The Story of Sinopia
Millions of tourists stand in amazement in front of Italy’s great Renaissance frescoes, rich with color and reflective of the immense talent of era’s great masters. What these awe-struck visitors cannot typically see, however, are the essential drawing components underneath that brilliant, colorful surface. Just as every great painting comes from a diligent sketch, every remarkable fresco begins as an artfully rendered cartoon that, when transferred into a sinopia drawing, serves as the fresco’s foundation.
With the advent of buon fresco during the late Middle Ages, many artists realized the technique’s advantages: rich color, matte finish, and the ability to render large-scale compositions without worrying about locating a large enough panel or stretched canvas on which to paint. At the same time, artists were faced with the chief challenge of the medium: since buon fresco involves applying water-mixed pigments to wet plaster, the technique required a confident and efficient hand. An artist could only prepare the portion of the wall he thought he could complete in a day, and once the plaster was smoothed he would have to work quickly to ensure he did not overestimate his day’s work. Easing some of this pressure was the use of a full-scale cartoon drawing in chalk or ink that envisioned the entirety of the composition in accurate detail. This was then laid on the initial layer of prepared plaster, also known as the arriccio, and the cartoon’s elements were transferred to the surface through small holes along essential contours. Artists would pounce using ground black chalk or charcoal to conjure a template of the composition on the blank plaster.
The next step was to conjure the sinopia. At this point the artist would amplify these basic contours, typically using a red ochre paired with some charcoal accents to fill out forms and accentuate elements within the scene. The goal with these sinopia drawings was to include adequate detail to remain faithful to the originally proposed cartoon. At the same time, the artist had to maintain a subtlety of design, as he was undoubtedly cognizant of the potential that small portions of the piece might change as it evolved in situ. Indeed, atop this sinopia would be laid a layer of wet, thin, fine plaster, known as the intonaco, which was surface upon which the colorful image would emerge.
As this drawing rests, in essence, between two layers of plaster, few of these sinopie survive intact today. Those that we can look to, however, from the 15th century and beyond offer us a powerful glimpse into the evolution of some of these large scale images. The deftness with which these works were applied to their plaster primers speaks to the level of skill each of these Renaissance figures exuded not only as painters but also as draftsman, as the true success of these fresco scenes laid within these crucial underdrawings. Have you had a chance to take a look at a Renaissance sinopia up close? What did you notice about its rendering? Can you find evidence in completed frescoes of these preparatory stages? Hint: look for pentimenti, the unusual shadow around figures or objects suggesting the artist’s alteration of positioning. You can also search for small indentations in the surface of the plaster following the contours of a figure as it suggests that a cartoon/pouncing has occurred. Tell us what you find!