Making Hematite Chalk Crayons

August 7th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

In 16th century Italy the words matita and lapis were used interchangeably for the word chalk. One of the things I’ve been working on is linking the word matita to the Italian word for hematite. Amatita and amatista are the usual words given in earlier texts for what’s now known as ematite in Italian.

I’ve been particularly focusing on Italian red chalk drawings. The widespread view about red chalk is that artists in Italy began using naturally occurring red chalk in the late 15th century, and that it was replaced by fabricated red chalk, first made in France in the 18th century. The problem with this view is that there is a tremendous variation in color in the red chalk drawings of Italian artists, and references to where the red chalk came from is essentially absent, with the exception of Vasari, who locates the origin to the mountains of Germany. (Post on Vasari and red chalk later.) Naturally occurring art materials very often are paired with geographical indications, such as terra di pozzuoli, terra di siena, bolo armeno and others, but there are no references to lapis di … or matita di … and, to me, this is significant.

Hematite is a major ore of iron, and for a while I was entertaining the idea that red chalk could be a byproduct of iron mining, thinking that the boom in iron (used principally for armaments) coincided with the use of red chalk. That Leonardo and Francesco di Giorgio Martini (see drawings in British Museum, catalogued as having brown chalk underdrawing), could be connected to iron production, and the design of weaponry, seemed interesting. Because of this, I contacted Professor Marco Tizzoni, (cv and publications). He is an archeologist, whose main focus is historic iron mining and metallurgy. Tizzoni recently retired from the University of Bergamo, and is now training archaeologists in ancient mining and metallurgy for the National Archaeological Service of Lombardy (Soprintendenza Archeologica della Lombardia). Our email exchanges and Skype conversations have been invaluable to me.

Professor Tizzoni quickly set me straight. He very patiently explained how matite could not be byproducts of iron mining and smelting, saying, “…. slags are very hard indeed and virtually eternal (it’s funny but man seems to be able to make eternal nasty stuff only, such as slags and plastic).” He seemed even a bit surprised that anyone should think that matite could be anything but fabricated. He went on to say, with more generosity towards mankind, that earlier artists were fully capable of making their own, and that nowhere in Italy could red chalk suitable for writing and drawing be quarried, mined, or dug from the earth. He also added that he is not an expert in writing and drawing materials. My side of the conversation went something like, I know that those artists were very smart and capable of making chalk, and I’m not that dumb that I can’t understand that, but I’ve read over and over again that they were using natural red chalk. Byproduct chalk had seemed like a good possibility, but after conversing with Professor Tizzoni, I had to let that idea go.

Professor Tizzoni then said that I should make my own chalk, that I should experiment. Because of Leonardo’s reference to “lapis amatita macinata” in Institut de France MS A, 104r (link to post), I had looked for recipes for hematite chalk and because of Tizzoni’s encouragement, I’ve made some. It’s a definite plus that there were only three ingredients involved: hematite, water, and gum arabic or fish glue.

The first recipes I found were in English publications, and date to the 1820s. The English recipes, always essentially the same and never attributed to an author, appeared in periodicals such as the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1825); and  Iron: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Iron and Steel Manufacturers, Metallurgists, Mine Proprietors, Engineers, Shipbuilders, Scientists, Capitalists… (1826). After finding the English recipe, I found Italian ones, as for example Lorenzo Marcucci’s Saggio analitico-chimico sopra i colori minerali e mezzi di procurarsi gli artifatti, gli smalti, e le vernici (1816). From the Italian publications, I could see that a certain Sig. Lomet was credited with the recipe, and then looked for his work.

 Antoine François Lomet des Foucauds (1759-1826), who shortened his name for his publishing activities to A.F. Lomet, was an engineer who taught architecture for a short period at Paris’s École Polytechnique, and served in the French military. His recipe, from which a great many others spring, credited or not, is in his article, “Sur la fabrication des crayons de pate de sanguine employés pour le dessin,” Annales de chimie, ou, Recueil de mémoires concernant la chimie et les arts qui en dépendent, (Paris: Joseph de Boffe, 1799), ser.1, v.29-30 1799. His crayons were supposed to be similar to the fort cher chalk of a firm called Desmarest, which must have been a competitor to Conté. He says the cost of making the chalk amounts to a quarter of the cost of Desmarest’s. The recipe’s prime ingredient is sanguine sechè, but oxide rouge de fer is listed as a substitute.

Only recently did I find an English translation from 1800 of Lomet’s article. It appeared in the A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Volume 3. It must be because I was fixated on hematite, and in the translation they write ocher or red oxide of iron, that I didn’t find it sooner. I wish I had. Lomet also gives the recipe in ounces and grains (time of metric changeover), which may be found in the article linked above. Here’s a screenshot of the recipe in English, which gives only metric measures.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 15.47.41

Lomet’s Recipe for Chalk Crayons

The important thing about the recipes is that they contain the barest number of ingredients, with no fillers. Hematite surely was increasingly available in 15th and 16th century Italy because of iron mining, particularly in Tuscany and Lombardy. Gum arabic was also widely available.

Just below is an image of the hematite chalks I made. The one on the left was made with 50 grams of hematite and 2.2 grams of gum; and the one on the right with 50 grams of hematite and 3.1 grams of fish glue. I don’t have a scale for small measures, so the amounts should be seen as approximate. Since I’m making the chalks in such small amounts and don’t have the equipment, I have not shaped the chalk by putting it into molds or injecting it into cylinders, as Lomet indicates. I briefly tried stuffing some of the damp chalk material in a piece of tubular pasta lined with baking parchment paper, but soon gave up. The gum one on the left has dried out a bit since I made it. It has become harder to manipulate. Clearly, there’s room for improvement in both types. In the center is red chalk, possibly from Poland. Zecchi, from whom I bought it, wasn’t sure if it was Poland or some other Eastern European country. I do not yet have a porte-crayon and haven’t sharpened any of the chalks.


