Natural Drawing Chalks & Fabricated Crayons


Natural Chalks: types and uses

Materials & Tools

Natural red and black chalk samples and the mark they leave on paper
Natural red and black chalk samples and the mark they leave on paper.
These chalks are compatible with the drawing chalks used during the Renaissance period.

Drawing chalks – Renaissance drawing media, originaly in form of a natural stones, were mainly of the following three kinds:

  • Black chalk (schist rock), not to be confused with charcoal
  • Red chalk, or sanguine (red stone composed mainly of hematite or other iron oxides, along with clay, silicates, and other minerals).
  • White chalk (naturally ocuring calcite or other limestone kinds)

Initially predominantly used to create rapid preliminary sketches, drawing chalks gained prominence since the late Renaissance as a standalone media for finished drawings and designs.

Leonardo da Vinci extensively explored the possibilities of chalks and pastels in numerous drawings, playing a pivotal role in spreading and popularizing chalk drawing medium. Among the exceptional Renaissance masters whose chalk drawings have continued to inspire generations of artists, notable figures include Michelangelo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, and Annibale Carracci.

Red and black chalks played a significant role in replacing metalpoint drawing technique which required specific paper preparation and restricted artists to a narrower tonal range.


CHAPTER VII

That one must begin with the easiest things. Of the four principal ways one follows in drawing. With what order and in what way various things are portrayed, what materials are used, and what imitation consists of in designing.

This stone, whether red or black, must be neither soft nor hard, and not at all spongy, for it breaks up into thin pieces. It is better if first the oxidized and rough surfaces are removed so that when it has been squared off and well cleaned one can easily cut or saw it without much flaking. One then cuts it into little pieces and sharpens them in such a way that they can be put inside a little brass tube made for this purpose. Once the point has been properly sharpened with a knife, one can then draw in the same manner as has been described for the other techniques, but with a very light hand, for the point easily flakes and shatters.

On the true precepts of the art of painting by Armenini, Giovanni Battista, 1533?-1609

CHAPTER II.

§ 77. Sketches, Drawings, and Cartoons of different kinds.

[…] Drawings are made in various materials, that is, either with red chalk, which is a stone coming from the mountains of Germany, soft enough to be easily sawn and reduced to a fine point suitable for marking on leaves of paper in any way you wish; or with black chalk that comes from the hills of France, which is of the same nature as the red. […]

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Vasari on technique; being the introduction to the three arts of design, architecture, sculpture and painting, prefixed to the Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects

Natural Red Chalk

Materials & Tools

Raphael, Eight Seated Bishops, c. 1516 Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany
Raphael, Eight Seated Bishops, c. 1516 Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Germany

Red chalk, also called Sanguine, Sanguigna in Italian is one of the most characteristic Renaissance drawing media. It was very popular during the 16th to 18th centuries due to its versatile nature, expressive values and the range of color tonalities it could produce, ranging from bright oranges to dark reddish tones.

Red-chalk stone, as illustrated in: Kreuterbuch by Adam Lonitzer, 1578, CCCXLIII.
Red-chalk stone, as illustrated in: Kreuterbuch by Adam Lonitzer, 1578, CCCXLIII.

Fine particles of the red chalk easily adhered to paper fibers, making it suitable for a variety of drawing styles and techniques as well as cartoon transferring.

Natural red chalk is a form of pigment, essentially red ochre, that has been sourced directly from geological deposits in a form of chunks or stones.

Its coloration primarily results from its mineral composition, particularly its iron oxide and hydroxide content. The reddish color comes from the presence of hematite, a type of iron oxide, which gives the chalk its distinct hue.

The composition and properties (hardness, hue and tone) of natural red chalk can vary based on factors such as the specific mineral deposits it originates from, particle size, shape, and impurities. The way it’s applied to paper and the techniques used can also influence its color appearance and properties.

