WKU Art Professor perfects and teaches ancient painting technique

For more than 30,000 years, humans have used wall painting as a vehicle for expression. At an unknown point in history, painters began applying pigments to freshly made plaster surfaces. Colors applied in this manner were permanent and lasted as long as the plaster itself. This was beginning of a technique known as buon fresco or “true” fresco painting, and was made most famous by Michelangelo in the early 1500’s with his creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

WKU Art Professor Mike Nichols’s paintings and classes explore contemporary applications of buon fresco painting. While fresco has a long history as an architectural feature, contemporary use of the medium is barely existent due to reasons that include its physical demands and technical difficulty. Mike Nichols creates frescoes that push the boundaries of the medium in ways that acknowledge its history yet offer a point of access for contemporary viewers.

Early Inspiration

Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Mike graduated from Fontbonne University with a BFA and MFA in Painting.  Mike was thoroughly inspired by his art classes, specifically with emulating the masters’ painting techniques, such as Rembrandt. He was introduced to the basic fresco painting technique in graduate school in a class that sampled old painting mediums, which planted a seed that catapulted his interest in eventually learning how to master the technique buon fresco painting.

While in graduate school at Fontbonne, Mike received an opportunity to teach beginning drawing at the local Community College, enjoyed that small taste of teaching, and quickly decided that art instruction was the field best suited for him. “Being able to talk about what you truly love is an amazing privilege!”, he says.

As an Assistant Professor at WKU, Mike won a Junior Faculty Grant to attend the Professional Fresco Workshop at The Fresco School in Los Angeles, California. He was completely immersed in learning the fresco technique, touring the region to view local frescos, and exploring the works of Diego Rivera, a prominent Mexican painter whose large frescoes helped establish the Mexican Muralist movement.

These experiences inspired Mike to forge ahead to share and teach these techniques to his students.

Frescos in Kentucky

At the conclusion of the Junior Faculty Grant, during the summer of 2008, Mike taught the fresco technique to a class at WKU.  The students were extremely energetic and receptive to learning this intricate style of painting.

Bailey Jordan and Cecilia Morris creating a fresco on WKU’s fresco learning wall. At Professor Nichols’s 2019 Summer Fresco Class.

Following this class, Mike decided to hold an exhibition in the Art Gallery.  The WKU president at the time, Gary Ransdell, attended the reception, and was thoroughly impressed, leading to an amazing opportunity for Mike; he was commissioned by President Ransdell to paint a mural in the Van Meter Hall, and received another grant to complete it.

While teaching abroad on an exchange program in England, Mike traveled the region and was awed by the mammoth carved figures and art pieces he observed.  “I wanted to give WKU students and others who may not get a chance to travel, to be able to experience the grandness of Italy…to be influenced by how scale can impact a piece of art,” he said.  This experience inspired Mike to paint his grand mural, as shown below.

Mike Nichols with his buon fresco mural in the Van Meter Art Gallery on the WKU campus – photo courtesy of WKU Herald photographer


Mike Nichols working on his mural – photo courtesy of Cheryl Beckley of WKYU-PBS

To date there are only three true frescos in Kentucky:  in the lobby of the Courier Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY;  in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky, and the third is Professor Nichols’s mural at WKU in the Van Meter Hall in Van Meter Auditorium.

Currently Mike is a Professor of Art Foundations at WKU, and using experimental tools such as an airbrush, he is pushing the boundaries of fresco painting to further enhance their appeal to contemporary audiences.

Why WKU?

“I absolutely love the students, faculty and stunningly gorgeous campus at WKU.  My colleagues are amazing, supportive, and friendly and we elevate each other and work together to go the extra mile to reach great achievement for ourselves, and most importantly, for our students,” says Mike.  He continues, saying “WKU is one of the best kept secrets in the Midwest. The beautiful campus, rolling hills, flowers and trees make it extremely visually appealing, and the quality education, numerous scholarships, and dedicated faculty combine to provide an experience one won’t find elsewhere.  Due to the constant support from WKU in the form of grants, the trajectory of my work has been dramatically impacted and enhanced.”

For basic information relating to the materials and processes of the buon fresco technique, find Professor Mike Nichols’s blog here: http://buonfresco101.blogspot.com/

Grants and Fellowships

  • Quick Turn-Around Grant, Airbrushed Buon Fresco, Potter College of Arts and Letters, Western Kentucky University, 2020
  • Artist Professional Development Grant, Great Meadows Foundation, Louisville, KY, 2019
  • Quick Turn-Around Grant, Influences, Conversations about fresco in Italy, Potter College of Arts and Letters, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY 2019
  • RCAP Grant, Refresh: Exploring Contemporary Applications of Buon Fresco, Sponsored Programs, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, 2014
  • Sabbatical Leave, Refresh: Exploring Contemporary Applications of Buon Fresco,   Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, 2014
  • Al Smith Fellowship, Kentucky Arts Council, Frankfort, KY, 2010
  • Faculty Grant, Painted in Stone: The Art of Italian Fresco Painting, Office of Sponsored Programs, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, 2010
  • Junior Faculty Grant, Buon Fresco Technique, Office of Sponsored Programs, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY, 2007


Nichols’s work has been recognized with numerous awards and honors. In 2018, he received a Professional Artist Development Grant from the Great Meadows Foundation, in Louisville. He was awarded a 2010 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He has received numerous WKU faculty grants, Buon Fresco Technique, Painted in Stone, Refresh, and Influences, Conversations about fresco in Italy, in support of his research in the technique of buon fresco painting.

He was also awarded the Potter College Faculty Award for Research and Creative Activity for his efforts during the 2019-2020 academic year.

For more on Mike Nichols’s artwork visit his website here: http://www.michaelnicholsart.cTo follow Mike Nichols on Instagram visit: https://www.instagram.com/michaelnicholsart/