​an investigation about materiality and its cultural inter community

An Investigation of Fresco and Chinese Silk Painting Through Materiality

The thing arouses my interest in fresco is the first time when I saw The Baptism of Christ(Piero Della Francesca,1450) in national gallery London. Not only appealed by the compelling dynamic state of Jesus and baptisms, the combination of dew atmosphere and relatively rational composition , but the special sense that only tempera could convey: The objective looks massive but the color layer is much more thinner and transparent than I imagined , just like a mixture of oil paints and watercolor. Though this painting may used with other oil based material like natural resin, frankincense mastic or gum dammar. The sense of moist comes from the color layer evoke my interest to invest the material that used in earlier renaissance in Italy mainly from Medieval to north renaissance when yolk , drying oil and resin started to participate in the pigment making and whilst make comparison between fresco and Chinese silk painting. In order to find the similarity of painting language between east and west .

Oringin and historical background

Mural painting seemd to get better preservation Since human beings walked away from the wild period. Maybe because the arise of coffin chamber isolated the wall painting from oxygen and light so that the earliest could traced back to ancient Egypt. But obviously all the objects(Death of Book,BC1100)painted on the wall are utterly two dimensioned without perspective so that quite decorative and this is a another painting language completely opposed from fresco and Chinese silk paints. If have to find a corresponding type from east I would choose Tibetian Thangka(Dalai 5th)as reference substance. Both of them are used by very direct impasto method with the figures and patterns. Though the shape of the figure in medieval paintings seemed not as “scientific”and “accurate”as it in the bloom of renaissance or even early renaissance.The language of the description from half true life God(Sano di Pietro,about 1450) however has very similar character with figures in Chinese silk paintings. If check out from history timeline ,mediaval could correspond to the period of China Weijin Dynasty and this is the point that figures in Chinese silk painting started to bloom. Whilst in west medieval the development of architecture,pottery sculpture and other media such as elbow board and mosaic glass are applied to the daily life could allow painters to have attempt on more diverse medium . It may be one of the premise of the tempera and mix tempera technique could developed from fresco .

Admitting that the earliest Chinese silk painting(Human, Dragon, and Phoenix, 256BC)could traced from Qin Dynasty (that may parallel to the early ancient Greek and Rome).It was facing the same issue of the figure in ancient Egypt coffin chamber which is they are utterly two dimensioned just appeared as a plane flank without any color just complete with ink line and areas. Not until it comes to Weijin Dynasty did theorist Xiehe put forward “vivid portrayal”the figure shaping method started to change just as during the medieval , and interestingly the taste of the figure are quite similar.

Pigments and blender

From the point of three primary colors , all redness are basically hematite with ferric ion . Also cinnabar and red coral are widly used as ingredients. Yellow is mainly sulfuret like realgar. Other yellow like gamboge is vegetalitas and very minimum types of soil with iron.

Green and blue are mainly comes from malachite and azurite .The use of ultramarine is not that frequent since most of it may produce from lasurite in Afghanistan . This kind of stone is quite scarce and expensive. The property of white is mainly leaded compound.But it may turn black when come across the oxygen. Therefore some painters started to use clam meal as pigment because of the never color fade character . The ingredients of pigments used in Chinese silk painting are basically same but Chinese painter also like to use rouge,it may seen as dyestuff in west and I am not sure whether they use it in painting .It also has the same reason why leaded compound white is gradually out of use by painters. This could be seen vivdly from chinese Dunhuang mural painting. As far as I am concerned, the biggest difference is the amount of blue and green used in paintings, not only because of the reason I mentioned above but also affected by the extremely complicate process of extract and purify from the stone .The interesting thing is the process of purifying are completely different but have the similar outcome.

The blender of the earliest fresco is just water and this is the point to distinguish with secco.The pigment will completely intrude into wall when the plaster is still moist . Unlike colloid based secco,fresco make the pigments dissolve with plaster so that the color layer will not fall off from the wall but nearly impossible to modify when it turns dry. Same principle in Chinese silk painting , it is hardly to modify when pigments utterly intrude into silk . Though the obstruct medium (plaster is used in fresco and the water mix with gelatin and vanadium is used in Chinese silk painting) is different .Both of them gives the same point on function .That may because plaster has natural viscidity that could give an obstruct between layers.

Methods in painting process

Fresco painter usually make very delicate and equal proportion figure on sketch. The contour of the figure usually quite certain since the painter would make copy on the wall. And line is the best tool to confirm a certain shape. This has the same principle of how ancient painters make draft in Chinese silk painting. Nowadays most of Chinese silk painter make line based sketches before it copied onto the silk just like an accurate contour is necessary for fresco painter . But what is recorded in historical material is ancient Chinese painter used to paint directly on the silk without sketches. This theory is unbelievable since it needs an extremely excellent shaping skill . The only reason that I suppose is maybe the size of paintings. Mural painting is super large since it is one part of the architecture . While the length of silk painting are quite short but extremely long in width. Therefore the figures need not to be large but could loaded as many as possible. Both of the techniques from fresco and Chinese silk painting are about the color layer and obstruct layer and the proportion among water, pigments and colloid.

Aesthetic view

Chridtianism started blooming around 1BC and this makes people believe it is Jesus who create human beings. The adore to God could be easily found in medieval paintings . Whilst this is a period that rational science is primitively developing , the principle of perspective and true life drawing techniques are partly used in painting, this ambiguity between likeness and unlikeness gives me a feeling of not being divine but human and this may accidently accorded with what revealed in modeling Chinese painting is an artistic result of likeness in spirit rather than in appearance, embodying the meaning in images.

The similarity of backgrounds, materiality , and painting methods attract my attention to make comparison of this two painting types considering how to use for reference from each other. On the other hand it also leaves me the question that why  painting changed dramatically in different period after fresco or tempera is widly use and this may be a completely different situation in the development of Chinese painting.And this maybe an entry point to invest the aesthetic view between east and west.


 The Baptism of Christ, Piero Della Francesca,1450,tempera on panel

 Death of Book, BC1100,ancient Egypt line carving mural painting on tomb

 Thangka , Dalai 5th(around 18 century), Tebetian painting on cotton,silk and appliqué

Modonna and Child,about 1450 ,tempera on wood gold ground

 Human, Dragon and Phoenix , 256BC, ink on silk