Frederico Vigil
and the Art of Buon Fresco

Follow the steps as Frederico produces his painstaking art of true fresco.

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Rosario Chapel completed

The sinopia drawn on smooth plaster. Left portion of the sinopia
is covered by tracing paper, in preparation for the cartoon.
Our Lady of Sorrows Church,
LaJoya, NM.

The earth of northern New Mexico is deep with history and tradition. Many of the traditions are translated by artists and craftsmen into contemporary woodcarvings, retablos, silver jewelry, carvings in stone or paintings meant to be carried away and added to a Collector’s home. True fresco, or buon fresco, however, is a an ancient art form which is one of the most permanent forms of wall decoration known. It must, therefore, be appreciated and enjoyed during your visit to New Mexico . . . perhaps carried home in the form of photographs.

Artist Frederico Vigil, a native of Santa Fe, is devoted to reviving buon fresco, an art form that reached its zenith in 16th century Italy. But it is appropriate that New Mexico is a focus of fresco's revival since long before the 16th century, Meso-American pyramids and Anasazi kivas were painted with a fresco technique much like that used today by Vigil. His materials, pure natural pigments, sands, lime and colored soils come from the earth of New Mexico and bear a natural relationship to that other "earth art" of the Southwest, adobe walls.

While Vigil's favorite canvas is a blank wall—in a dimly-lit chapel, in the halls of a college or university, on the outside of any building—he has also created frescos on portable panels to be installed in private residences. As he walks through his native town, Frederico Vigil's constant preoccupation is his search for a wall . . . an expanse of any size that seems to beg to be turned into a permanent work of art.

Frederico Vigil grew up on Santa Fe's Canyon Road—when the Acequia Madre (the mother ditch) was still running with water and fish and was the "umbilical cord" of the closely-knit community. Vigil's background as a painter and his reverence for tradition and history led him naturally to studying the ancient art of fresco. Through the teaching of Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff, apprentices to Diego Rivera in the 1930s, Vigil leads a new generation in the renaissance of the art of buon fresco. Since the completion of his first fresco in 1984, Vigil has created 12 major fresco murals.

LaJoya Fresco

The long process of creating buon fresco begins with a wall rough-plastered with two layers of lime, cement and sand mixtures. The third layer is a smooth surface on which the sinopia or rough sketch of the overall design is drawn. From the sinopia, an outline of the drawing is transferred to tracing paper. This design on translucent tracing paper is referred to as "the cartoon." Each of the first three plaster layers must set a minimum of ten days prior to applying the final coats.

When the artist is ready, beginning at the top of the wall, an area sufficient for one day's work is covered with the final two layers of damp plaster; the last smooth layer is called the intonaco. The next step is as ingenious as it is bizarre: the cartoon is perforated, held up to the damp intonaco and is "pounced" with a bag of powdered charcoal. In this way, the outline of the design is transferred to the intonaco. The artist then begins to paint on the damp plaster, following the outline created with the charcoal powder.

Acequia Madre Fresco
Rosario in process

This is the essence of buon fresco: because the plaster is still damp, a chemical reaction takes place and the colors become integrated with the wall itself. Scaling cannot occur as it eventually does when paint is applied to the surface of a wall. The next painting day, the process is repeated: the wall is wet down, the 4th and 5th coats of damp plaster are applied, the perforated cartoon is "pounced." It is, of course, essential that the new intonaco—and the painting—is carefully joined with that of the previous day so that the completed fresco appears as a continuous painting without visible joints.

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As Frederico Vigil has come to understand, buon fresco is the most unforgiving type of painting. Once the pigment is applied, it becomes irreversible, leaving an indelible record of the artist's skill and mistakes. Vigil's passionate adherence to the rigorous art of fresco has left an indelible record on various walls in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and numerous tucked-away New Mexican villages. In his words: "my frescos are gentle reminders of the things that are really important and should be preserved." Each fresco is an homage to faith, history and the goodness of life and each is an irreplaceable gift to New Mexico.

Some Frescos by Frederico Vigil in New Mexico

"Asumption of our Lady," Rosario Chapel in Rosario Cemetery, Old Taos Highway, Santa Fe

"Brother Miguel Febres Cordero, FSC," Meditation Room, College of Santa Fe San Inez de Campo Chapel, San Acacio Street, Santa Fe

"St Michael Conquers Lucifer;" "The Christian Brothers and St John the Baptist de LaSalle," main lobby, St Michael's High School, Santa Fe

"Los Santo Ninos," Santo Nino Chapel at P'O Ae Pi, Santa Fe

"The Acequia Madre," outside West wall of Acequia Madre Elementary School, Santa Fe

"Genesis of the Rio Grande Area," Jos. Montoya Building, Northern New Mexico Community College, Española

"Life of St Peter," Capilla de San Pedro, Española

"Cosmos Historia, the Harmonious Process," Mesa Vista Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

"Pieta," Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, LaJoya

"Santa Madre Tierra y su Alma," The Albuquerque Museum


By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Photos courtesy of the Frederico Vigil.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 4


Related Pages

Sinopia Pigments and Materials remote

The Multiple Faces of BIG Wall Art article


Collector’s Resources


RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED July 7, 2008

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