Fresco Frieze

In this segment we will examine sculpture. Sculpture may be in the round and depict an entire 3 dimensional subject, but we will create a frieze segment in low-relief, and then paint the plaster while it is still wet, with watercolors in fresco.

Fresco painting, made popular during the Renaissance, uses pigment in wet plaster, making an incredibly durable and stable medium and substrate in one. Think Sistine Chapel, Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. 

Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material.

The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane.

A Frieze is a low-relief sculpture frequently use where full in-the-round sculpture is not possible, as on classical architecture—think Greek and Roman buildings.

By definition:

1) Any continuous flat band of relief sculpture or painting.

2) In classical architecture, the middle element of an entablature, between the cornice and the architrave.

After it has set while it is still wet, plaster is off-white in color and easy to carve. Once dry, it is bright white and can be sanded and finished in its solid state.

Cameos are a specific form of relief sculpture use for small works that use the colored layers of shell to show value as well as form.



Milk cartons make great molds since they are flexible, waterproof, and wax-coated. One small milk carton can make 2 plaster forms.
Sharpie your name on your bag. Use the bag as a work surface to catch carvings. Please keep your area and the floor clean.

Tool safety
We will be using stainless steel tools that are also used for carving wax. They are precise, but relatively dull without cutting edges. As long as you work with scaping, and not stabbing motions, nobody will get hurt. Simple paring knives also work very well, just FYI.

Carve your plaster block like you might peel a vegetable.
Never stab your work.
Carve AWAY from your other hand.

3. Practice carving as you square up your plaster block. Make the sides straight, and the bottom flat enough to stand.
4. Choose the front, carve a hanger hole on the back if you want to hang it on the wall.
5. On the back (below the hanging lip if you have that), score in your initials, or design your own maker’s mark. Include the year.

Checkpoint 1

When your block is uniform on all edges, and you have a feel for the tools, your hanging ledge is carved into the back, and your name or initials have been added, also, you are ready to be checked before beginning your carving on the front.

At the end of class, throw the collected bits in the garbage. NEVER put plaster down the drain! Wrap your plaster Frieze section in your bag and store it in the cabinet. The bag will keep it moist and easy to carve for more than a week, and protect it from damage. At the end of each class turn in all tools. 


Carve a ledge to hang on a nail according to this placement guide.
Cut out the leaf and the branch from your handout.

On the FRONT of your freshly set plaster block, using a pencil, trace the edge of a leaf and a branch onto the practice rectangle on your worksheet. Do you want another element, like an acorn? As you add them keep track of which element is on top. This is your FOREGROUND ELEMENT. You must overlap 2 elements so that one is in the foreground and one is behind. The BACKGROUND is whatever everything is in front of.

6. Scrape plaster away from your line. DO NOT CARVE YOUR LEAF, PROFILE, OR FOREGROUND YET. Your smooth Subject level should be 1/4” higher than everything else.

Textures:DotsBark/wood grain WavesHorizonLines
Making sure the background is always 1/2” thick, carve your background scene or texture.

Checkpoint 2

Scrape the wet plaster away from your BRANCH, being careful to TAPER your carving strokes out to the surface.
8. Now focus on the LEAF. Redraw the traced lines that were scraped away. As in the branch, scrape away from the outline, creating DEPTH around the LEAF.

Carve in Shape, Form and Texture ABBREVIATING depth (Space).
9. Complete your Foreground.
Look at your work from all sides. Give attention to all edges.
Check Point 3
10. Use watercolor to paint in a level of Realism.
Work in light washes, 1 to 2 layers only during a class, progressing to stronger, darker colors. Test colors/intensity/bleeds on the back. Mix subtle changes to colors to add a layer of texture beyond your carving.
When you are done you can scrape these tests off before you paint the back.

Then, prepare it for the way it will be displayed. This can be a hanging ledge. It’s only appropriate for lighter weight, small items, since plaster is pretty brittle.
Also, this is a great time to come up with your maker’s mark. Score it in on the BACK, just under the hanging notch, or anywhere on the back if it will sit upright, or lay flat.

Then trace a leaf shape in pencil onto the front.

Before you proceed too far, ask yourself “Do I want anything in front of my leaf?”
Some possibilities: A surrounding border, a branch, another leaf, a bug berry or beetle.