Red Chalk

June 22nd, 2014 § Comments Off on Red Chalk § 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.



August 14th, 2013 § Comments Off on Stripes § 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)

Calamaro and Calamaio

July 18th, 2013 § 3 comments § permalink

In Italian the word for inkwell is calamaio, which is very close to the word calamaro, meaning squid, as in the calamari fritti one sees on the menus of seafood restaurants. Looking at a squid, you wouldn’t think that it’s part of the mollusk family, but by eating the chewy rings, you realize it’s pretty close to a clam. It’s a soft bodied mollusk or cephalopod, like cuttlefish or octopus. Unlike a clam, it doesn’t have a hard shell for protection. Instead it has “ink” that it can squirt out to confuse and arrest predators. (Nautilus are the only cephalopods with protective shells.)

As calamaio (inkwell) and calamaro (squid) are so close, it’s natural to want to recognize a calamaio as a receptacle for squid ink. However, this isn’t the case. Squid ink, or any other type of cephalopod ink, was rarely used, largely because of its tendency to fade. For a post on sepia ink, please see below or follow this link.


Workshop of Severo da Ravenna - Cleveland Museum of Art

Workshop of Severo da Ravenna – Inkwell and Candlestick with the Infant Hercules Killing the Serpents – c. 1510 – 1520 – Bronze – 21 x 11 x 13 cm – Cleveland Museum of Art – Inv. ref. John L. Severance Fund 1954.798


The Italian word calamaio actually comes from the Latin word calamus (kalamos in Greek) which means cane or reed. Pens, which were made from reeds, were known as calami, as were other objects made from reeds, like flutes and fishing poles. (Pens made from bird feathers or quills came into use only later, in the early Middle Ages.)

What’s fascinating about squid is that they carry not only ink, but also a reed-like pen within them. Just below is a photograph, courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and her site, of drying pens dissected from squid. The Latin word for squid is lolligo. So it seems then that the Italian word for the sea creature comes from calamus, or reed. In English, “pen and ink fish” is a colloquial name for squid, and it makes good sense.


Squid pens

Squid Pens – Courtesy of Shannan Muskopf and


To underscore the fact that cephalopod ink was seldom used, there aren’t squid decorated inkwells. Riccio, Severo da Ravenna, and the other crazily imaginative Paduan makers of small bronzes, would have found it irresistible to ornament inkwells with squid or cuttlefish if they were using their ink. Granted, they are not that easily represented, but this wouldn’t have stopped these sculptors.

Sepia Ink

May 17th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

It’s tempting to try and specify the kind of brown ink that’s been used in the making of an old master drawing. Iron-gall (black, but changes to brown over time) and bister were the two most commonly used inks. Sometimes, people will refer to any brown ink old master drawing as being in sepia. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to hearing that everything is made from petroleum, that the idea of ink coming from a sea creature is quaint and charming. Maybe it has to do with the 19th c. sepia drawings and the chemical approximation of sepia in 19th century photographs. (The continuing appeal of sepia coloration is clear from the photography edit for “sepia effect” on the computer or cellphone.) Instead, sepia was rarely used before the late 18th century.

Sepia (also called cuttlefish), as well as octopus and squid, are soft-bodied mollusks, known as cephalopods (cephalo-head/pod-foot). Most cephalopods produce a dark fluid that they can expel to hide themselves from predators. Its primary component is melanin, related to the pigment that colors our skin and hair.  Aristotle, whose accuracy and method continues to surprise biologists, said of the cephalopod ink sac,  “All the Cephalopods have this peculiar part but it is the most remarkable in the Sepia, as well as the largest in size. When the Sepia is frightened and in terror, it produces this blackness and muddiness in the water, as it were a shield held in front of the body.” [Aristotle, The History of Animals, Book IV. The translation comes from A.L. Peck & E.S. Forster. Aristotle XII: Parts of Animals Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals, 1937.)

Sepia (sepia officinalis), then, have more ink than other cephalopods. They have eight legs or arms, two tentacles, and are about ten inches long. Just below is a depiction of a cuttlefish from a Pompeian mural.


Pompeii Detached Mural - IV Style (45 AD - 79 AD) - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli - inv. no. 8635

Pompeii Detached Mural – IV Style (45 AD – 79 AD) – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli – inv. no. 8635


Sepia mural detail

Detail of sepia and clam


Because the mural is more pleasing than accurate, here is a scientific diagram of a cuttlefish.

sepia officinalis illustration from brittanica 11th

Cuttlefish or Sepia Officinalis – Encyclopaedia Brittanica (11th) Vol. VII, 674


Aristotle does not say that sepia fluid was used for writing, but there are Roman writers such as Cicero, who did. This link carries to the entry on atramentum, the Latin word for ink, in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1875), where passages of ancient writers are cited and linked to.

At its simplest, the ink can be used directly from the cephalopod, mixed with a binder. This is probably what the Romans did. The ink may have developed a bad smell, but their tolerance was greater than ours (think of garum, the fermented fish guts they ate, and loved). Sepia is known to be fugitive, and as far as I can tell, no ancient papyri with sepia ink exist.

