Cartoon and its Transferring

The preparatory cartoon for Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens,” a full-scale drawing used to transfer the image to a wall in the Vatican, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana
The School of Athens (Italian: Scuola di Atene), fresco, Raphael, 1509-1511 Apostolic Palace in the Vatican

Cartoons and their function

Materials & Tools

The technique of creating a full-scale drawing and then transferring it to a panel or parchment was initially developed in order to replicate recurring patterns, decorations and designs in illuminations and panel paintings. See for example:

Then you prepare your pounce patterns according to the cloths which you want to make; that is, first draw them on parchment; and then prick them carefully with a needle, holding a piece of canvas or cloth under the paper. Or do the pricking over a poplar or linden board; this is better than the canvas. When you have got them pricked, take dry colors according to the colors of the cloths upon which you have to pounce. If it is a white cloth, pounce with charcoal dust wrapped up in a bit of rag; if the cloth is black, pounce it with white lead, with the powder done up in a rag; and sic de singulis. Make your repeats so that they register well on each side.

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

A preparatory cartoon (composition design) drawing allows the artist to solve technical and artistic problems prior to executing the artwork on its definitive support. It is extremely handy when working with precious materials (such as gold) or techniques that impose a rigorous process, limiting execution time (fresco) and/or possibility of the artist to make modifications (egg tempera).

With the development of paper production technology and industry in Europe, when paper became readily available and affordable for artists, cartoons became also widely used in fresco painting process, gradually replacing the sinopia under-drawings. Vasari in his “Lives” describes the making of large scale cartoons for fresco painting as follows:

§ 77. Sketches, Drawings, and Cartoons of different kinds.
[…] The designs having been made in this way, the artist who wishes to work in fresco, that is, on the wall, must make cartoons; many indeed prepare them even for working on panel. The cartoons are made thus: sheets of paper, I mean square sheets, are fastened together with paste made of flour and water cooked on the fire. They are attached to the wall by this paste, which is spread two fingers’ breadth all round on the side next the wall, and are damped all over by sprinkling cold water on them. In this moist state they are stretched so that the creases are smoothed out in the drying. Then when they are dry the artist proceeds, with a long rod, having a piece of charcoal at the end, to transfer to the cartoon (in enlarged proportions), to be judged of at a distance, all that in the small drawing is shown on the small scale. In this manner little by little he finishes, now one figure and now another. At this point the painters go through all the processes of their art in reproducing their nudes from the life, and the drapery from nature, and they draw the perspectives in the same schemes that have been adopted on a small scale in the first drawing, enlarging them in proportion. […]

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

Transferring the Cartoon


While cartoons can be made with any technique preferred by the artist: soft materials, such as charcoal or red chalk, liquid media or a combination, there were two precise methods of transferring cartoons on a parchment, panel, canvas or plastered wall:

Spolvero (pouncing)

In drawings of small things, it will suffice to make a pouncing, which is done by making dense and minute holes in the outlines with pulverized charcoal bound in a cloth that is apt to leave its less sensitive marks. This by Painters is called pouncing.

Andrea Pozzo, Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum

With pouncing a design can be obtained by passing charcoal or plaster powder bound in a rag through holes made with a needle in a sheet of paper which has the drawing on it.

Baldinucci, Filippo, 1625-1696, Vocabolario toscano dell’ arte del disegno

Raphael, The Dream of Scipio or Vision of a Knight, a drawing, 1504, 18.2 x 21.4 cm British Museum
The Dream of a Knight Artist, Raphael, about 1504, The National Gallery, London

Transferring a cartoon with Spolvero technique:

Pros & Cons:
  • Pro: clearly visible, but easily removable traces on the panel
  • Con: the drawing is damaged in the process
Step 1: Make the drawing (Cartoon)
Step 2: Prick holes with a needle on the front side
Step 3: Fix the cartoon on your panel (with pin or scotch)
Step 4: Pounce with a charcoal or pigment bound in a rag
Step 5: Remove the cartoon

Calco (stylus tracing or incision)

§ The Use of Cartoons in Mural and Panel Painting.

[…] for transferring the outlines on to the said piece, the artist proceeds to impress them with an iron stylus upon the coat of plaster, which, being fresh, yields to the paper and thus remains marked. He then removes the cartoon and by means of those marks traced on the wall goes on to work with colours; this then is how work in fresco or on the wall is carried out.

The same tracing is done on panels and on canvas, but in this case the cartoon is all in one piece, the only difference being that it is necessary to rub the back of the cartoon with charcoal or black powder, so that when marked afterwards with the instrument it may transmit the outlines and tracings to the canvas or panel. The cartoons are made in order to secure that the work shall be carried out exactly and in due proportion.

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
Jacopo Pontormo, Visitation, Cartoon The Carmignano Visitation is a c.1528-1530 oil on panel painting, Jacopo Pontormo

Jacopo Carucci (1494-1557), called Pontormo, The Visitation
Cartoon: The Uffizzi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Painting: San Michele e San Francesco, Carmignano (PO), Italy

Transferring a cartoon with Calco technique:

Pros & Cons:
  • Pros: doesn’t damage the cartoon, requires less time and tools
  • Cons: leaves visible and not removable marks on plaster (fresco painting)
Step 1: Make the drawing (Cartoon)
Step 2: Rub the back of the cartoon with a dry pigment or charcoal
Step 3: Fix the cartoon on your panel (with pin or scotch)
Step 4: Pass over the outlines with a pointed stick or stylus
Step 5: Remove the cartoon

Later on, European artists have largely passed to oil medium and the popularity of cartoons went down, because oil painting dries slowly, allowing the artist to make modifications and work without hassle.

Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432–1498), Study for the Equestrian Monument to Francesco Sforza, early to mid 1480s The MET Museum

To learn more about cartoons production and usage during the renaissance, check out Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop by Carmen C. Bambach