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.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.]
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 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.)
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.