Chalk - Drawing Materials Available to 15th Century Artists

Credit: Frances Spiegel 2019 with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Drawing Materials in the 15th Century

Marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), this remarkable exhibition features over 200 of the finest drawings held by the Royal Collection Trust. Also on display are examples of materials available during the artist’s lifetime.

Through these works we gain a fascinating insight into the artist’s life and works.

Drawing Materials Available to Leonardo

The exhibition looks in detail at the range of drawing materials   available to artists in the 15th century. These would have been severely limited but we learn how the artist’s use of these materials was always innovative.  

In the 1470s and ‘80s drawings were mainly executed in either metalpoint or pen and ink.

Metalpoint Stylus

Metalpoint Stylus
Credit: Frances Spiegel 2019 with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.


Metalpoint uses a stylus, often made of silver. The paper is coated with a layer of finely ground bone, sometimes with pigment added. The stylus leaves a trace of metal on the abrasive ground. The mark cannot be erased, nor is it affected by the amount of pressure applied by the user.

Using a metal stylus requires precise control and discipline and there’s no room for errors. This was the main method of training artists during the 15th century. It fell out of favour after 1500 with the introduction of chalks. 

Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing
Amazon Price: $24.36 Buy Now
(price as of May 24, 2019)

Pen and Ink

All About Ink
Credit: Frances Spiegel 2019 with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Pen and Ink

Pens were cut from goose feathers. Throughout his life, the artist wrote and drew with a quill pen. He also applied dilute ink with a brush to create shading in his drawing. Brushes were made of animal hair set into the shaft of a feather.

The ink was made by combining iron salts and tannic acid from oak galls (oak apples). The resulting ink was a thick 'iron gall ink'. Gum arabic thickened the ink. Over time the colour fades to a chestnut colour. 

Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look
Amazon Price: $80.00 $49.05 Buy Now
(price as of May 24, 2019)

Chalk Becomes Available

Chalk became available towards the end of the 15th century. Leonardo worked mostly with natural red and black chalks. He rarely chose white chalk.

Chalk was cut to a point and fixed in the end of a split stick. The line was dense and stuck easily to the paper with no need to fix it.

Charcoal is a less precise drawing material. It is also less durable, but research shows the artist did use it.

Leonardo frequently combined different drawing materials especially once chalk became available. One piece that is particularly interesting is Head of Leda.

Head of Leda Photographed in Infrared Light

Head of Leda
Credit: Frances Spiegel 2019 with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.

Head of Leda - Study for Leda and the Swan

In creating this drawing. the artist initially used chalk or charcoal to make rough sketches - underdrawings. Then, using pen and ink, he worked the underdrawing into a final drawing. This drawing is particularly interesting because infrared examination has made the underdrawing visible. The ink is visible in near-infrared light showing the chalk or charcoal drawing hidden beneath.

Head of Leda is a study in preparation for Leda and the Swan, a painting executed during the artist’s final years. The painting was in Leonardo’s studio at his death and was the most highly valued item in his estate. 

Innovative Use of Limited Materials

At the start of the 16th century Leonardo made increasingly innovative use of all the available materials. He would often layer black, red and sometimes white chalks on a red ground often mixing these drawing materials with liquid media including ink, wash or water. This would give an additional richness especially to studies of fabrics or hair, as visible in Head of Leda. 


Credit: Frances Spiegel 2019 with permission from RCT. All rights reserved.


Leonardo only used colour in drawings intended for others to see such as maps and courtly emblems.

The exhibition presents the results of scientific analysis proving that he used both plant-based dyes and copper-based mineral pigments. Occasionally he used ground lapis lazuli or ultramarine, with gum arabic (a tree resin) as a binding medium.

In the final years of his life he ceased to use colour preferring mainly black chalk, pen and ink and wash. In a few drawings he worked solely in black chalk on a dark grey ground. 

Paper with Watermark

Paper with Watermark
Credit: F.Spiegel.

Paper in Leonardo's Time

Paper, made from rags of linen or hemp, was freely available in Leonardo’s time. It was cheaper than parchment due to the book-printing revolution of the 15th century.

Paper was made from rags beaten in water to form a slurry of pulped fibres. The fibres were drawn out of a vat with a rectangular wire sieve (a mould) and pressed and dried. The resulting sheet was treated with gelatin to prevent ink blotting. A design of bent wires was sewn into the mould to make a watermark in the paper, the ‘trademark’ or stamp of the papermaker.

All the artist’s drawings were created on paper. He chose a wide range of papers – white or blue, fine or coarse. He would often coat his paper with a coloured preparation to create a range of tonal effects. 

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing  at The Queen’s Gallery

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing can be seen at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from 24th May to 13th October 2019. Full details are available at the Royal Collection Trust website.

Leonardo Da Vinci
Amazon Price: $399.00 $10.00 Buy Now
(price as of May 24, 2019)