Monday, May 23, 2011

Fresco? Fresco. Fresco!

Amy over at Child Central Station got me thinking about frescos a little while back, the traditional artistic technique of adding pigment to wet plaster. We were in the midst of exploring paint on canvas, another art tradition, so I thought it would be fun to give frescos a go. She had warned that as her plaster had dried on cardboard, there was a tendency to warp, and having just gone through that experience with our tall paintings I wanted something sturdier. Fortunately, I had a bunch of very nice squares of 1/4" craft wood at hand, from which the kids have been pulling nails at the "play bench."

Even as I was mixing the plaster of Paris just before the kids arrived, it occurred to me that I should have saved that step of the process for the kids to do themselves, especially as I had the fun of spreading it like frosting on the wood squares. But, what are ya gonna do? I plowed ahead and we had slightly damp plaster to paint in class.

It wasn't a particularly exciting project for the kids, I must say. Totally my fault. The mixing would have given it more meaning for them.

What I did like, and something I'd noticed when painting on the small squares of canvas as well, was that they needed to use their free hand to hold their painting in place as they worked, finding places to put their fingers, using both hands in concert.

What saved the project in both the 3-5's and Pre-3's classes was the opportunity to squirt out your own paint into little paint cups. 

Even if they missed out of the plaster mixing, at least they got to mix your own custom paint colors.

Still, at the end of two days, we'd not even been able to cover 30 of my little pre-plastered "tiles" (as I was by then thinking of them), very low art output for our school (although we did produce at least a hundred custom colors) . . .

. . . several of which had been painted by the bored art parents.

On Wednesday, then, I came in with a renewed conviction that we would do frescos the proper way, mixing our own plaster, applying it, then adding our paint. Since this kind of plaster cures quite quickly, however, I decided to set it up as a group endeavor. We would plaster first one, then another, large piece of wood, then paint together, again mixing up our own custom colors.

The first flaw in this plan was that we didn't have enough plaster of Paris left over for two pieces of wood, so the plan got scaled back to one. The second mistake, and I'm still not quite sure how it happened, was that I added way too much water, and it was evident fairly quickly that this milky soup wasn't going to set up any time soon, if at all. There were quite a few kids enjoying the mixing, however, so I figured we might as well not let it go to waste, and I set out to find other likely things to mix in to thicken it. At least we could have the experience of spreading it. I'd just used up the last of our flour the day before and I was saving our last box of corn starch for another purpose. Finally, I came across a large container of cinnamon and started shaking it in.

Max asked, "What is this stuff?"


"Can I taste it?"

"It smells good, doesn't it? But I don't think it'll taste very good."

I shook some out onto the palm of his hand. He claimed to like it. Then the other kids around the tub needed their taste, so I shook a bit out onto all those little palms. Most proved me right by immediately running over for a drink of water, but Max, Isak and Dennis asked for repeated tastes. After a couple minutes I began to wonder if it was possible to consume too much cinnamon. It occurred to me that nutmeg in large quantities has been known to cause a kind of hallucinogenic reaction in some people. At the very least it could cause heartburn, so I decided to err on the side of caution and went back to shaking it into our plaster solution instead, which was somewhat thicker, but not quite spreadable.

We then added nearly a full jar of yellow powdered tempera and that did the trick. It looked nice being spread with our masonry tools, kind of like the stucco walls of an Italian villa. I don't have any photos of this stage because I was too busy dancing!

There was a lot of talk (mostly from me) about how the goal was to cover the wood, without leaving any showing through. It was challenging because we really only had enough for a thin coat, but after a lot of working and re-working, we managed it. When we were finished spreading, however, it was still too squishy to paint and I was having my doubts about whether or not it would ever harden. That's when I turned the plaster tiles over to them to press into the cinnamon plaster. 

When we left for the day, we had a nice little display of our tiles.

And when I arrived on Thursday morning, the underlying cinnamon plaster had indeed hardened and the tiles were stuck into it. Pretty cool.

Some of the tiles were more firmly affixed than others, however, and while they all held on at first, a few dropped off. I then proceeded to pop all of them off thinking that I could at least send the individual tiles home with the kids who painted them. But what's this?


Check out our fresco!

I don't know about you, but I would hang this on my wall. Not only that, but it has the added benefit of smelling like cinnamon.

But, you know, there was still one more day of school in the week and we just couldn't let the experiment stop there. The plaster was still quite damp, which is the condition it's supposed to be for painting frescos and even if it was never going to harden, I thought working on that textured surface would be a fun experience.

I added a few of these rubbing plates to paint on as well.

I figured we could do a little printmaking while we were at it.

Again, we didn't tape down the plates, so the kids had to once more get both hands working in concert holding their paint target in place.

And, of course, we finally got around to painting our wet plaster as I'd originally intended. It just took a few days to get there.

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Muma Paparazzi said...

Love love love...oh how I wish my son could join your class.

Juliet Robertson said...


Oh this will be fun!

Thanks Tom

Amy A @ Child Central Station said...

Thanks for the shout out! WOW!!!!! You really had a great adventure with frescos!!!! My mind is racing, I bet cinnamon is an amazing smell for a fresco...... I wonder what other ground spices could enhance this type of project, the color is just amazing.... and all of the textures :). I love how not having an end product in mind and trusting the process often leads to an amazing discovery!

Deborah said...

Oh yeah - those last one's were worth giving this a second shot and I would put them on my wall!

Sense of wonder said...

I don't know why, but mixing paint and making new colors has always made me feel so powerful. "What, this brown is too purple? Add some red! bwahahahaha!!"
This looks like a wonderful good time.

kristin @ preschool daze said...

oh, i love it all.

and how often i have found myself stuck with a project that no one was in to.

learning and learning and learning.

maria said...

I love that you went back to it for a better try, something kids need to understand. I think the custom color mixing is the best part and have to order those pumps for my gallon containers as well...:) btw, cinnamon is an anti-inflammatory. Adults can have up to a tablespoon a day.

I Heart Shade said...

Loving your blog. Can't wait to explore more!