Iain Carstairs – Painter
Before my work in fresco, I tried to develop a smooth and colourful technique in oils. I wanted the finest materials I could get, using hand-made Michael Harding oils to achieve effects of light and colour. The idea was to communicate an idea of light.
When I first started painting, I did some big, amateurish canvases, and brought them into my office to dry, since the flow-through ventilation there was so good. Of course, before long people smelled the oil and came from all down the wing to see where it was coming from.
The first day, I had half a dozen people crowded around and examining this quite simple painting. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here years and nobody came in once to see my software!’ ‘Shh,’ someone said, ‘we’re looking at these colours.’ I realised this was powerful communication. When you play someone a piece of music, they are constantly distracted by something like their phone ringing, or they start talking, or their attention wanders so they can’t focus, and so on. Getting people to concentrate is difficult these days.
But when they see a painting they like, they’re transfixed. You can see them in galleries, standing still, hypnotised by the artist, completely absorbed in whatever he was radiating. It’s an incredible thing – everything you try to say with light, form, and colour, along with the effort you invest, is absorbed in an instant. This seems to me the most direct communication you can achieve with someone you don’t know, and it’s probably why children immediately draw a picture to explain how they feel.
The spoken language can even be a hindrance but light and colour are universal – they cut to the heart of what a person is, and I can’t think of anything better to do with a brief life on Earth than try to communicate whatever worthwhile feelings you have, to as wide an audience as possible, through whatever modest skill and imagination you possess. Then the goal becomes to foster something meaningful inside, and learn how to magnify it through your own skill. These are really worthwhile goals. When you work for someone, you sell your time for money – that’s the deal. But when you create something, you don’t lose that time; somehow it stays with you, because something inside grows stronger.
Of course, not everyone will like your work. But even so, they can understand the effort, and that you put time into something which mattered to you. To make that Bedford fresco I put in 15 hour days, often in subzero temperatures, or soaked through with rain.
Every night I dreamed only of drawings, of pigments and plaster. It’s important you don’t look for anyone’s approval without working to try and earn it. All things considered, what better way is there to express oneself? This is art!
Jim Smith – Plasterer
Jim is a second generation plasterer of twenty years’ experience, with specialised knowledge of traditional lime plasters.
Jim was instrumental in supplying the smooth, seamless style which fresco requires. Every giornata (daily area) of plaster is meticulously installed in two layers: the first makes the mechanical grip between itself and the underlying arricio (supporting layer), and the second supplies the surface smoothness which allows painting. the entir layer is perhaps 2 mm thick, and yet is all that is needed to absorb pigments, and retain them for hundreds of years.
Attempting fresco, I developed a new mix of marble, lime and supporting chemicals which enabled the resulting plaster to survive outdoors in European winters. As far as we know, this tough, yet smooth and breathable material has not been seen before. Beginning the Bedford fresco, Jim created a small area of intonaco for testing colours alongside the first day’s work. A week later he tried to remove it, and found it so solid that a plasterer’s assistant was given the three hour job of carefully hammering it off with a chisel, with instructions not to damage the masonry underneath.
Jim is as meticulous an individual as you can find. Each day during the Bedford fresco he scoured the whole wall for flaws in the plaster, over an area covering four scaffold levels. One day, crestfallen, he announced the discovery of a crack – the result of plastering over a surface that was too dry, meaning the new layer’s moisture was quickly pulled out by the lower layer, causing too rapid shrinkage. At first I was worried, but laughed when he showed me -the crack was the size of a hamster’s eyelash. Jim insisted on removing and re-finishing the area.