Hematite Chalk Gum Fish Glue

Top: gum arabic grains, ground hematite, fish glue sheet; Bottom: gum arabic chalk, Zecchi natural red chalk, fish glue chalk

I’ve tried writing on a window with both the gum and fish glue variations, but have not succeeded in leaving a mark. I will try and find some old glass to mark and also to make a softer chalk, using less binder, to try and half follow the glass exercise in Leonardo’s lesson from Institut de France MS A, folio 104r.

The hematite, gum arabic, fish glue, grinding slab and muller were also ordered from Zecchi – Colori – Belle Arti. I learned that their hematite comes from Russia. Massimo Zecchi said that years ago they used to collect hematite from Elba to sell, but the area where the iron quarries were, had been fenced off, and that they hadn’t been back to Elba in many years. Ideally, I would have used Elba hematite, but I haven’t seen it for sale. Professor Tizzoni related that I could buy it from a shop specialized in mineral specimens, which I may eventually do. The idea of grinding down a chunk is a little off-putting (my grinding ability is poor and I lack attention span), although he says hematite can be soft, and even flaky. If I do buy some, I’ll buy it at a shop, where I can feel how hard it is, and not online.

Kremer Pigments also sells natural hematite, both in lump and ground form, and because they list the composition for the ground hematite, I had wanted to order some from them, but they having a warning about its being only for professional users. Nevertheless, to give a general idea of what makes up hematite, below is the composition list of Kremer hematite. I’ve added the column labelled “spelled out,” because, unfortunately, I’ve barely studied any science.

Kremer Hematite -Chemical composition 


Spelled out



iron (III) oxide



silicon dioxide or silica



aluminium oxide



calcium oxide



magnesium oxide



potassium oxide


< 0.1 

titanium oxide


< 0.1 

phosphorous pentoxide


< 0.1

manganese dioxide


< 0.05

sodium oxide



carbon dioxide

H2O (struct.)




< 0.05

sulfur trioxide

I haven’t yet looked at recent conservation studies on the composition of red chalk, but have looked at a paper by Deborah D. Mayer and Pamela B. Vandiver, delivered at a Woodner symposium at the Fogg, and published in the book, Drawings Defined (1987). A pair of sentences in their “Chemical and Structural Analysis of Red Chalks and Hematite,” reads, “Of the samples studied, the proportions of hematite to clay varied from 50-80% hematite and 20-50% clay. Most often hematite and clay were present in equal proportions.” The Kremer Pigment hematite reaches the upper limit. My next post will be about a 16th century source, where kaolin, a clay, is listed as the central ingredient, and the proportion of hematite or hematite-rich material would be smaller. Kaolin is often described in terms of platelets. Mayer and Vandiver use the word platey in their study and see this characteristic as a hallmark of naturally occurring red chalk.

Professor Tizzoni, over the years had collected a great deal of hematite. He recently gave his collection to the University of Pavia, where they are mapping hematite, looking at the chemical composition, the markers, to compile a database on the mineral and its places of origin. He has also collected hematite for France’s CEA (Centre Energie Atomique), which is conducting a similar study. I asked him why my hematite was more brown than red in color. He said that it could be because of impurities, and went on to say, “According to my experience when the ore is shiny, flaky, iron gray and in large crystals its powder is red, when it’s black, opaque, microcrystalline its powder is brownish.” In the same email he added, “Once we made a survey in a big and ancient hematite mine in Lombardy and not only at the end of the day we were entirely covered with shiny tiny flakes of hematite which gave us a rather peculiar look (something more fit for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’d say!), but also when we washed ourselves we gave the water a reddish colour.” Of course, I wish my hematite were redder, more like Lombard or Elba hematite, or even a redder Russian hematite, which he says exists. If my hematite were redder, the resulting chalk would look less like chocolate. If small children came to the house, it is something I’d definitely put away.

One further note, fish glue dries very slowly, much more slowly than gum arabic. Leonardo used fish glue in his practice, although I don’t remember it in reference to his chalk or pastels. For the moment, the Biblioteca Leonardiana search term function isn’t working, but I think I remember his using the words “colla di pesce” about six or seven times. My first fish glue batch was disastrous. I used too much fish glue, which was particularly irksome since I blew a full 100 grams of  hematite of my 500 gram total. The resulting chalk is rock-hard and won’t write unless you dip it in vinegar. Then it writes for a short while. Leonardo talks about dissolving chalk in vinegar and then reconstituting it with weak glue/binder/gum* in Institut de France MS F, fol. 104r. Just below is a screenshot and below that is the translation by Jean Paul Richter:


Detail of Leonardo MS F, fol. 96r - reversed - aceto ref

Detail of Leonardo’s Institut de France MS F, fol. 96r – reversed


Chalk dissolves in wine and in vinegar or in aqua fortis and can be
recombined with gum.

