Chalk - Drawing Materials Available to 15th Century Artists
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 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.
Pen and Ink
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.
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 - 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.
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 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.