Patience and a Steady Hand: Students Sample Fresco Technique in Art History with Studio Class

This year, Mount Madonna School (MMS) high school students have the option of taking a new University of California-approved elective, History of Art with Studio.

For this course, junior and senior students study a period or a movement in art, then they try the techniques of the time. For example, they studied the art of the Yuan Dynasty in ancient China, then tried their hand at ink brush painting landscapes on parchment. The class also develops their art interpretation skills and vocabulary through classroom discussion and the use of a weekly moderated online discussion board. At present, the students are learning about the Italian Renaissance.

“We focused on Michelangelo for the High Renaissance, and began by taking two minutes to draw a human figure with the sketchbook held over our heads to explore how it felt in the early stages,” explained teacher Lisa Catterall. “At the beginning of the work in the Sistine Chapel, they didn’t have a scaffolding that allowed the team of painters to lie flat, and there were ergonomic injuries from spending hours looking up and holding a brush facing toward the sky. We finished the unit by actually trying fresco technique, which is like no other type of painting as it is done by absorbing pigment into wet plaster. It takes masons as well as painters to complete.”

“I can’t imagine how angry it would have made Michelangelo and his team if the masons had not made the plaster flat, said junior Rowan Davenport-Smith. “This is really, really difficult.”

“Can you imagine making the Sistine Chapel?” commented classmate Braeden Will. “It’s huge. I could barely do a plate!”

“They must have had to work their whole lives to make the Sistine Chapel,” said junior Maverick Bettencourt.

The students also got to step into the artists’ shoes by being ‘commissioned’ to paint specific subject matter, rather than choosing the content of their fresco (in class, they each painted their Ramayana! character).

“I really appreciate how vibrant the colors look on the plaster,” said junior Paola Jacobs. “It’s a very cool way to create art. I wasn’t expecting it to look this good because it seemed like a strange idea to draw over plaster.”

Senior Imogen Cockrum noted that that the involved process must have required an “enormous amount of patience.”

“My hope is that this experience gives the students an appreciation for the magnitude of this work,” commented Catterall, “as well as for others of the period.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.