*Leonardo uses the term “colla dolce.” Dolce, while it sounds as if it should mean sweet, should instead be read as weak. Recently I’ve been looking at 15th and 16th century medicine-related texts. One of the most interesting is the 1498 Nuovo Ricettario Fiorentino (Bibilioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Palatino E.6.1.27)a manual providing guidelines as to what Florence pharmacies should stock, including such information as the shell life of items. Olimpia Fittipaldi, an Italian scholar, has transcribed the text of the Nuovo Ricettario and it’s available online in PDF form She also provides an excellent index. Under “Gomme Usuali” or “Commonly Used Gums,” (pages 56-57), the list reads: Myrrha, oppoponacho, pece nera, charabe, ragia di pino, incenso, mastice, bdelio, sandaracha, gomma di cedro, di finocchio, pece grecha, draghanti, trementina, colla di pesce, colla nera, euforbio, armoniacho, gommaedera, ruta, serapino, galbano, storace, gomma arabicha, gomma di abeto, gomma di vino vermiglio, gomma di vino biancho, di ciriegio amareno, di ginepro, di abezzo, pania, orochicho.” There are 32 types of binders. It’s an amazingly long list. As one would expect, the very common fish glue and gum arabic are present. I underlined the red and white wine gums. They must have evaporated most of the water to achieve a gum, or all of it to make a powder. This caught my eye because Leonardo writes of dissolving chalk with wine.

Leonardo – Lapis Amatita Macinata

August 3rd, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

One of Leonardo’s most fascinating references to the word hematite comes in Institut de France Notebook A, fol. 104r, where he uses the phrase “lapis amatita macinata.” The context is an exercise for learning how to draw a site or place by looking through a piece of glass and representing the space beyond on the glass itself.

Below is a detail of Notebook A, fol. 104r.

lapis amatita macinata - Institut de France MS A, fol 104r

Leonardo – Detail of Institut de France Notebook A, fol. 104r – Reversed

It and Leonardo’s other notebooks may be viewed online, courtesy of the Biblioteca Comunale Leonardiana di Vinci. Here is a link to the Trattato (1651), where “lapis amatita macinata” has been shortened to lapis. Just following is Jean Paul Richter’s transcription and translation of the passage.



Have a piece of glass as large as a half sheet of royal folio paper
and set thus firmly in front of your eyes that is, between your eye
and the thing you want to draw; then place yourself at a distance of
2/3 of a braccia from the glass fixing your head with a machine in
such a way that you cannot move it at all. Then shut or entirely
cover one eye and with a brush or red chalk draw upon the glass that
which you see beyond it; then trace it on paper from the glass,
afterwards transfer it onto good paper, and paint it if you like,
carefully attending to the arial perspective.

“Red chalk” is how Richter translates the phrase “lapis amatita macinata,” but it is a bit more than that because of the word macinata. Macinata means ground, as in pulverized, and it’s something that people do. People grind. It’s not something that can be attributed to geologic events, to God, or to the passage of time. And if macinata refers to chalk, that would indicate that Leonardo is talking about fabricated, and not natural chalk. This is an important distinction because the general art historical thinking on red chalk is that artists began using natural red chalk in Italy in the late 15th century, and that it was only supplanted by fabricated red chalk in 18th century France.

Because both the Trattato and Richter’s transcription and translation of the passage in Notebook A, have omitted any reference to grinding, it has not received the attention it might have, except from Italian scholars. Carlo Pedretti, Piera G. Tordella, Angela Zanchetta, and Barbara Fanini have all zeroed in on the phrase.

Tordella’s excellent essay “La matita rossa nella pratica del disegno, considerzioni sulle sperimentazioni preliminari del medium attraverso le fonti antiche,” in Conservazione dei material archivistici e grafici (1996), where she goes quite far in advancing the idea of Renaissance period fabricated chalk, stops short of seeing the “lapis amatita macinata” reference as one to chalk, but prefers to see it as a  pigment applied with a brush in the glass exercise. I was a little surprised by this, but it is understandable if you look at folio 104r. Later in the essay she theorizes that Leonardo could have made chalk because of the phrase in question.

It’s worth looking at the phrase in a bit of detail, keeping in mind that lapis in Italian can mean either stone or chalk, there are two ways to read the words:

-ground hematite stone (mineral pigment)

-ground hematite chalk (fabricated chalk)

To have the image of folio 104r closer by, I’ll insert it again here.

lapis amatita macinata MS A FRANCE, fol 104r

Leonardo – Detail of Institut de France Notebook A, fol. 104r – Reversed

The one-letter word right after the cancelled word is not clear, and it really is the source of confusion. It could be either:

Italian  e   -  and  English
Italian  o   -  or   English

Again, these are the two possible ways to read the phrase:

…with a brush and with ground hematite stone…
…with a brush or with ground hematite chalk…

I believe Leonardo is writing about chalk, because I don’t see why the paint would have to be hematite since any color would be equally serviceable for this exercise. I also tend towards chalk because there’s some evidence, as Joseph Meder (p. 126) pointed out, that fabricators of stained glass had red chalk in their kits. (I’ll get to this in a later post.)

I can say one other thing, that if I had to follow the exercise, after putting my head in what amounts to a vise, with the benefit of only one eye, I’d rather the chalk option, than have to dip a brush into something that would probably be outside my field of vision. The paint choice would seem to be for a truly advanced practitioner.

Whatever the correct interpretation, after having read fol. 104r, I started looking for hematite chalk recipes and found some, albeit late ones from around 1800. I was just going to keep them as reference material, but I was encouraged to make my own chalk by Prof. Marco Tizzoni, an archeologist focusing on iron mining through the ages, who has recently retired from the University of Bergamo, of whom I’ll speak later. While I don’t think what I’ve fabricated so far is by any means brilliant, the chalk does link matita back to hematite.

