Making Hand-Toned Paper

Head of an Old Man, 1521 [detail], Albrecht Dürer 1521, Albertina Museum

Chap. CLXXVIII.—What is a Painter’s first Aim, and Object.

The first object of a painter is to make a simple flat surface appear like a relievo, and some of its parts detached from the ground ; he who excels all others in that part of the art, deserves the greatest praise. This perfection of the art depends on the correct distribution of lights and shades, called chiaro-scuro. If the painter then avoids shadows, he may be said to avoid the glory of the art, and to render his work despicable to real connoisseurs, for the fake of acquiring the esteem of vulgar and ignorant admirers of fine colors, who never have any knowledge of relievo.

A Treatise on Painting by Leonardo, da Vinci, 1452-1519

Making of a Tinted Paper

Materials & Tools

How You Should Advance to Drawing on Tinted Paper
Chapter XV

To approach the glory [of the profession] step by step, to start trying to discover the entrance and gateway to painting, you should take up a system of drawing different from the one which we have been discussing up to now. And this is known as drawing on tinted paper; either paper, that is, or parchment. Let them be tinted; for one is tinted in the same way as the other, and with the same tempera. And you may make your tints inclined toward pink, or violet, or green; or bluish, or greenish gray, that is, drab colors; or flesh colored, or any way you please; for they all take the same temperas, the same time for grinding the colors; and you may draw on them all by the same method. It is true that most people generally use the green tint, and it is most usual, both for shading down and for putting lights on. Although I am going to describe later on the grinding of all the colors, and their characters, and their temperas, I will give you briefly a short method now, to get you started on your drawing and your tinting of the papers.

The craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed

Let’s do some Alchemy!

Ingredients to make the colored ground:



Animal skin glue, tipically rabbit glue was and is very widely used in painting, violin making, production of illuminated manuscripts, restoration of all the above and more.

Oak galls can be found on oak trees all around the globe. In late winter and early spring, they are easier to identify while an oak tree is leafless.

Numerous plants, such as hawthorn tree, contain tannins in various parts of the plant.


Lead White

White lead (lead carbonate), artificially produced since the times of ancient Greeks and probably even earlier, or its mineral near equivalent cerussite were until quite recently very commonly used in painting of any kind and medium, all branches of industry and even cosmetics.

Unfortunately, the toxicity of this pigment has led to severe trade and production restrictions and this pigment is now largely replaced by zinc an titanium whites.



Green earth and ocher, as well as other earth pigments that come in a great variety of shades.

Extremely versatile (can be used with any medium and technique), stable and inexpensive, colored earths accompany humankind from the cave age to the present day.



Clean water, typically rain or spring water was used. We will use distilled water.

Additional ingredients:
  • Additional Pigments: while lead white (or titanium white in our case) is necessary in most recipes to achieve an opaque and light tone, all other pigments can be used in the mixture.
  • Bone white: necessary if you need to draw with silver, gold or lead point (stylus)
  • Paper: it is advisable to use pure cotton soft and heavy paper (300+ gsm)

Recipes examples

Making of a tinted paper is one of the easiest and also very satisfying processes among the Renaissance drawing techniques. The trick is in finding the right proportions of glue, water and pigments and in applying the coats evenly.