Natural Black Chalk

Materials & Tools

Raphael (1483 - 1520) Studies of the heads of two apostles and of their hands c. 1519 - 1520 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (image)
Raphael (1483 – 1520) Studies of the heads of two apostles and of their hands c. 1519 – 1520 black chalk over pounced underdrawing with some white heightening on laid paper [detail] © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (image)

Referenced twice in Cennini’s treatise, black chalk emerged as a drawing medium likely preceding its red counterpart, gaining popularity among Renaissance artists. Renowned figures like Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and numerous others created exceptional quality drawings using black chalk.


ABOUT A STONE WHICH HAS THE CHARACTER OF CHARCOAL FOR DRAWING. CHAPTER XXXIIII ENDS THE FIRST SECTION OF THIS BOOK.

Also for drawing, I have come across a certain black stone, which comes from Piedmont; this is a soft stone; and it can be sharpened with a penknife, for it is soft. It is very black. And you can bring it to the same perfection as charcoal. And draw as you want to.

HOW TO MAKE VARIOUS SORTS OF BLACK. CHAPTER XXXVII
Know that there are several kinds of black colors. There is a black which is a soft, black stone; it is a fat color. Bearing in mind that every lean color is better than the fat one (except that, for gilding, the fatter the bole or terre-verte which you get for gilding on panel, the better the gold comes out), let us leave this section. […]

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

Natural black chalk, a schist rock formed through metamorphic processes acting on sediments, was mined and utilized as a drawing medium during the Renaissance. It could be shaped into tools or ground into powder for artistic applications. The term “black stone” or “black chalk” referred to a variable composition black mineral used for drawing or pigment, and might have also been used to denote graphite or ampelite. This versatile medium, capable of producing varying shades of black, was commonly used for drawing due to its homogenous texture and softness.

Natural White Chalk

Materials & Tools

The natural white drawing chalk originates from a carbonate rock primarily made up of the mineral calcite. This chalk type is a variation of limestone that developed over time due to the geological preservation of marine organisms. Since it occurs naturally, white chalk can be molded and sized to fit diverse purposes. In the Renaissance era, artists used natural white chalk to accentuate their chiaro-scuro drawings on toned or colored paper, often in conjunction with red and/or black chalk.

Study after Michelangelo's Giorno (recto and verso) Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti)  ca.1550–55, Black and white chalk on blue paper, The MET
Study after Michelangelo’s Giorno (recto and verso) Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) ca.1550–55, Black and white chalk on blue paper, The MET

The “three crayons” technique, known by its French name, was pioneered in the late Renaissance by artists from Northern Europe. This method involves using all three natural chalks – red, black, and white – to create drawings on toned or colored papers.

HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER (1497/8-1543) Sir Richard Southwell (1502/3-1564) 1536 Black and coloured chalks, pen and ink, and metalpoint on pale pink prepared paper, The Royal Collection Trust
HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER (1497/8-1543)
Portrait of Sir Richard Southwell (1502/3-1564), 1536
Black and coloured chalks, pen and ink, and metalpoint on pale pink prepared paper, The Royal Collection Trust

Fabricated Crayons

Materials & Tools

Natural chalk pencils have drawbacks due to their variability in composition and structure, causing potential damage to paper and interrupting the drawing process. They can be too hard, coarse, and crumbly, making shaping and sharpening difficult. Not to speak about limited color randge.

As early as in times of Leonardo da Vinci artists have started fabricating crayons and pastels using the smooth and uniform grinded pigment paste bound with wax, gum arabic, pipe clay [kaolin rich clay] or other binder. The key is to balance the ammount of binder in the paste to achive soft and versatile crayons.

Production on a larger scale began in Paris, with Desmarest and later Lomet pioneering the development and publication of methods in the late 18th century. Mass production was later undertaken by the Parisian firm Nicolas-Jacque Conté, contributing to the continued availability of fabricated red chalk crayons even today.