Next – Hematite Chalk

Cennino Cennini and Hematite

July 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Cennini was from the town of Colle di Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, and studied with the Florentine painter Agnolo Gaddi (active 1369, †1398). Cennini’s birth and death dates are unknown, but he married a woman from Citadella, north of Padua, and is documented as working in Padua in the closing years of the 14th century. His art treatise, the Libro dell’Arte is known through three early manuscripts, the earliest being in the Laurentian Library in Florence (Laurenziana, LCCVIII, codex 23), which is dated 1437. The work was first published in 1821 by Giuseppe Tambroni. Attempts have been made to attribute art works to Cennini, but nothing is secure.

This link leads to the Milanesi edition of the Libro dell’Arte, published in 1859 and available through Google Books. Pisa’s Scuola Superiore Normale also has the digitized Libro. The school, part of the Pisa University system, provides a website which has an excellent section on digitized art treatises. This link leads to the start page. Linking to individual books is not possible, as the links are unstable.

Cennini never discusses red chalk or crayon, but he speaks of hematite several times in his Libro dell’Arte. In chapters XV-XVII, he discusses how to make grounds for both parchment and paper, saying, among other things, how the support should be flattened, how the pigments must be well ground, and how to apply the tinting grounds with a soft brush. The chapters are very short; often just a few sentences long. Chapter XVIII discusses how to make a purple ground from hematite and lead white. He calls the color morella and gives an alternate color name, pagonazza. (Porpora, the more recognizable word for purple, appears twice in the Libro.)

Morella is a plant of the nightshade family, whose fruit or berry is a deep purple. It is also the name given to a blue-flowered plant, turnsole in English, which was used to produce a blue to purple dye. According to Treccani, the Italian encyclopedia and dictionary, pagonazza is a variant of paonazzo, as is pavonazza, and refers to a violet color in the peacock’s tail plumage. (I had a look at photos of peacocks and I didn’t see any feathers that looked particularly purple. Maybe the length, before the eye, is a dusty purple. I’ll have to remember to look for this when I next see a live peacock.) For a confirmation of the color purple, Filarete (1400-69) in his Trattato di Architettura, f.181v, says “azurro e rosso fa pagonazzo, o vuoi dire morello.” (Filarete’s treatise is online at SSN Pisa.) One can only imagine how many times pagonazza/o and morella/o were said together, up and down the peninsula, to convey the color.

To make this color purple, Cennini combines ½ ounce of lead white with a fava bean amount of hematite. (The fava bean measure shows he’s on the same wavelength as the cookbook writer, Julia Child, with her pea-sized dots of butter; along with Ada Boni and Elizabeth David, with their walnut measure. Or, at least, I can’t think of one without the others when I read these measures.) He uses two slightly different names for hematite, amatita and amatista, in the Libro. The a at the beginning may be a nice vestige of the Greek word. Ematite is the word used for hematite in current Italian.

Cennini says of the white lead and hematite, “grind them well, as much as you can; because grinding it a lot never hurts, but always enhances it.” In fact, grinding well and grinding long is the leitmotif of the Libro. Whether Cennini had a particularly purple hematite or whether his expert grinding turned the color from its usual red, is something that has to be left open.

Attributed to Fra Angelico - Last Supper - c. 1550 - Metalpoint, brush in brown ink, heightened with white, on red-violet prepared parchment - 77 x 59 mm - Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1940 (Koenigs Collection) - Inv. I 236 (PK)

Attributed to Fra Angelico – The Last Supper – c. 1450 – Metalpoint, brush and brown ink, heightened with white, on red-violet prepared parchment – 77 x 59 mm – Stichting Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen 1940 (Koenigs Collection) – Inv. I 236 (PK)

Just above is a drawing attributed to Fra Angelico, and is dated to c. 1450. It is at the Boijmans Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam, and is one from a series of ten miniature drawings figuring the life of Christ, of which the Boijmans has seven (link to the seven here). It is on parchment, unlike most of the existing 15th century metalpoints, which are on paper. The cataloguer describes the color of the ground as red-violet. It’s probably more red than Cennini’s ground color, but it would be interesting to read if they’ve examined the color in the lab. Two of the drawings in the series, the Lamentation, and Christ Among the Doctors appear to be on a slightly different color of prepared parchment. Again, I haven’t read about this, but it could be a different batch of preparation than the other five, they could have been photographed on more than one day (!), or maybe they were subjected to more light. In any case, it is very hard for me to take my eyes off the images of these drawings. I now have three on my desktop.

Note of 25 July: The Boijmans drawing may well be pagonazza in color. Serpone & Company, a Naples firm specializing in religious vestments, sells a short cape for bishops, which is similar in color and which they call paonazza.

Other references to hematite in the Libro include the use of a smoothed piece of hematite to burnish gold, and as a pigment for painting. Hematite-rich materials such as bol and sinopia are also discussed, but not in relation to drawings on paper or parchment.

Ruling in Red Crayon/Chalk in Medieval Manuscripts

July 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In my first post on red chalk, I wrote that red chalk was limited to marks made by readers in medieval manuscripts. Since then I’ve changed my ideas on this because of a medieval manuscript that passed through Sotheby’s London on 8 July 2014, lot 49. The manuscript is known as the Northumberland Bible, after its owners, the Dukes of Northumberland. According to the Sotheby’s cataloguer, it was probably made in the north of England, and dates to circa 1250-60. Just below is a detail of a pen-flourished initial and in the margins one can see the bounding lines in either red crayon or red chalk. It might well be crayon as the lines don’t seem to have budged. The folios aren’t numbered, but it’s the third from the last illustration or second illustration of an opening in the Sotheby’s entry. Sotheby’s includes other images from the bible with evident red crayon/chalk, but this seemed the clearest. There is no mention in the entry of bounding lines or ruling, but this is maybe their convention. (A brief look at other lots in the sale made no mention of ruling or the materials used for the lines.)