Illustration from: The practice of tempera painting by Thompson, Daniel V

Recipe 1, Italy, early XV century

Original Text


When you want to tint a kid parchment, or a sheet of paper, take as much as half a nut of terre-verte; a little ocher, half as much as that; and solid white lead to the amount of half the ocher; and as much as a bean of bone dust, using the bone which I described to you above for drawing; and as much as half a bean of vermilion.
And grind all these things up well on the porphyry slab with well or spring or river water; and grind them as much as ever you can stand grinding them, for they can never be done too much; because the more you grind them, the more perfect tint it becomes.
Then temper the aforesaid substances with size of the following quality and strength: get a leaf of druggists’ glue, not fish glue, and put it into a pipkin to soak, for the space of six hours, in as much clear, clean water as two common goblets will hold. Then put this pipkin on the fire to temper it; and skim it when it boils. When it has boiled a little, so that you see that the glue is all dissolved, strain it twice.
Then take a large paint pot, big enough for these ground colors, and put in enough of this size to make it flow freely from the brush. And choose a good-sized soft bristle brush. Then take that paper of yours which you wish to tint; lay some of this tint evenly over the ground of your paper, running your hand lightly, with the brush about half dry, first in one direction and then in the other. And put on three or four coats of it in this way, or five, until you see that the paper is tinted evenly. And wait long enough between one coat and the next for each coat to dry.
And if you see that it gets shriveled from your tinting, or horny from the tinting mixture, it is a sign that the tempera is too strong; and so, while you are laying the first coat, remedy this. How? — Put in some clear warm water. When it is dry and done, take a penknife, and rub lightly over the tinted sheet with the blade, so as to remove any little roughness that there may be on it.

Additional information

Color mixture:

  • 1 part of titanium white (lead white is toxic and should be used with great caution)
  • 2 parts of yellow ocher
  • 4 parts of terra verde (green earth)
  • 1 part of bone white
  • 0.5 parts of red earth (lead and cinnabar reds that were commonly used during the Renaissance as well as cadmium red that is commonly used today are toxic and should be used with great caution)

Other ingredients:

  • Rabbit glue
  • Distilled water

The proportions of glue and water are very approximate, you will have to make some experiments and rely on what Cennino says in the last paragraph of the recipe.

Recipe 2 (modern, based on historical recipes):

  • 1 part of rabbit glue
  • 18 parts of distilled water
  • Color mixture that includes titanium or zinc white as a base
Step 1: Prepare the paper

To prepare the papers for this sort of drawing, first obtain a few pieces of good drawing paper, preferably hot pressed. Lay them out on a clean bench or table. They need not be fastened down at all. For large pieces, it is best to stretch the paper; but up to 11″ x 14″ or somewhat larger, the sheets can be managed quite well without even tacking down the corners.

Step 2: Prepare the size

Next dissolve half an ounce of gelatine in 18 ounces of water.

Step 3: Prepare the COLORS

Then take dry powdered colors, and mix up any tone you please, making it rather lighter than you want the finished paper to appear. For this purpose, the best white pigment is zinc white. Zinc white, ivory black, opaque oxide of chromium, Venetian red, yellow ocher, French ultramarine, and raw umber, will give a wide range of fine colors; but very beautiful results may be obtained by using such brilliant colors as vermilion and cadmium yellow. Some zinc white should be included in every mixture; and it is better to have the tint too light than too dark.

Step 4: Prepare the ground

When you have compounded a satisfactory mixture of the dry pigments, add a little of the gelatine solution, and stir thoroughly to mix thoroughly and break up any lumps. Then add more of the gelatine solution, making the mixture quite liquid. Then strain it through a piece of fine silk into a clean cup or bowl. Instead of using the pigments dry, you may use pigments ground with water; but it will be harder to judge the color, and there is no great advantage in having the pigments very finely ground. If dry pigments are used, the straining will remove any unground particles which might be troublesome.

Step 5: apply the ground

Apply enough coats of this mixture of size and pigment to your pieces of paper to produce an agreeably even tone. A bristle brush is best to use for this, say a 1″ or 2″ sash tool. A slight striation from the brush strokes is often pleasant. If you want a perfectly smooth surface, you may get it by putting on many thin coats, or by stippling each coat as you put it on with a badger blender. Let each coat dry thoroughly before you put on the next. If the papers tend to curl badly in drying, add a little water to your mixture. The advantage of not using thumbtacks to hold the papers down is that the brush strokes may be run over the edge of the paper onto the table, and the paper thus tinted evenly right up to the margins. If thumbtacks are used, the papers have to be trimmed.