Below are a few recipes examples in cronological order:

XVI cent. White Crayon Recipe

Source: Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, Codex Forster II, f. 159r, National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Original text
Leonardo’s recipe of white wax crayons form Codex Forster II, f. 159r, National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum. The image is flipped to facilitate the reading of Leonardo’s lefthanded writing
Transcription [Italian]

Per fare punte da colorire a secco, tempera con un po’ di cera e non cascherà. La qual cera dissolverai con acque che, temperata la biacca , essa acqua stillata se ne vada in fumo e rimanga la cera sola, e fara’ bone punte. Ma sappi che ti bisogna macinare i colori colla pietra calda.

Text transcription from Archivio digitale di storia della tecnica e della scienza, Biblioteca Comunale Leonardiana
Translated text

To make points (of crayons) for coloring dry, bind (the powdered color) with a little wax so that it will not crumble. This wax should be dissolved in water so that when you have mixed the lead white with it, the distilled water will disappear in vapor, but the wax will remain, and this makes good crayons, but you must know that you have to grind the colors with a hot stone..

Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, Dover Publications

XVI cent. Crayons Making Recipe

Source: Gregoire, Pierre (Petrus Gregorius), 1540-1617, Syntaxes artis mirabilis, in libros septem digestae, 1586

Original text
Description of usage and production of crayons in:  Gregoire, Pierre (Petrus Gregorius), 1540-1617, Syntaxes artis mirabilis, in libros septem digestae, 1586
Description of usage and production of crayons in: Gregoire, Pierre (Petrus Gregorius), 1540-1617, Syntaxes artis mirabilis, in libros septem digestae, 1586
Transcription [Latin]

Describunt quoque maiores lineas, lapide nigro fabrili, uel creta rubea, interdum & plumbo, quorum maculas, plumbi inquam, panis mica fri catas, aliorum autem xylo demunt, postquam lineamenta iusta sunt induncta aliis coloribus funt.

Condensant autem et cylindruli formula, rotant stylos illos colorum pictores, alii glutine piscium, alii cum gummi Arabico , alii cum lacte ficus arboris, alii et illi ut arbitror, dulcius cum sero lactis: cum hoc enim molliores sunt styli quos vocant coroyons, alii enim duriores et qui chartam incidant.

Ad obseruandum in istis stylis misceri colores, & ita hos referre colores ex cerusa, uel creta cum alijs mixtra, & in omnibus antequam cogantur, & rotentur in modum pennae, uel styli, optime colores conteri, & misceri supra marmoreum lapidem.

Gregoire, Pierre (Petrus Gregorius), 1540-1617, Syntaxes artis mirabilis, in libros septem digestae, 1586
Translated text

[…] They also draw larger lines with black stone material, red clay [chalk], sometimes even with lead, the spots of which, I mean lead, can be erased with soft bread; the marks of others, however, are removed with wood, after the outlines have been placed in a different medium.

Colors are also condenced and rotated to styli [points] of cylindrical shape, some painters use fish glue [as binder], others gum arabic, others the milk [sap] of fig tree, others still, and those, I think, more sweetly [successfully], use milk whey for these are the softer styles which are called “coroyons”, while others are harder and incise the paper.

Preparing color mixes for these styli, whether made of ceruse [lead] or clay [red chalk?] or other mixtures, in all cases, before they are collected and rotated in the manner of a pen or stylus, it is best to thoroughly crush and mix [grind] the colors on a marble stone [slab]. […]

Gregoire, Pierre (Petrus Gregorius), 1540-1617, Syntaxes artis mirabilis, in libros septem digestae, 1586 [This text is translated by the author of this website, Gleb Shtyrmer, to the best of their linguistic skills. ]

XVII cent. Crayon Pastels Recipe

Source: Sir Theodore de Mayerne, Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium (Sloane MS 2052, the ‘Mayerne manuscript’, 1620-1646, British Library, f.97r)

Original text
Translation

CRAYONS OF ALL COLORS, CHIEFLY FOR FACES.