Sotheby's MS - Northumberland Bible - 8 july 2014 lot 49

Detail of folio from Northumberland Bible, English, c. 1250-60 - Sotheby’s London – 8 July 2014, lot 49

The British Library have a very useful illustrated glossaries section for the terms used to describe illuminated manuscripts. It’s based on a book by Michelle P. Brown, which was published jointly by the British Library and the Getty Museum in 1994. Links to the chalk and crayon entries may be accessed by clicking on the words. I’ve also pasted the entry definitions here:


Chiefly composed of calcium carbonate, chalk was used for a variety of purposes in manuscript production: as a POUNCE when preparing the PARCHMENT surface; as a component of GESSO or another GROUND; as a white PIGMENT; as an alkaline component in pigments (serving to modify the colour of certain organic pigments, such as folium, and to lighten and increase the opacity of others); or as a drawing medium.


A stick of white or coloured CHALK or other solidified PIGMENT, often brown or red in colour, sometimes contained in a holder, used for drawing, annotation, and occasionally for RULING.

Crayon, to me, implies more a fabricated medium than a natural one, but I love the term solidified pigment because it leaves the origin vague. I also think of crayon as more lustrous, and less friable, than chalk.

Morgan Library Drawings Online

July 7th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

New York’s Morgan Library on 15 June put up images of 2,000 drawings. By the end of the year they will have put online all 12,000 drawings in the collection. Here’s the LINK.
Romanino - Morgan Library

Girolamo Romanino (ca. 1485-ca. 1566) – Pastoral Concert with Two Women, a Faun and a Soldier – Red chalk on paper – 249 x 410 mm – Morgan Library 1973.37

One of the very positive aspects of the image database is that if the verso bears a drawing, it appears alongside the recto in the results. The thumbnails are readable and the zoom is excellent.
I’ve also put the link in the Resources and Links table on this site.

Red Chalk

June 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Inevitably, talk of red chalk brings up the word blood. In Italian, the word for chalk is matita. It comes from hematite, a mineral and an ore of iron, that traces its name from the Greek word for blood, as in hematology. The French word sanguine, also used in English, comes from the Latin word for blood. Sanguigna is used in Italian, but less commonly than matita rossa. The iron that makes blood red, also makes red chalk red and maybe that’s why the endless testing of the Shroud of Turin never delivers an unequivocal answer. Whatever. Blood turns from anemone-red to a dark brown and the colors of red chalk fall in between.

Hematite is a medium-hard mineral. On the Mohs scale, which rates hardness by one mineral’s ability to scratch another, it comes in at 5-6. The scale is named after its inventor, an Austrian professor of mineralogy, Frederich Mohs (1773 – 1839). It’s a bit like the game of rock-paper-scissors, except that it makes sense and is useful, but it is also less fun. For reference, talc is 1 on the scale; and diamond, the hardest, rates a 10.

Hematite’s outward appearance is more often gray than red. Rock enthusiasts, if they’re in doubt about whether a rock is hematite, will test it by drawing a piece of the mineral across a streak plate, a piece of unglazed porcelain, and if it streaks red, it’s hematite. A piece of hematite, if used for drawing on paper, would do little else but gash the paper. However, it can also be flaky and almost soft. It naturally occurs with other minerals and when it does, it is considerably less hard than its usual 5-6  on the Mohs scale. Red ochre is the umbrella name for earthy pigments that contain hematite. Many of the different names for red ochre are listed in The Pigment Compendium, and include: carnagione [skin tone], sinopia, bol, among others. To this we could add, lapis rosso, which in its most literal sense means red rock. Lapis in modern usage means primarily pencil.

The image below is of a marble slab with the figures done in red ochre. It is usually titled the Knucklebone Players, referring to the girls in the foreground playing a game similar to jacks. Because of the inscriptions on the marble, which includes the name of the artist, Alexandros Athenaios, it’s known that the subject is Niobe pleading with Leto for forgiveness; something that Leto will not give. Niobe’s nervy boast (=hubris) about her having more children than Leto, dooms her children to death. It is from Herculaneum, that together with Pompeii and Stabia, provide the greatest window onto ancient painting. Vesuvius’s eruption created a perfect time capsule of the small cities (combined population of 15-20,000)–the planning, the buildings, the murals, sculpture, and arts of all kinds, as well as documenting the hell-like death of some inhabitants over the course of two days in the late summer of 79 CE.

Alexandros Athenaios - Knucklebone Players - Leto and Niobe

Alexandros Athenaios – Knucklebone Players [Leto Begged for Forgiveness by Niobe, with Three of Her Daughters] – 1st Century CE – Red ochre on marble – 490 x 420 mm – Museo Archeolgico Nazionale di Napoli – inv. 9526

The ancient Romans used the word rubrica for both red ochre and red chalk, and hence  rubrics. There are areas of the Knucklebone Players that look as if they could have been drawn with a pieces of red chalk, rather than painted in red ochre, but it would be very difficult to know for certain. In its present state it is remarkably similar to modern era drawings. There are also traces of pink, yellow, red and black pigment, but these are visible only with a microscope. The hematite-rich part is remarkably fresh, owing to its permanence, its being on the right support–a coarsely surfaced piece of marble–and because of its being buried for so many years. [One could look back further to the well-known prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and France for earlier use of red ochre; to its use in South Africa at the Blombos Cave near Capetown, dating back 100,000 years; and by early Neanderthals at Maastricht-Belvédère in the Netherlands, dating back 200-250,000 years.]

In the medieval period, red chalk was used for writing. Not in the production of the manuscripts themselves (where the red is generally from minium, cinnabar, and vermillion), but for the marginal ticks and notes added by readers. Bernhard Bischoff, who had catalogued thousands of ancient and medieval Latin manuscripts, wrote in his book on Latin palaeography, “Collations, marginal notes by readers, ‘nota’ signs and underlinings with a stylus or red chalk are found nearly everywhere.” Those who used red chalk probably did so because it would stand out from the ink text, making it easier to get back to the annotated section, immeasurably easier than retrieving notes made with a stylus. It might also have been seen as being handier than ink, being quick to pick up and set down, and allowed for reading away from a desk. It was also less permanent than ink and could be rubbed off parchment with pumice. It would be used in much the same way we would annotate in pencil. [Matita, in Italian, in addition to meaning chalk, also means pencil. In fact, if you asked an Italian child what was in their pencil case, they would reply, matite (pl),  referring, even if distantly, to the use of chalk as a writing implement more than to the chalk of drawings.]

The earliest drawing I can think of with red chalk is an anonymous Sienese double-sided drawing in the British Museum. They date it to the late 14th, early 15th century. The single biggest group of earlier 15th century drawings using red chalk is in the Louvre. The drawings are by Pisanello (c. 1395 – c. 1455) and his school. The sheet below shows how red chalk is used in the Louvre drawings–as a tint for the general coloring of the paper. The chalk is used in conjunction with pen and ink, but it is the ink part that is dominant. About a third of the 370-odd Pisanello and school drawings in the Louvre are on paper prepared with red chalk. They originally formed what’s called the red album, the pages of which were then incorporated into what’s known as the Codex Vallardi, after its 19th c. owner.  The red chalk is not limited to sheets with representations of people, but includes leaves with animals, architecture, and objects. It’s worth looking at these drawings to decide for oneself whether any of the chalk is used to model figures and objects. [Link to Louvre site.]

Pisanello - Legs - Plants - Louvre

Antonio Pisanello – Study of the Lower Legs of a Walking Man, Seen from Behind and Two Plant Studies – Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, white chalk heightening on paper irregularly tinted with red chalk wash – 249 x 176 mm – Louvre inv. 2264 recto


Leonardo Madrid II, f. 141v, f. 142r

Leonardo – Madrid II, f. 141v, f. 142r – Biblioteca Nacional de España

Leonardo (1452-1519) is credited with being the first to use red chalk by itself in a drawing. Its appeal came not only from the color, but also from the fact that very fine and precise lines could be made with a sharpened piece of red chalk. So precise that Leonardo used it for writing, and writing entire pages. Two folios from Madrid Codex II, show that his writing in red chalk comes close to his writing in pen and ink, in terms of fineness and clarity. 141v 142 r. Another opening in the codex shows drawings for the wire caging he would need for the projected, but never realized, casting of the monumental bronze Sforza Horse. The wire lacing, with all its intricacy, captivates in a way which you wouldn’t expect from an industrial or shop drawing–except in the hands of this master. The drawing also shows how red chalk can migrate. This is most clearly visible in the unintended ghost of the caging on the left page, made from the contact with the loose chalk dust of the drawing. It also shows why red chalk is so suitable for the transferral of designs, and for the making of counterproofs.

Leonardo - Studies for Casting of Sforza Horse - Madrid Codex II, f. 156v - f. 157r -

Leonardo – Studies for Casting of Sforza Horse – Madrid Codex II, f. 156v – f. 157r - Biblioteca Nacional de España

Leonardo used red chalk for representing many subjects. A name for red ochre is carnagione, or skin tone, showing its suitability for anatomical and figure studies in the related red chalk, of which he made many. He also used the material for all manner of machines, including armaments; geometric shapes; horses; maps; for mountains and storm clouds; for decorative knots; and also for unimaginably beautiful plant studies. The drawing below is of a branched bur-reed and it is very like the plant, in a way that Pisanello’s aren’t (they are generic plants, and while he shows interest in varying the leaf types, the flowers are identical on both plants). The detail of the Leonardo drawing below shows how he accentuated areas by using a brush and water. Where the brush and water traced the lines, the color is intensified, almost acting like an ink. (To see the greatest number of red chalks drawings by Leonardo in one place, it is worth visiting the UK Royal Collection.)

