"x24")

My Fresco at the end of day 4.
(More on this process in the next post)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Venice is Sinking?

I have heard that Venice is sinking. I don't know if this is true. I suppose with rising seal levels around the world it probably is. I am so glad that we got to experience it now when Venice is still very much afloat and very much alive. We arrived in Venice during the middle of Carnival. I have to sheepishly admit I had no idea what Carnival was, nor that it was happening. Just two days before leaving several people said to me "Oh you are going to Carnival, how wonderful." I smiled not really knowing what they were talking about and just replied "Yes we are going to Venice, the kids are sooo excited" - to which they replied in genuine surprise touched with genuine horror "you are going to Venice with your children during Carnival? Don't ever let go of their hands!"  In response to this I smiled a little more faintly, thanked them for their advice and walked off wondering what could they mean?
Well there is only one way to find out. I admit I briefly wondered if I should cancel the trip, I had received so many adverse reactions, but my mother was coming to visit us. That would mean an extra pair of hands and eyes with the kids, and I had promised my son he would see the city where the roads are water and the cars are boats. We had to go.
So with great excitement and trepidation we headed to Venice. I can honestly say it has been the highlight of our time so far in Italy. The city is beautiful, stunning in fact with architecture so glorious in the sunshine it could make my five year old stop and stare in amazement. The streets are a maze of narrow alleyways, and it is true we never managed to leave our hotel room and NOT get lost even with a map in our hands. So yes it was important to stick together somewhat, as finding each other could be near impossible. But with one adult per child it really wasn't that stressful, the deal was you stuck to the kid assigned to you and if we got separated from the other adult/kid combo we were to backtrack to the last major intersection where we had been to together and wait. If all else failed we would buy another map and meet back at the hotel. In fact the experience was far less stressful then a regular day trying to get home from school in Florence. There were no buses thundering down the street 8 inches away from where we stood, and the streets being even narrower prevented the children from getting very far away at all, the Venice experience was quite relaxing.
As for Carnival.... we could not have chosen a better time to go. People everywhere in massive ornate beautiful costumes wandered through the streets. All with masks delicately painted and decorated with  feathers, jewels and gold. Many of them were period costumes from the 1600 or 1700's.  I was worried at first that the kids might be a bit spooked, but not at all. The costumed characters move around slowly, with a sort of grace almost spectre-like. There seems to be a costume culture in Venice, they don't speak or move quickly, there is a seriousness about it and they will stop frequently in an archway or on a small bridge and pose for photos slowly moving a hand, fan or parasol drifting from one pose into another. As night falls it is like walking through a city of ghosts of Venice's past.
The kids loved it and wore masks of their own. They would run up to pose with the masquerading characters. We were dazzled by the masquerading characters mingling with each other amongst the historical atmosphere that permeates Venice.
At one point the kids got their faces painted to really join in the fun. The Carnival attracts all sorts of photographers, professional and amateur who come to be inspired and take pictures. There are never ending opportunities for "that perfect shot". Once the kids were all painted they became part of the atmosphere that people come specifically to photograph. For a few minutes we got a taste of what life would be being followed by the paparazzi. Little adorable Sadee getting her face painted was enough to draw in a crowd of more than a dozen photographers with giant lenses, literally jostling each other for the best spot to get the best angle. I was killing my self laughing, Sadee took it all in stride, and all I could think was "thank goodness we are not truly famous."
With painted faces and masks we threw ourselves into the fray embracing our roles as tourists. We went for boat rides, a gondola ride, strolled on the promenade, ate multiple gelatos, went to the island of Murano to see the glass blowers, we drank $12 hot chocolates and enjoyed every sip. It was one of the best holidays of my entire life. It cost an arm and a leg, and thanks to my wonderful mother helping to subsidize the trip including our hotel room overlooking one of the small canals we lived liked kings... or at least like "high ranking nobles". It was the experience of a life time. I would encourage anyone who has an inkling or the opportunity - visit Venice...do it before it sinks, you won't be disappointed!

For this post there are more photos than usual, there were just so many I wanted to share... it could easily be double what I have included below.

Departing for Venice, coffee's at the train station... a little fancier than "Tim Hortons"

We arrive in Venice, evening on the Grand Canal.

Venetian water ways.

Kai, the Lion, the Jester.

Lady in Turquoise

Sadee gets painted

The paparazzi arrive

Kai gets painted

Ghosts of Venice

Men in Black

Texting while driving.... it's still legal in Venice.

Living the good life. Our hotel room.

It's Carnival, everyone's in costume!

A floating city of light, wonder and colour.

Sunset on the way home from Murano.