Drawing with Chalks


Getting Started with Chalk Drawing

Materials & Tools

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

Handling Natural Chalk

Materials & Tools

In the present day, obtaining natural drawing chalks has become quite challenging, often available in small, irregular pieces. It is conceivable that during periods of high demand, red, black, and white chalks were likely supplied in more manageable forms.

Nonetheless, preparing these natural chalks for drawing necessitates several steps. They need to be carefully sawed and cut to the appropriate size, affixed onto reed rods, brass chalk holders, or quills, and their points sharpened. Following these preparations, one is ready to begin drawing.

Giovanni Battista Armenini describes in his treaties On the True Precepts of the Art of Painting describes this process in detail:


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, 1587, by Armenini, Giovanni Battista, 1533?-1609

Brass crayon holders are frequently depicted in self-portraits of 18th-century painters, yet they are rare in artworks from earlier periods.

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

It is intriguing therefore that Armenini references a “little brass tube made for this purpose.” Further evidence of the customary use of (presumably brass) chalk holders, even in the late 16th century, can be found in the engraving “An Academy of Painters” by Pierfrancesco ca. 1600, where one of the students is seen holding a double-edged drawing instrument that appears quite familiar:

Preparing the paper

Materials & Tools

While chalk drawing doesn’t necessitate complex paper preparation, certain artists choosed to enhance the surface by applying a coating. This was done either to achieve a slightly more abrasive texture or, more commonly, to create a mid-tone background that allowed the use of chiaroscuro and the three-pencil technique.

Particularly, Leonardo da Vinci was known for using red chalk on red-toned paper, a technique that enabled him to achieve delicate tones and tonal transitions, somewhat reminiscent of silverpoint drawings.

LEONARDO DA VINCI (VINCI 1452-AMBOISE 1519) The bust of a man, and the head of a lion c. 1510 Red chalk, touches of white chalk, on orange-red prepared paper, Royal Collection Trust
LEONARDO DA VINCI (VINCI 1452-AMBOISE 1519)
The bust of a man, and the head of a lion c. 1510
Red chalk, touches of white chalk, on orange-red prepared paper, Royal Collection Trust

The Drawing Process

Techniques

Gleb Shtyrmer, study with natural red chalk after Odoardo Fialetti's plate in Il vero modo et ordine per dissegnar tutte le parte et membra del corpo humano
Gleb Shtyrmer, study with natural red chalk after Odoardo Fialetti’s plate in Il vero modo et ordine per dissegnar tutte le parte et membra del corpo humano

Chalk was predominantly and skillfully employed using the hatching technique, sometimes enhanced by graining and stumping methods, and on occasion, integrated with washes. These washes could be created by grinding chalk with water, optionally adding gum arabic, and then applying the mixture similar to ink washes. Below are a two examples of red chalk washes usage by Rosso Fiorentino:

Rosso Fiorentino - God in a niche: Mars 1526 - Sanguine, red chalk wash - Louvre Museum
Rosso Fiorentino – God in a niche: Mars 1526 – Sanguine, red chalk wash – Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, RF 52177, Recto
Rosso Fiorentino – Goddess in a niche Proserpina 1526 – Sanguine, red chalk wash – Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, RF 52176, Recto

While a thorough investigation into hatching and modeling in general merits its own dedicated article, when focusing on chalk, we can draw upon knowledge gleaned from period treatises and the master drawings that showcase the captivating potential of this medium.


[…] It’s possible to draw with a black pencil as well, erasing the marks when needed and redoing them with bread pulp. But if someone wishes to draw with a red pencil, caution is necessary. One shouldn’t first create the lines with a stylus made of lead, as it will later result in a smeared drawing. Instead, the lines should be made with a silver stylus, and then the red pencil drawing should be executed diligently. This is because the red pencil marks cannot be removed with bread pulp as is done with the black pencil. […]


Original text

Si può etiandio disegnare con matita nera, levando i segni quando occorre rifarli con la midolla del pane; ma se alcuno volesse disegnare con matita rossa, bisogna abbia avvertenza non far prima le linee col piombino perché viene poi il disegno macchiato; ma bisogna farle con stile d’argento, e disegnare con la matita rossa con diligenza, perché non si può con la midolla del pane togliere via, come si fa della nera.

Il riposo di Raffaello Borghini, 1584, translated by me, see the original text for reference

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.

[…] Now we come to the last technique, pencil drawing [1], which is not only the most perfect, but also the easiest to practice, since if what is drawn does not come out well, whether in part or altogether, it can be erased by brushing the surface lightly with a soft piece of bread [mollica del pane stands for the internal soft part of bread]. Then, by going over the same spot with either pumice or cuttlebone, one can rework the drawing many times until it is completed without a blemish or fault. Therefore, this method is held to be the best for drawing nudes and expressing the utmost perfection of drawing. Rough paper lightly primed [2] is used to conform to the quality of the stone, since it is not suitable for smooth surfaces. […]

First, the contours are drawn in their appropriate places, and then one strokes in lines in many ways, but with such skill that no crudeness or harshness is apparent, and one continues in this fashion until the drawing is finished to one’s satisfaction.

