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A fresco sampler.

A Fresco Sampler

It is easy for children to assume that painting methods have always been the same throughout the history of art if they are not told otherwise. Because children are accustomed to seeing painting on paper and canvas, the use of plaster surfaces as a ground for artwork might very well come as a surprise to them.

The art and craft of fresco painting - painting on freshly prepared plaster surfaces - has a long and celebrated history in Western culture. Outstanding examples of fresco paintings can be found on the walls of King Mino's Palace in Knossos, Crete (ca. 1500 B.C.), on the walls of the ancient Roman villas of Pompeii (ca. second century B.C. to first century A.D.) and on Michaelangelo's renowned ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted in the sixteenth century.

Third graders at the Lincoln Public School in Caldwell, New Jersey, spent half a day looking at and learning about frescoes, and then made fresco samples for themselves. We used the frescoes of Pompeii for motivation because of the spectacular set of circumstances surrounding their preservation and discovery.

The town of Pompeii disappeared in 79 A.D. after the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Lying less than a mile from the active volcano, Pompeii was buried under the flow of lava for approximately eighteen hundred years. To engage the immediate interest of the children, they first saw slides of the active volcano, followed by slides of the town in ruins - typical streets paved with lava blocks and the outsides of several villas.

The next set of slides focused on the interiors of several villas in which the remains of fresco wall paintings were prominent. The children quickly realized that frescoes were not only an important form of decoration in houses during the Roman Empire, but that artists of the ancient Roman Empire were very good at creating landscape, figural and architectural scenes.

Excitement continued to mount in the classroom as the time approached for each child to make a sample fresco. Fresh plaster was mixed to a heavy cream consistency and poured into Styrofoam meat trays. While the mini-frescoes were hardening, the children developed images on paper using the watercolor paints that they would apply to the fresh plaster surfaces. The Styrofoam trays created a second, alternative painting surface on the underside of the plaster. The trays also served as a much needed protective support for carrying the frescoes around.

The transition from paper to plaster impressed the children immensely. The porous surface of the plaster caused the paint to dry almost instantly and, best of all, halted the dripping of paint! The children appreciated this surface upon which their painting techniques were more controlled.

The footwork needed to research the ruins of ancient Pompeii and to make slides was well worth the effort. The children not only learned about ancient Roman art and architecture, they became excited about it. The project forced them to reconsider the materials traditionally associated with the painting process, and the non-drip plaster surface offered them an opportunity to practice painting on what they considered to be a more secure ground.

This project could easily be included in a curriculum unit on painting or on the uses of plaster as an artistic medium. The extended projects inspired by this lesson might include the subjects of volcanos, architecture, mural painting and city-planning. Be prepared, however, for more fresco-making - by popular demand!

PHOTO : After their fresco samples were completed, many children were disappointed that one was all there was.

PHOTO : This fanciful fresco is in a villa near Pompeii which was buried by lava in 79 A.D.

PHOTO : The fresco wall decorating this Pompeii home was remarkably well preserved by Mt. Vesuvius' lava.

PHOTO : This eight-year-old's lively fresco would be the envy of any Roman.

Susan K. Leshnoff is supervisor of student art teachers at Montclair State College, Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
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Author:Leshnoff, Susan K.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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