Leonardo Branced Bur-Reed Royal Collection Windsor

Leonardo – A Branched Bur-Reed – c. 1505-1510) – Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper – 201 x 143 mm – Royal Collection RC 912430 recto – Windsor

Leonardo - Detail of A Branched Bur-Reed - c. 1505-1510) - Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper - 201 x 143 mm - Royal Collection RC 912430 recto - Windsor

Leonardo – Detail of A Branched Bur-Reed – c. 1505-1510) – Red chalk, touched with wet brush, on pale red prepared paper – 201 x 143 mm – Royal Collection RC 912430 recto – Windsor

How Leonardo thought to use red chalk can only be guessed at. He may have quite spontaneously come up with the idea himself. It might have to do with his also being a fresco painter. Widespread appreciation for sinopia drawings came after the 1966 flood in Florence, when so many frescoes were removed from water-soaked walls, exposing the red ochre underdrawings, but the allure of sinopias must also have been felt by the artists themselves. He may have seen drawings by other artists, which are now lost. Another possibility is that artisans might have used red chalk, say in the transferal of designs where symmetry and repeats in patterns were important. Needlework, such as embroidery, comes to mind. It might also have to do with Leonardo’s father being a notaio. The Italian notai, literally notaries, are more like lawyers elsewhere. Their job is to draw up contracts and wills. If nothing else, Leonardo was born into a family where availability of paper and writing instruments was a given. Whether that included red chalk for making annotations and ticking the key points in long contracts, is something that I should look into. However, in my mind, it is increasingly likely that the first users of red chalk were the makers of stained glass windows and/or iron mine workers. I will write another post or two on why I believe this to be the case.

Other artists soon began using red chalk not only to tint paper, but also to draw with the material. First in Milan, among Leonardo’s students and later throughout Italy, helped by the adoption of the medium by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio. The rapid spread is easily understood from the beautiful colors of red chalk.

Red chalk drawings have an animating affect on people. If you look at a group, for example a group following a museum docent around an exhibition, its members will show little signs of life in front of a red chalk drawing. They’ll straighten up or lean in at the drawing. Even at art history slide shows, red chalk drawings have the ability to lift people out of sleepiness like nothing else.

Next – Cennini, Leonado, Vasari, and Armenini on Hematite and Red Chalk

Note: There’s a video of an extremely interesting lecture by Sally Dormer on medieval Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and the drawings they contain. She illustrates a drawing which she believes has a red chalk underdrawing. Link here.


Season’s Greetings

December 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

briquet 15541 - reindeer head - brabant 1449

Briquet Watermark 15441 – Brabant – 1449

Season’s Greetings

And All Best Wishes for 2014

From Lucy Vivante and Vivante Drawings






More Stripes

November 28th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s surprising we don’t talk of stripists and stripism because so many 20th artists, and especially American ones, worked with stripes. Barnett Newman, Myron Stout, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Dan Flavin, and Frank Stella are some.

Ellsworth Kelly - Awnings, Avenue Matignon 1950

Ellsworth Kelly – Awnings, Avenue Matignon – 1950 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – 133 x 210 mm – Museum of Modern Art, NY – Inv. ref. 496.1997

Striped cloth and flags, rows of text, shelves of books, prison bars and uniforms, and skyscrapers could be things behind the stripes, but stripes in themselves, without reference to striped things, became enough of a subject for many artists—and for their publics.

Ellsworth Kelly - Fourteen Projects 1955

Ellsworth Kelly – Fourteen Projects – 1955 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – Private Collection

Egon Schiele’s approach to stripes bridges traditional and modern art. Schiele and Schiele’s subjects were fond of stripes. The drawing just below, its title, Reclining Nude Girl in a Striped Frock [Liegender Mädchenakt im gestreiften Kittel] has arresting stripes.

Egon Schiele – Reclining Nude Girl in Striped Frock – Graphite, brush and watercolor on paper – 443 × 306 mm – Ortner Collection, Vienna

They work as pattern fields, much the way Klimt used richly encrusted cloth—they’re not there to define the body underneath. The title, and I do not know if it’s Schiele’s title, is apt since it echoes the two-sided character of stripes—that they’re neither one thing nor another, and the girl is described as both being naked and in a striped frock. It is an ambiguous title and subject. I wouldn’t know how to title the drawing.

Another drawing of Schiele’s that features stripes is the one below of his wife Edith. (There are at least two photographs of Edith wearing the dress of the drawing.) Here the stripes, and the breaks in the stripes, do more to define Edith’s figure and this makes it closer to the traditions of 19th century and earlier art.

Egon Schiele - Edith with Striped Dress, Sitting - 1915 - Graphite, brush and gouache on paper - 402 x 508 mm - Leopole Museum, Vienna

Egon Schiele – Edith with Striped Dress, Sitting – 1915 – Graphite, brush and gouache on paper – 402 x 508 mm – Leopole Museum, Vienna

Closer, say, to the 18th century Watteau drawing of a reclining woman in British Museum, where the direction of the stripe segments give full meaning to what’s below. They are a kind of hatching.

Antonie Watteau - British Museum

Antoine Watteau – A Woman in a Striped Dress, Seen from Behind, Reclining on the Ground- Red and black chalks and graphite – 146 x 181 mm – British Museum Ref. 1895,0915.936

Watteau’s drawing of a Persian in a turban is especially wonderful because of the zigzags and hatching that make up the bold stripe of the man’s jacket. Watteau did his drawing in France, but the slightly younger Swiss artist, Etienne Liotard, lived in Constantinople and saw turbaned Ottomans firsthand. Many of his sitters, both men and women, wear opulent striped clothes and rest on comfortable-looking sofas. Domenico Tiepolo, a near contemporary of Liotard’s, also drew turbaned people dressed in stripes, Venice being a crossroads for east and west. Examples of Domenico Tiepolo’s stripes can be found in an earlier post.

Antoine Watteau - Seated Persian - Red and black chalks on laid paper and laid down - 300 x 200 mm - Louvre RF 36735

Antoine Watteau - Seated Persian – Red and black chalks on laid paper and laid down – 300 x 200 mm – Louvre RF 36735

Michel Pastoreau wrote a book on stripes, engagingly titled The Devil’s Cloth: a History of Stripes. From a quick look, I understand that he concentrates on striped cloth in France, beginning in the Medieval period, when stripes were associated with the devil and such outcasts as prostitutes and lepers. This continued, at least in France, until the 18th century, when stripes became favored throughout society because of flags/patriotism/nationalism. This must be a terrible oversimplification, but it is interesting because in the 18th century, there was this burgeoning of stripes.

