What is Fresco Art? Exploring the Ancient Technique of Painting on Plaster

Fresco Definition Fresco Painting Fresco History of Frescoes

Detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Photo via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

The fresco is celebrated as one of the most significant mural-making techniques in the history of art. Though most commonly associated with art of the Italian Renaissance, the painting technique has been around for millennia, inspiring ancient and contemporary artists alike.

Created by painting directly onto plaster, frescoes offer a permanence not found in other forms of art. Unsurprisingly, muralists favor this durability, as illustrated by well-preserved masterpieces including the Roman wall paintings of Pompeii and Renaissance artist Michelangelo's world-famous Sistine Chapel ceiling.

What is a Fresco?

fresco painting is a work of wall or ceiling art created by applying pigment onto intonaco, or a thin layer of plaster. Its title translates to “fresh” in Italian, as a true fresco's intonaco is wet when the paint is applied.

Fresco Definition Fresco Painting Fresco History of Frescoes

(Photo: Lori Greig via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Types of Fresco

There are three common types of fresco: buon, secco, and mezzo.

To paint a buon (“true”) fresco, an artist paints directly onto freshly mixed plaster. Due to the natural tack of the wet intonaco, the pigment used to paint a buon fresco does not need to contain a binding medium; instead, it can simply be mixed with water.

Contrarily, a secco (“dry”) fresco employs dry plaster as its canvas. To make the paint stick to the plaster, the pigments must be mixed with a binding medium, such as a glue adhesive or egg yolk.

A mezzo (“medium”) fresco is painted onto nearly dry intonaco. During the Renaissance, this type of fresco became widely used, eventually surpassing buon fresco in popularity.

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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