Frescoes vs Tempera

When we talk about wall paintings or mural paintings, most of us call them ‘frescoes’. This might not be technically correct for all the murals.
Technically, if the painting is created ( or we can say that the colours are applied) on a lime plaster which is still wet, the painting is called fresco (Italian word which means ‘fresh’). While painting a fresco, no binder is required to be added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate layer while drying. This layer of colours/pigments is so secure that it is not affected by dampness/or moisture etc. Such paintings are called buon fresco. But, many a times complete paintings are not done in fresco buon technique, in such cases, the base layers of colors are done on fresh plaster (fresco buon), but the details and some outlines are painted later when the plaster has dried up and hence with the binder is mixed for good adhesion. These details are not well protected from the damages of moisture and vegetation because of dampness. These superficial/upper layers or details are in fresco secco.

Fresco paintings damaged by vegetation grown over them and accretions of dust etc.
The same (last image) after cleaning… if we look closely, we’ll see that the out-lines are lost, but base colours are still there as they were in real fresco…


Before and after picture of another fresco painting

Tempera paintings require a binder to be added to the pigment colours to make them stick to the plaster. They are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Tempera paintings are done on dry plaster, so there is no stress of the time deadline.


Tempera painting damaged due to moisture


another damaged tempera painting

New! : We’ll keep on adding more discussions on the subject to keep this topic updated. The initial write-up was posted in June 2017.
For now, a more recent discussion (June 2020) is being shared in the following YouTube video:

Author: namitajaspal
Namita Jaspal, with inherited skills of art and aesthetics and passion for science, opted to pursue post- graduation in ‘Conservation of Cultural Property’ after her graduation in Science from Delhi University in 1992. Four year intense training at National Museum Institute provided the right foundation to start a career in Conservation. She is currently practicing conservation consultancy for Heritage property including monuments and collections. She has been doing independent research in conservation techniques and procedures in Indian context. She is currently working on the conservation of wall-paintings of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden temple at Amritsar. The project is nearing completion and getting a lot of appreciation for the organized and ethical treatment it is providing. It is for the first time in the history of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji (The Golden Temple) that wall painting conservation and preservation is being done in a scientific manner, keeping the codes of Ethics into consideration while decision making. Another project just completed is of the Conservation of Krishna Temple at Kishankot, Gurdaspur, Punjab. In her private Conservation Laboratory, she is not only providing onservation services, but also mentoring young aspiring conservators and archaeologists by the way of training and paid internships. She has been a guest lecturer at DIHRM (Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management). With all the updated knowledge database and innovative practical approaches relevant to the Indian conditions, she could successfully do curative and preservative treatment of very old textiles like a nine feet long flag from nineteenth century that is regarded as priceless memorabilia of second Dogra regiment at Chandi Mandir, and four hundred years old (seventeenth century) Chola Sahib Ji of Sixth Guru of Sikhs, Sri Hargobind Sahib Ji. Apart from this she has done conservation of Photograph collections, archival records, numerous paintings, manuscripts and other cultural objects. She is also involved in preparation of up-gradation proposals for museums and such organizations. Her expertise includes Conservation and preservation technologies and procedures for conservation of varied material like wall paintings, paper, photographs, textile, ceramics, stone, metal and archaeological objects.

2 thoughts on “Frescoes vs Tempera

  1. I always had a doubt regarding the process of creating frescos. Why does it not leave any impressions of hands on the surface since its wet while painting.

    1. There are two things to consider here:
      1. Artists apply colour with brush (not fingers) on the wet lime plaster.
      2. The pigments with water as a medium are trapped inside the plaster as the calcium hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide of air to form calcium carbonate. There is a chemical reaction happening after the water based paint is applied on wet plaster. This may cause a physical shift also at molecular level on the surface.

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