Neither relating to flags or the east, are these two drawings by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. They are illustrations for a tale about a boy named Cacasenno and his family. It’s a story about three generations of country people, who lack sophistication, but who are at times terrifically sensible (very close to the storylines of TV sitcoms). The whole series of drawings is in Bologna and viewable online here. The watercolors are derived from a series of drawings and etched illustrations. They were probably for a deluxe edition commissioned by a collector, although the Genus Bononaie site relates that Roberto Longhi had the idea that they were for ceramics. The Metropolitan has a preparatory drawing for the etching, where Cacasenno’s mother wears a plain dress, as in the etching. To enliven the richly ornamental watercolor, Crespi added the stripes.


Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Giuseppe Maria Crespi – Cacasenno with his Mother – 193 x 151 mm and Cacasenno Pacified by a Piece of Castangaccio – 197 x 149 mm – Black chalk underdrawing, brush and watercolor on paper


Finding drawings with stripes before the 18th century becomes more difficult, even in Italy. There are frescoes and paintings, such as Raphael’s Mass at Bolsena, with the Swiss Guards in their wide stripes; Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola with stripes that make one think of Palestine; and the Master of the Pala Sforzesca’s painting at the Brera, where Beatrice d’Este wears wide devil-may-care stripes.

Mantegna Drawing at Prato Auction

October 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Farsettiarte, an auction house known for 20th century art and design, will be offering a drawing attributed to Mantegna in an 8 November sale in Prato. Maddeningly, the lot can’t yet be viewed online. However, ArtsLife and Art Daily provide images and details. Here are images of the drawing:

Mantegna - Lamentation - Farsettiarte

Mantegna – Lamentation – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 151 x 100 mm


Mantegna – Pietà (verso) – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 151 x 100 mm – “31 [V]ol 1 Mantegna” inscribed along upper edge

Just below are too small images of the Mantegna drawing at Brescia, which the above sheet is being compared to. The writing is apparently the same, and both versos share red wax dots used for affixing the works into an album. The Farsetti dots are barely visible.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.44.10

Mantegna – Lamentation – Candlestick – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 130 x 95 mm – “37 Vol 1 Mantegna” inscribed on verso – Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia

And here is the British Museum drawing:

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.45.32

Mantegna – Three studies for a dead Christ, the body lying on the ground – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 122 x 88 mm – British Museum ref. no. 1909,0406.3

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 23.45.19

Mantegna – Two Holy women, seated on the ground, one seen from behind (verso) – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 122 x 88 mm – British Museum ref. no. 1909,0406.3

David Ekserdjian helped Farsetti with the catalogue entry and is writing an article on the drawing.


August 14th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

There are two new wetsuits for surfers that are meant to protect wearers from shark attacks. There was an article and video in the Guardian (18 July 2013) on the suits, and here’s the LINK. One has a wavy camouflage print and the other has bold black and white stripes.

anti-shark wetsuit

The makers say the camouflage suit will hide you from a shark, while the striped suit will warn a shark to stay away.  It’s the striped one that made me think of stripes in art. First, because of Raphael’s Swiss Guards in the Mass at Bolsena fresco in the Vatican. However friendly and fetching the stripes of the Swiss Guard are, I guess they’re not meant to be so. (His Madonna della Seggiola in the Pitti has stripes that bring to mind the ancient Middle East and are more refined.)

Mostly, when I think of stripes I think of Domenico Tiepolo and have posted a number of his drawings below. Most of Domenico Tiepolo’s drawings are wonderful, but when he puts in stripes, they get to be extra wonderful. They’re worn by biblical era characters, entertainers, footmen, ladies and gentlemen, and even donkeys. Details of the stripes are below, and the full drawings are in the gallery.

Domenico Tiepolo - An Encounter During a Country Walk - Detail - National Gallery of Canada

Domenico Tiepolo – An Encounter During a Country Walk – Detail – Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa – (inv. ref. 17582)

Domenico Tiepolo - Captive Birds - Detail

Domenico Tiepolo – The Captive Birds – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 296 x 421 mm – Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge (inv. ref. 75.1984)

Domenico Tiepolo - Supplicants Before Pope Paul IV -  Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash - 463 x 362 mm - Princeton University Art Museum - (inv. ref. 1948-1289)

Domenico Tiepolo – Supplicants Before Pope Paul IV – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 463 x 362 mm – Princeton University Art Museum – (inv. ref. 1948-1289)


Domenico Tiepolo - The White Horse - Detail - Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash - 300 x 420 mm - Comte de Ganay,  Paris

Domenico Tiepolo – The White Horse – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 300 x 420 mm – Comte de Ganay, Paris

Domenico TIepolo - Flight into Egypt - Detail - Morgan Library

Domenico Tiepolo – The Flight into Egypt – Detail – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (inv. ref. IV,148)

Domenico Tiepolo - Jesus Walking on the Water - Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash -  487 x 375 mm - Louvre, Paris (inv. no. RF 1713.BIS, 75)

Domenico Tiepolo – Jesus Walking on the Water – Detail -  Black chalk underdrawing, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash – 487 x 375 mm – Louvre, Paris (inv. no. RF 1713.BIS, 75)