Wall painters (Ceiling painters)
Ceiling painters undertook the painting decoration of house ceilings (and rarely walls, too), as well as the conservation of this decoration. There was a great demand for this art in the island of Chios since the end of 19th century – during the reconstruction of the houses after the catastrophic earthquake of 1881– when many (urban) domiciles of the island were decorated with painted representations. Its flourishing is connected to the period of 1922-1935, when major craftsmen earned recognition. Their works are still preserved in some mansions of Chios and Oinousses.
Ceiling paintings are not found only in the mansions of the urban upper class, but also in middle class residences, in the city of Chios, in the island’s villages and in Oinousses. However, although the decoration was not an exclusive privilege of wealthy people, the social stratification was obvious concerning the quality and quantity of the decorations – in the houses of wealthy families there were greater detail and artistic variations almost in all rooms, while in the middle and (rarely) lower class families the motifs were simpler and sometimes limited to the “main” rooms of the house, the living-room and the dining-room.
The learning of this art, besides the personal artistic skill, required technical knowledge, which was usually passed on to the painters-decorators’ descendants as a “family secret heritage”. Not very often, the same thing happened with their assistants. Their materials and tools were almost the same with those of the other painters: fish-glue, powder paints, oil-paints for the “framed” subjects, water, brushes, ladder, thread, straw, cotton strands or goat hair for smoothing the coating, and pots for the paints.
The first step of the decoration procedure was the “sheet”, that is, the painting of the ceiling in grey colour. Then, the artist made the design from the ground – because from close the perspective was distorted. He “copied” the pattern on a usually thick two- or four-folded paper and perforated it with needles so that when unfolded to obtain its symmetrical counterpart. In order to spot the straight lines, he used thread dipped in lampblack, and for the “transfer” of the pattern (stamps) on the ceiling he spread charcoal powder on the paper, so the pattern appeared through the perforations – a technique called stamping or stencil. Finally, he painted the stamps and the relief illusions, and the decoration was completed with the painting of the themes in the “frames”.
They usually decorated the rosette and the perimeter of the ceiling, and rarely its entire surface. The designs were a combination of relief illusion and painting and generally they were repeated from house to house but they were different in each room (e.g. the dinning-room was usually decorated with fruits while the living-room with natural sceneries). The painted themes were mainly inspired by Chios’ sceneries, although often the artists used their own imagination, and they were rarely influenced by European styles. The relief illusion was achieved with the use of two or three shades in the tones of grey that gave the illusion of volume. The shades were drawn at the opposite side of the lighting of the drawing, while the secret for a more realistic look was based on the presence of a very small distance between the outline and the shadow.
The financial difficulties faced by painters-decorators during the period of German occupation (1941-1945) led this particular occupation to decline. In the post war period it could not recover, since the interior decoration was degraded as a social practice and the new houses with low ceiling rooms did not favour their painting. Most of the craftsmen turned to the conservation of the old decorations, as well as to relevant occupations (hagiography, ceiling decorations made of plaster – a very popular technique at the buildings of the ‘60s-‘70s).
- Interview with Nikos Fraskos [ceiling painter] in Chios, 12/07/2005