A material [well suited to this] is chalk with which the colors have to be mixed: vermilion, lake, umber, light ocher; and everything is ground together with milk to make crayons. The second is the earth from which tobacco pipes are made (pipe clay) and which is mixed with water. This is more durable and less brittle, and it spreads well. For lake that is dry so that it is hard to stroke out on the paper, the clay should be mixed with Venetian soap dissolved in water. When the whole mixture is thoroughly ground on marble the way the paints are ground, make your little rolls and even them out on your palette or another piece of wood and let them dry in a clean place in the sun or in the shade. There are two sorts of pipe clay. The one is white, which is better. The other is blue. Note and try the white earth from which enamelware is made in Paris.

Fels Jr., Donald C.: Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting, Including the First Complete English Translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript, B.M., Sloane 2052.

XVII cent. Red Chalk Pastels Recipe

Source: Peacham, Henry (1634). The Gentlemans Exercise, London

Original text
Description of red chalk  crayon making process in: Peacham, Henry (1634). The Gentlemans Exercise, London
Description of red chalk crayon making process in: Peacham, Henry (1634). The Gentlemans Exercise, London
Transcription

[…] To draw with dry colours, you may make long pastils, which you shall do by grinding red Lead, or any other colour with strong Wort, and form them up into long rolls like pencils, drying them in the Sunne: some put hereto a little new milke. […]

Peacham, Henry (1634). The Gentlemans Exercise, London

XVIII cent. Sanguine Crayons Recipes

Translated text

[translation]

ON THE MANUFACTURING OF RED CHALK DRAWING CRAYONS

In most drawing schools, especially those situated far from the capital, there are significant challenges in obtaining high-quality red chalk pencils for drawing. The commonly used sawn red chalk stone is almost always hard, gritty, and uneven in consistency. As a result, the strokes made with these pencils lack the necessary softness and purity to achieve the desired effect.

The only good pencils available have been manufactured exclusively in Paris so far. They are quite expensive and the best ones have long been known as “pâte pencils” by Mr. Desmarest, who seemingly invented them.

None of the authors who have written about the composition of these pencils have provided the necessary proportions of materials to use. I have conducted graduated experiments with all possible combinations of suitable substances for this manufacturing process. I have discarded unsuccessful products and present here the methods that have yielded satisfactory results.

These pencils are composed of soft red chalk stone, an oxide of iron mixed with clay-like earth known as hematite. This mixture is combined with any binding substance such as gum, glue, or resin. Sometimes soap is added to soften the harshness of this composition.
Instead of red chalk, other red iron oxides can be used, such as brown-red, soft vitriol earth, etc. In this case, they should be selected for their softness to the touch and vibrant color, as those found in commerce are often mixed with clay, giving them a dull and yellowish tone that should be avoided.

I attempted to incorporate these substances with egg whites and blood albumin, but the resulting pencils were of poor quality.

The red chalk should be the softest available, ground with pure water on marble, similar to the process used for paints. It should be moistened enough to allow the grinder to move smoothly but using the least amount of water possible.

For larger-scale operations, grinding becomes difficult and expensive. In such cases, the substances are pounded, sieved through silk, and then mixed thoroughly in basins. The mixture is agitated strongly, left to settle, and the clearer water on top is decanted, leaving a very fine deposit. This process is repeated until all the materials are in an extremely divided state.

The gum, glue, or soap intended to provide the necessary solidity for the pencils should be dissolved separately. These solutions are then mixed precisely with the ground red chalk and the mixture is evaporated, either by sunlight or gentle heat, until the paste reaches a consistency slightly firmer than butter. The mixture is then molded into pencils.
Molding can be done in two ways. The first involves spreading the paste on a board with slightly tapered and rounded grooves, then drying and cutting them into the desired size. The second and better method is to force the paste through a syringe with an opening matching the desired pencil size. The molded sticks should be dried slowly in the shade to prevent cracking due to rapid drying.

Once dried, the sticks are cut into lengths, their edges trimmed, and a preliminary shaping is done to prepare them for final sharpening. A thin film formed during drying is scraped off, ensuring a smooth surface.

A light layer of oil is applied to the wooden mold’s grooves to prevent sticking.
Preferably, arabic gum and fish glue should be used. The gum can be dissolved in cold water, while the glue should first be chopped and then dissolved in warm water using a double boiler. These solutions should be diluted enough to pass through a horsehair sieve to remove impurities.

