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On the day of painting, the intonaco, a thinner, smooth layer of fine plaster was added to the amount of wall that was expected to be completed that day, sometimes matching the contours of the figures or the landscape, but more often just starting from the top of the composition.
This area is called the giornata ("day's work"), and the different day stages can usually be seen in a large fresco, by a sort of seam that separates one from the next.
The word fresco (Italian: ) is derived from the Italian and also Greek (φρέσκο) adjective fresco meaning "fresh", and may thus be contrasted with fresco-secco or secco mural painting techniques, which are applied to dried plaster, to supplement painting in fresco.
Generally, a layer of plaster will require ten to twelve hours to dry; ideally, an artist would begin to paint after one hour and continue until two hours before the drying time—giving seven to nine hours' working time.
Buon fresco pigment mixed with water of room temperature on a thin layer of wet, fresh plaster, for which the Italian word for plaster, intonaco, is used.
Because of the chemical makeup of the plaster, a binder is not required, as the pigment mixed solely with the water will sink into the intonaco, which itself becomes the medium holding the pigment.
A technique used in the popular frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael was to scrape indentations into certain areas of the plaster while still wet to increase the illusion of depth and to accent certain areas over others.
The eyes of the people of the School of Athens are sunken-in using this technique which causes the eyes to seem deeper and more pensive.