But if one wishes to reduce the task by not finishing the sketch with individual strokes, since filling in the surface of the drawing in such a way takes time and unnecessary effort, one can do the following: Once the first hatches are drawn, the second are placed a little differently, and then, with a small blunt brush of miniver, they are joined and blended in such a way that they are converted into a spot which serves as a well-unified shadow and is so expedient that with a few added strokes the drawing is completed. The blending is easier and best done with such a brush than with cotton wool, finger, or crushed paper, as done by some ill accustomed to draw in this way. I have seen and held for a time drawings thus made by Michelangelo, Francesco Salviati, and Giovanni da Nola, who practiced this technique more than all the others.


Below are my comments to this translation:

[1] The Italin “ammatita” used by Armenini might refer to hematite, the primary element of red chalk or stone in general, only later the word “matita” acquired the stable meaning of “pencil”

[2] Carta, che sia di poca colla – probably means paper with not too much sizing in the mold, rather than lightly primed.

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

Chalk Drawing by Masters

Techniques

Fixing Chalk

Materials & Tools

Emerging in the 16th century, precisely when chalk drawing began to gain popularity across Europe, artists began to contemplate the endurance of their creations. Silverpoint and ink drawings yielded artworks of considerable stability. While black chalk, depending on its type, exhibited a fair degree of durability, red and white chalks often proved fragile, necessitating a form of fixation.


Translation:
I will not refrain from mentioning another certain method of coloring; it’s called pastel, which is made with points composed specifically of powdered colors that can be created from all of them. This is done on paper and was widely used by Leonardo da Vinci, who created excellent and miraculous depictions of the heads of Christ and the Apostles in this manner on paper. However, as difficult as coloring in this new way may be, it is just as easy to ruin.

Original Text [Italian]

Non tacerò anco d’un altro certo modo di colorare; che si dice a pastello, il quale si fa con punte composte particolarmente in polvere di colori che di tutti si possono comporre. Il che si fa in carta, e fu molto usato da Leonardo Vinci, ‘l quale fece le teste di Cristo, e de gl’Apostoli, a questo modo eccellenti, e miracolose in carta. Ma quanto è difficile il colorire in questo nuovo modo tanto è egli facile a guastarsi.

Lomazzo, Giovanni Paolo, 1538-1600, Trattato dell’arte della pittvra, scoltvra, et architettvra 1584

In the 16th century, artists utilized traditional fixatives comprised of natural resins like dammar or shellac, vegetable gums, fish glue, beer, casein, and homemade concoctions to safeguard drawings executed with powdery media such as charcoal, chalk, pastel, and graphite pencil.

These fixatives aimed to prevent smudging both during the creative process and afterward. A “workable” fixative, applied during drawing creation, aimed to isolate smudge-prone layers, allowing artists to revise or enhance their work. The matte surface of this fixative, a weak film-former, didn’t repel newly applied media, making erasing feasible. Very light water-soluble adhesives, like skimmed milk, gum arabic, or egg glair, were used through dipping, back-brushing on stretched paper, or sprinkling with a bristle brush.

The “final” fixative, was applied when the drawing was completed providing some protection to the friable medium. Typically, it created a more robust and continuous film over a larger area of the drawing. This fixative employed a stronger solution of gum arabic followed by layers of resin varnishes like dammar or shellac, applied with a brush.

While information about fixative usage during the Renaissance period is scarce, instructions from the 17th and 18th centuries shed light on the traditional process of fixing chalk drawings:

To make the colors adhesive (i.e., to fix), take a not too strongly sized paper that accepts water. Dip it in pure fish glue water, let it dry, and make your drawing. Then take the paper by both ends, lay it with the backside over pure water in such a way that the moisture penetrates from the other side. Lift it skillfully off and let it dry. Your drawing will be permanent.The earth prepared for the manufacture of tobacco pipes is used very wet, the pigments are added as desired, the crayons are formed out of it in the desired length and allowed to dry as necessary. This material is to be found fully ready at all workers (potters).

Fels Jr., Donald C.: Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting, Including the First Complete English Translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript 1620-1646, B.M., Sloane 2052.

If you fear that your drawings made with black and white or other colored chalks will smudge away, then fill a square tub with water, add equal parts of gum arabic and gum tragacanth, until oily spots appear on the water. You pass your drawings through this to prevent the crayon from washing off.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst 1678 cited in: The mastery of drawing by Meder, Joseph, 1857-1934

[…] Once you see the desired effect, dip the drawing in skimmed milk, place it wet on your frame, which has been previously glued as mentioned earlier. Let it dry. Then, once it’s dry, refine your effects with Indian ink. If you wish to add more highlights or make alterations, do so and dip it again until you’re satisfied with the effect. Proceed to add your greens, browns using sap green and bistre, yellows using gallstone, and blues using fine indigo. Once this is done, coat the entire drawing with a solution of gum Arabic mixed with water (1 ounce of gum Arabic to a pint of water) using a camel’s hair brush. Let it dry, and then varnish it three times using spirit varnish, the kind I sent you. Though only mastic and Venice turpentine are sufficient, cut out your drawing after varnishing both sides to keep it flat.

Gainsborough, T. 2001. Letter to William Jackson, 29, January 1773 cited in: Gainsborough’s Varnished Watercolor Technique
Further reading: