Leonardo’s Drawing Tools


Leonardo da Vinci demonstrated ingenuity in all aspects of his work, consistently adopting unconventional approaches and embracing emerging technologies — a trait akin to being an “early adopter” in contemporary terms. His renowned drawings and writings showcase a diverse range of techniques. To say that he utilized every available drawing and writing tool of his era would not be an overstatement. Moreover, he went a step further, creating tools that were either nonexistent or not easily accessible, including innovations like the fountain 1 pen and fabricated pastels. 2

Leonardo da Vinci, The body of a horse in profile c.1490 Metalpoint, with white heightening, on blue prepared paper, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo da Vinci, The body of a horse in profile c.1490 Metalpoint, with white heightening, on blue prepared paper, Royal Collection Trust

But a moment before we jump into the article’s topic, let me quickly share where this research comes from.

In 2022, Florentine Films invited me to take part in the Leonardo da Vinci documentary, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, a project that led me on a year-long expedition into Renaissance art compelling me to push the boundaries of my own artistic expertise and delve into the intricate details of Leonardo’s oeuvre, his writings and creative processes.

I found myself crafting props for the documentary’s shoot – drawing and painting tools that not only functioned in the same way, but also looked authentic, pertinent to the Renaissance period. This endeavor demanded extensive research, part of which I am eager to share in this article. 

The Leonardo FIlm Project - Shooting Process - Painting of Ginevra dei Benci's portrait
The Leonardo FIlm Project – Shooting Process – Painting of Ginevra dei Benci’s portrait

What did Leonardo use to create his Drawings?

An overview of tools and materials used by Leonardo da Vinci and a how these could possibly look like

Metalpoint

Leonardo da Vinci, Bust of a young girl, study for the “Virgin of the Rocks,” c. 1483-1485 [Detail] (metal point and highlights of white lead on light ochre-prepared paper), Musei Reali – Biblioteca Reale, Torino, Italia
The beautiful chocolate-like hue of silverpoint marks results from the tarnishing of silver. Unlike silver, not all metalpoint marks undergo this transformation; for instance, goldpoint marks will remain unaltered.
Silverpoint (top) and Leadpoint (bottom)  styluses compatible with the tools used by XV century artists, produced by Gleb and Sayaka Shtyrmer in 2022
Silverpoint (top) and Leadpoint (bottom) styluses compatible with the tools used by XV century artists, produced by Gleb and Sayaka Shtyrmer in 2022

Metalpoint drawing, involving a silver or lead stylus on specially prepared paper, was a key technique in Leonardo’s artistic repertoire. For his silverpoint grounds, Leonardo used a blend of bone ash, as outlined in Cennini’s treaties, along with colored pigments, typically indigo, resulting in the creation of his distinct blue papers. Alternatively, he experimented with red lead, charcoal black, and kermes red lake 3 4.

Contemporary metalpoint drawing tools available in certain art supplies stores typically resemble a silver rod that could easily fit a standard-sized propelling pencil. However, when considering Leonardo’s era, what would the design of his metalpoint stylus have been like?

To envision the authentic appearance of a silverpoint drawing tool during Leonardo’s time, we turn to period representations of artists at work. Although self-portraits were uncommon in the 15th century, insights into artists’ studios are found in depictions of Saint Luke, the patron of artists, credited with creating the first image of Mary. Notably, 15th-century Flemish artists often depicted Saint Luke in the act of drawing the Virgin with a silverpoint, providing valuable glimpses into the tools and techniques of that era.

Silver point drawing rappresentation in late XV, early XVI cent. by Flemish artists. All painting represent Saint Luke drawing the Madonna.
To see entire paintings follow the below links:
1. Hugo van der Goes, MNAA National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisboa
2. Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1500, Groeningemuseum, Bruges
3. Dieric Bouts the elder (c.1415–1475) (studio of), The Bowes Museum
4. Jan Gossaert, c. 1515, National Gallery of Prague
5. Jan Gossaert, c. 1520, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien

Constrained tonal values of silverpoint and the firmness of its lines compelled artists to reevaluate observed nature, skillfully synthesizing it through the use of hatched marks to achieve a poetic effect. In certain cases, Leonardo extended the tonal range of his drawings with white tempera highlights, thus employing a distinctive Renaissance drawing method called chiaroscuro. Occasionally, he also combined metalpoint with ink or black chalk and applied silverpoint atop a preliminary rough sketch in wine charcoal.

Study of a Horse: My Reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's Technique. Working with Leonardo's silverpoint drawings, I discovered the crucial role that paper and ground play in the process. Handmade rag paper, while exceptionally soft, poses challenges when using a metalpoint. While multiple coats of the silverpoint ground can partially compensate for this, a preference is given to harder and even thinner paper for a more optimal experience.
Study of a Horse: My Reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Technique. Working with Leonardo’s silverpoint drawings, I discovered the crucial role that paper and ground play in the process. Handmade rag paper’s softness and thickness are qualities that play to your advantage when working with other materials but pose challenges when using a metalpoint that presses or scretches throug the paper very easily. While multiple coats of the silverpoint ground can partially compensate for this, a harder and even thinner paper is preferrable.

Pen & Ink

Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) Horses, St George fighting the Dragon, and a lion c.1517-18
Leonardo da Vinci, Horses, St George fighting the Dragon, and a lion c.1517-18,Black chalk, pen and ink, wash, on rough paper | 29.8 x 21.2 cm (sheet of paper) Royal Colleciton Trust

Ink: Studies provide compelling evidence that Leonardo, like many of his contemporaries, extensively employed iron gall ink in his artistic endeavors. However, his exploration extended beyond the conventional, as in some cases he experimented with other inks crafted from different materials and applied ink atop silverpoint, charcoal and pastel underdrawings. 5 6 This versatility in ink usage reflects not only his adaptability as an artist but also a nuanced understanding of the diverse qualities and effects different inks could impart to his work.

One of the props for the documentary is a study based on Leonardo’s renowned landscape drawing in pen and ink, known by various names, including Arno Valley Landscape, Madonna della Neve, and designated by its catalog number in the Uffizi Gallery – 8P.

An intriguing revelation surfaced during the creation of this drawing, which took a considerable amount of time. I observed that Iron Gall Ink, used extensively in the project, tarnishes quite rapidly on contemporary paper. Returning to the drawing a few days after its initiation, I noticed a discernible shift in the hue of lines laid previously. This is particularly evident in the central part of the drawing, where the ink marks appear cooler due to being freshly applied during the shooting.

Pen: Leonardo likely favored the common quill pen, the standard writing instrument of his era. However, the Codex Atlanticus reveals a fascinating design for a fountain pen, suggesting that Leonardo may have conceived and used a fountain pen of his own design. Several years ago, an Italian artisan, Amerigo Bombara, recreated this pen for the Italian historical TV show SuperQuark. 7

While the actual production and appearance of Leonardo’s designed pen remain speculative, the distinctive quality of line evident in his pen drawings, along with the dynamic calligraphy of his writing, suggests prevalent reliance on the soft and flexible nib of a traditional quill pen. Such finesse, characterized by nuanced strokes achived by a sensitivity to pressure and angle of the nib, appears incompatible with the abovementioned pen design resembling a contemporary ballpoint pen rather than the nib of a stilogrpahic pen used by calligraphers.

The widespread use and visual representation of quill pens are noticeable in numerous paintings predating, contemporaneous with, and postdating Leonardo’s lifetime.

Featured in “Saint Jerome in his Studio” by Marinus van Reymerswaele, circa 1535-1545 in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, are a quill pen and an inkwell.
While exploring Saint Luke’s raffigurations provides valuable insights into the painter’s materials, depictions of Saint Jerome and the Evangelists serve as rich sources for understanding the writing tools prevalent during this period.

Chalks and Pastels

LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519)
The drapery of the Madonna's thigh c.1515-17
Charcoal, black chalk partly washed over, touches of brown wash, white heightening | 16.4 x 14.5 cm
Leonardo da Vinci, The drapery of the Madonna’s thigh c.1515-17 Charcoal, black chalk partly washed over, touches of brown wash, white heightening, Royal Collection Trust

Natural drawing chalks: While Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t the first artist to use chalks in drawing 8, he has extensively explored the possibilities of these new media in numerous drawings and played a pivotal role in spreading and popularizing chalk drawing medium on the Italian peninsula.

Natural chalk (black and red) preparation process, cutting to size, mounting on a reed and the process of drawing. The refference image is not by Leonardo and I can’t be sure about his chalk holder appearence, but the chalk preparation and the drawing process itself would be similar.

Fabricated Pastels: Leonardo’s writings include recipes for pastel fabrication and a note to himself to acquire the novel technique of fine pastel, not yet known in Italy, from the French court painter Jean Perréal, a very successful royal portraitist whom Leonardo encountered at the king’s court 9:


Get from Jean de Paris the method of dry colouring and the method of white salt, and how to make coated sheets; single and many doubles; and his box of colours; learn the tempera of flesh tones, learn to dissolve gum lake.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus (fol. 669r)

We don’t know for sure whether Leonardo has invented pastels, but it is plausible that he either adopted the pastel fabrication method from Jean Perréal or independently devised this technique, but multiple pastel drawings by his pupils and the recently attributed to Leonardo Portrait of a Young Woman in Profile confirm he has experimented with this medium 10.

Leonardo explored the full spectrum of chalk drawing possibilities. He made drawings using solely red or black chalk, employed the so called aux deux crayons technique (utilizing two chalks, either red or black, alongside white chalk for highlights), and experimented with the aux trois crayons technique, combining all three chalks: red, black, and white.

A distinctive feature of Leonardo’s techniques was the use of an orange-red background in many of his red chalk drawings. It appears that despite Leonardo abandoning metalpoint since the early 1490s 11, he sought to replicate the limited tonal range characteristic of silverpoint by applying a low-middle tone ground to his papers. It seems that for him, a restricted tonal range wasn’t necessarily a drawback; in fact, it enabled him to craft drawings of extraordinary, almost dreamlike delicacy and elegance.

Chalk Holder: The chalk itself is a natural stone, and to draw efficiently with it, one should affix it to a holder, such as a reed, quill, or a purpose-made brass holder. While doing my research for the documentary, I have found that brass holders were adopted quite early, already in the second half of XVI century Armenini mentions them in his treaties and they can be found in a few paintings and etchings.

Art student making a drawing with help of a tool that looks like brass chalk holder
An Academy of Painters Pierfrancesco Alberti Italian 1600–38, The MET
Art student drawing making a chalk drawing with help of a chalk holder in An Academy of Painters Pierfrancesco Alberti Italian 1600–38

But the closest chronological visual reference to a chalk holder that I could identify is in the renowned Painters’ Chapel (Chapel of Saint Luke). Here, our Patron Saint once again imparts valuable insights into artists’ materials.

It is difficult to say though whether the chalk holder in this fresco is made of reed or brass.

Later in time brass crayon holders became a must have tool in any artist studio and are very frequently depicted in self-portraits of 18th-century painters.

Examples of brass chalk or crayon holders in XVIII century portraits.
Examples of brass chalk or crayon holders in XVIII century portraits.

Finally, here is the Natural Chalk Drawing Toolkit I’ve created in my studio:

Chalk drawing tools and materials overview, including natural black and red chalk samples, reed and brass chalk holders, brushes, rag paper, charcoal sticks and feather
Chalk drawing tools and materials overview, including natural black and red chalk samples, reed and brass chalk holders, brushes, rag paper, charcoal sticks and feather

I hope you enjoyed this journey into Leonardo’s drawing process and Renaissance drawing materials esthetics and usage. Next time, I hope to share with you what I have discovered about painting equipment and Leonardo’s painting process.

Notes:
  1. See Codex Atlanticus, pages 513v and 785r and the SuperQuark documentary TV show series discussion of this topic ↩︎
  2. See Leonardo’s recipe of white wax crayons form Codex Forster II, f. 159r, National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, Uffizi gallery reports about Leonardo’s employment of lampblack pastels in one of his earliest drawings. Learn more about natural and fabricated drawing chalks in a dedicated article on this website. ↩︎
  3. Technological Analysis of the Leonardo Drawings, Hamburger Kunsthalle ↩︎
  4. LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519), Studies of horses c.1478-80, Metalpoint, pen and ink, touches of red chalk, on brown-grey prepared paper, Royal Collection Trust ↩︎
  5. Unveiling the Invisible in Uffizi Gallery’s Drawing 8P by Leonardo with Non-Invasive Optical Techniques ↩︎
  6. La campagna di indagini dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure sul primo paesaggio di Leonardo Da Vinci ↩︎
  7. See footnote 1. ↩︎
  8. In northern Europe artists started using chalks earlier than in Italy, some chalk drawings predate Leonardo, such as Portrait of Alain de Coëtivy by Jean Fouquet, ca. 1451–55; or the preparatory drawing for the portrait of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins by the same artist. ↩︎
  9. See LEONARDO – “The ‘pastel’ found: a new portrait by Leonardo da Vinci?” by Christina Geddo ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. Ibid. ↩︎