How Did Michelangelo Paint?

by Derek Dowell
A portion of the Sistine Chapel's massive mural painted by Michelangelo

A portion of the Sistine Chapel's massive mural painted by Michelangelo

Jupiterimages/ Images

Though well known throughout history as the painter of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was a sculptor and architect first, and only reluctantly accepted a few painting jobs. His knowledge of human anatomy and individual style combining elements of fresco and sculpture greatly influenced artists working in his day, as well as the generations that came after. Working during the Renaissance period, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni became accomplished in the fields of painting, sculpting, architecture, poetry and engineering.

Early Influences

By the time Michelangeo was 13 years old, it was already obvious that he had precocious artistic talent. Unbeknownst to his father, he agreed to apprentice at the workshop of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, where he mastered the style of fresco painting, which would eventually appear in his major projects such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. Following his painting apprenticeship, he studied human anatomy and combined the two skills to develop his own style by the age of 16.

Sistine Chapel

Though initially reluctant to accept the Pope's request that he paint the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, Michelangelo eventually agreed and dove into the project with a creative frenzy, first perfecting his fresco skills before tackling the project. It took four years to finish the massive painting, which incorporates over 300 larger-than-life Biblical figures in various scene re-creations. The stress of the project's magnitude and the physical strain of lying flat on his back on an elevated scaffold for long hours each day combined to age him quickly.

Fresco Style

Fresco style refers to a type of painting that is done over wet plaster on walls and ceilings. In the hands of a master, a fresco painting achieves a three-dimensional appearance not possible using other styles. As a sculptor at heart who preferred to work with marble, it is not surprising that Michelangelo adopted fresco for his painting projects, though through the use of brilliant colors, he adapted the style to his own needs.


After the grueling task of painting the Sistine Chapel was complete, Michelangelo returned to his first love of sculpture and went on to create a succession of masterpieces in that medium. But he wasn't done with fresco painting yet. The master was to resurrect his painting skills with two other major projects between 1542 and 1550, one of which, "The Last Judgment," created a scandal because of Michelangelo's use of nude figures throughout the work.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/ Images