Incorporating the glue solution into the paste can be challenging; it should be heated along with the paste, combining the two under hot water bath conditions.

The paste should be well mixed before being poured into molds to ensure even incorporation and to avoid air bubbles. Ideally, knead the paste with the binding solution, grinding it again on marble before placing it into the molds.

Soap should only be used in pencils that also contain gum; combining glue and soap has not yielded successful results due to the excessive alkalinity of the soap affecting the adhesive properties of the gelatin.

Pencils with soap tend to have a slightly darker color, possibly due to the soap diminishing the oxygen content of the iron oxide, resulting in a color closer to ethiopian black. It’s notable that all pastes prepared with iron oxide, even with pure water, tend to darken on the surface during drying, especially when exposed to sunlight, likely due to the light reducing the oxygen content of the iron oxide.

Further exploration of the chemical properties of these preparations will be undertaken later; however, for now, my intention is to outline the successful manufacturing processes, allowing them to be replicated with success anywhere.

Pencils made using these methods possess all the desired qualities and cost only a fraction of the current price. It should be noted that precision in the specified quantities is crucial, as even minor deviations can lead to significant differences in paste quality.

Particular care must be taken to account for inevitable losses during the process. The best way to avoid this is to determine the quantities of water and materials in the ground red chalk and the solutions through testing before combining them.

Using the quantities indicated in the following table for each type of pencil composition, it will be easy to determine the proportional amounts of gum, glue, and soap required for a given weight of red chalk or iron oxide.

By Mr. A. F. LOMET. In: Annales de Chimie Ou Recueil de Mémoires Concernant La Chimie et Les Arts, Vol. 30, Paris: Fuchs & Guillaume, 1799 [AI assisted translation of french original text ]
Indication of substances to use, dosages, and results:
  1. 10 grams of dry red chalk or red iron oxide and 0.311 grams of dry gum arabic (1 onc. and 18 grams) – These crayons are very soft; however, they can still be used for larger drawings. These are the ones with the least amount of gum in their composition. Below this point, they lack sufficient consistency to be of any use.
  2. 10 grams of red chalk and 0.363 grams of gum (1 onc. and 21 grams) – Soft crayons, slightly tender, excellent for large drawings.
  3. 10 grams of red chalk and 0.415 grams of gum, or even better, 0.441 grams (1 onc. and 24 grams, or even better 25.5 grams) – Soft and solid pencils: these are the best ones to use for regular use.
  4. 10 grams of red chalk, and 0.467 grams of gum (1 onc. and 27 grams) – Slightly firm pencils, without hardness; useful for drawings that require delicate handling.
  5. 10 grams of red chalk, with 0.519 grams of gum. (1 onc. and 30 grams) – Very firm pencils, suitable for small drawings where fine details are sought.
  6. 10 grams of red chalk with 0.571 grams of gum (1 onc. and 33 grams) – Hard pencils that can hardly be used; this is the maximum amount of gum that can be used in their composition. Beyond this point, they become unusable.
  7. 10 grams of red chalk with 0.380 grams of gum and 0.519 grams of dried white soap (1 onc., 22 grams and 30 grams) – These pencils have a more reddish-brown tone than the preceding ones; they are of very good consistency and easy to sharpen; however, all pencils in the composition of which soap is included have the flaw of producing marks that become shiny when one goes over the strokes a bit too forcefully. None of the other attempts with soap have succeeded; these pencils perfectly mimic those in the composition of Mr. Desmarest.
  8. 10 grams of red chalk with 0.622 grams of dried fish glue (1 onc. and 33 grams) – Pencils with a brilliant tone, excellent for regular use. If less glue is used, they break easily; and if a bit more is used, they become too hard.

By Mr. A. F. LOMET. In: Annales de Chimie Ou Recueil de Mémoires Concernant La Chimie et Les Arts, Vol. 30, Paris: Fuchs & Guillaume, 1799
Further reading: