Coaching A Fresco
"Fresco Mentoring : coaching and creating a fresco thanks to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust"
An essay by founder, frescoist and author, Isabelle Bonzom
Olivia Irvine working on her fresco project at the Merz Gallery, Scotland
Isabelle Bonzom, fresco artist, author of the book "La fresque, art et technique" and founder of the non-profit organization Pari(s) Affresco, was approached by her colleague, Scottish artist Olivia Irvine, in early 2022 to have Isabelle train Olivia and guide her in the realization of frescoes on walls. Having been awarded a scholarship from the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, Olivia chose to work with Isabelle to build on her initial personal experience in fresco painting. Isabelle talks about this project here.
I have been practicing buon fresco, painting on fresh lime coat composed of air lime, since 1988, when I entered the fresco workshop of the Beaux-Arts de Paris. Having already experimented with mural painting with other techniques and in a contemporary approach, it is without nostalgia that I tackled buon fresco, art and technique yet thousand years old. Eager to transmit, I started teaching fresco painting in 1993. I have trained hundreds of people of different nationalities in workshops organized in France. I have taught students or professionals, beginners or experienced people. Convinced of the relevance of fresco today, I have always been keen to help my students find their way while respecting the particularities of buon fresco.
Olivia contacted me in January 2022 when she was about to apply for a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust grant. In the email she sent me, titled Fresco Mentoring, Olivia explained that she had already experimented with small panel frescoes and had even attempted a wall fresco, but she wanted to be trained by me in order to improve and deepen her initial research and to learn how to properly understand wall fresco.
So I conceived a program tailored to her work as an artist, her level of fresco and her request. This program was an intensive three-week training course spread over two months, including six days of distance learning given over six weeks followed by fifteen days face to face in Scotland.
From a distance, thanks to videoconference and email sessions, I was able to introduce Olivia to the major theoretical principles of fresco, its history and its aesthetic issues. By taking into consideration Olivia's personal work, her drawing, her artistic method of assemblage and the prints she was already making on her paintings, I suggested avenues to explore on the fresh mlime coat. The distance learning course was also a time when I advised Olivia on the choice of subjects, taking into account her personal work and the particularities of fresco painting. During this time, Olivia also began to draw the models and maquettes.
We even held remote sessions at the location where Olivia would be creating her mural so that she could prepare the two sections of wall on which she would fresco. She chose the Merz Gallery, an art center and artists' residency in the Scottish countryside southwest of Edinburgh, as the venue for this wall project.
Before leaving for the Merz Gallery, we worked in Olivia's studio in Edinburgh to readjust the choice of images and to clarify the organization of the project. Then we left for the Merz Gallery where we worked on the realization of the fresco on two brick walls.
The Merz Gallery, located in Sanquhar in the Dumfries and Galloway area, was founded and is run by David Rushton, a former member of the conceptual art collective Art and Language. In titling his art center Merz Gallery, David was paying tribute to the German Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, famous for creating heterogeneous collages of fragmented and salvaged papers and objects that he brings together under the generic title Merz, a fragment of the word Commerzbank. I must say that this context and the reference to Merz excited me because I have long loved Schwitters and I conceive fresco painting as an assemblage.
Indeed, fresco painting is made of fragments of lime coat when the project exceeds one square meter. The fresco painter must then divide his painting project by giornate (fragments of coating) as the air lime coat dries quickly in contact with the air by carbonating. Carbonation is a chemical process that crystallizes and protects the pictorial layers when the painter paints before the coating dries. Fresco painting is composed only of pigment and water, without any binder unlike other techniques. The color is therefore pure, strong and intense.
I encouraged Olivia to take into account these technical specificities of fresco painting, to integrate them into her project, even to accentuate the fragmentation and the connections from one giornata to another, to reinforce the patchwork effect of the overall image of the project. I also invited Olivia to take advantage of the great possibilities offered by fresco painting, a particular language that allows for multiple experiments. It is thus possible to color the coating in its mass, to give rhythm to the surface of the wall in colored sections, to play with transparency and opacity, to superimpose coatings and pictorial layers. Olivia also practiced engraving on the lime coat, she found the colored mortar underneath in reference to both the traditional decorative technique of sgraffito and the more popular practice of graffiti.
This project was an experimental work that was created for the site, inspired by the surrounding nature, and consistent with Olivia's personal work on other media and support than the wall. The days were intense, with up to twelve hours of work per day. Olivia was extremely motivated, hardworking and adaptable and was able to dive deep into the adventure of fresco painting and make it her own.
This tailor-made training continued at the Abbey of Saint-Jacut, in Brittany, where Olivia joined a group of trainees in residence at the abbey during a fresco workshop led by Valérie Letombe, president of Pari(s) Affresco, and myself, founder of the association. In her essay "Un pommier peint à fresque à l'Abbaye de Saint-Jacut" (An apple tree painted a fresco at the Abbey of Saint-Jacut), Olivia relates this residency.
Isabelle Bonzom, December 2022
The training stages and the working phases of the fresco at the Merz Gallery, Sanquhar; Scotland. Credits : Isabelle Bonzom
Olivia Irvine & Isabelle Bonzon Fresco at Merz gallery, Scotland
Olivia Irvine fresco rough coating coached by Isabelle Bonzom, Merz gallery, Scotland