James Watrous, in his 1957 The Craft of Old-Master Drawings, noted the “powerful fishy odor” of the dried sepia chips and sepia splinters, that he found imported into the US from Italy (1975 edition, 88). Zecchi, the art supply shop in Florence that specializes in old master materials, sells sepia pigment (10 grams for 24 euros and 100 grams for 200 euros) and maybe in the intervening 50+ years since Watrous was writing, a way of deodorizing sepia has been developed. The cost would warrant it.

Zecchi was founded in the 1950s with the idea of furnishing the materials that the 14th century Cennino Cennini details in his Libro dell’Arte. Cennini does not discuss sepia at all. In fact, the expert writers on the subject of old master materials–Joseph Meder, James Watrous, and Carlo James and company–say that sepia ink was hardly used, and written about, before the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Courtesy Google Ngram, here’s a graph of phrases with the word sepia, found in English language books, between 1800 and 2008, which shows that “sepia drawing” was most used around 1910. This takes into account novels, and everything else, so it has to be taken lightly.

Natural sepia drawings are supposed to have a cool, rather than warm, brown color, and a purplish or red cast. It’s known that Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) drew with sepia ink. Just below is a Friedrich drawing at the Albertina, and the image is taken from the Google Cultural Institute. We can assume that they’ve taken some care in getting the color right. The Albertina describes the drawing as being in brown ink. The tendency in museum catalogues, and in museum databases, is to move away from describing the type/origin of ink, and describe it generically as brown ink. This makes a lot of sense, because you can’t get it wrong. However, because of Friedrich’s known use of sepia, and the color of this drawing, it would seem to me that it is in sepia.


Caspar David Friedrich - Albertina

Caspar David Friedrich – View of Arkona with Rising Moon – ca. 1805 – Graphite, brush and brown ink – 60.9 x 100 cm – Albertina, Vienna – inv. no. 17298


Scrutinizing and testing every drawing in collections, where there are thousands of sheets, would be an enormous undertaking, and the preference for simple “brown ink” is easily understood.  The fact that artists very often combined different types of inks and pigments, makes specificity even more complicated, and less documentable.

However, if one were curious enough, and were able to commission work from a lab, there is a test for sepia ink, which its developers describe as rapid and simple. The 2009 study is entitled Characterization of sepia ink in ancient graphic documents by capillary electrophoresis and is available as a pdf here.  Ana López-Montes, Rosario Blanco and others, studied maps and drawings in Granada’s Royal Chancellery Archives. The earliest map was from 1570 and the latest from 1817. Since the maps and drawings related to court cases, as exhibits, the dating is precise. The study is interesting also because its writers discuss taking the ink sac from a cuttlefish, being careful that too much air didn’t come in contact with the ink, and mixing it with gum arabic and water.

Carlo James, Marjorie B. Cohn, and the other authors of the 1997 Old master prints and drawings: a guide to preservation and conservation, spoke of Genova and Venice as being two places where sepia ink was used, before the 19th century. While Granada isn’t on the coast, it isn’t far, at about 20 miles. So, maybe one should keep an open mind about whether old master drawings, and especially those made near the sea, are made with sepia. (You can think sepia, just don’t write it. Plain vanilla. Brown ink. Basta.)


Canova show at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

December 4th, 2012 § Comments Off on Canova show at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi § permalink

Thanks to Antonio Canova’s half-brother, sole heir of the artist, Bassano del Grappa’s Museo Civico has the largest collection of Canova drawings in the world. Some 79 drawings from the collection’s 1,876 drawings are being shown at the Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi from 5 December 2012  to 7 April 2013.

Antonio Canova | Study of the Medici Venus – Before Conservation | Red chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

As you’d expect from the foremost Neoclassical sculptor, many of the drawings are after the antique. Like others in the show, the drawing above has Canova’s notations giving measurements–nice reminders that they inhabit real space. Even subjects of his own invention are strongly influenced by the classical world and very few of the drawings seem to be drawn from life.

Most of the works in the show relate to commissions. Canova was a great glorifier of the powerful–Clement XIV, Napoleon, Horatio Nelson, and George Washington among them. With his works, the word monument seems to fit them better than statue or sculpted portrait. Even if monument has a heavy ring to it, there’s something amusing about a work like the Napoleon as Mars the Peacekeeper (heroic nude didn’t appeal to the emperor and he sent it back), or young George Washington in Roman cuirass and pteruges (nowadays this kind of skirt is known as a car wash skirt). Though we might smile at these very Neoclassical portrayals, Canova was dead serious and immensely successful because of them. So successful that he could do things like buy the Giustiniani collection of antiquities and make a gift of them to the Pope. (Canova was also a curator at the Vatican.)

Antonio Canova | Hercules Hurling Lychas into the Sea | Graphite, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The exhibition is being held in permanent exhibition rooms, with the Canova works set apart by blue panels. The panels, often freestanding, are used to create rooms that concentrate on one commission. Because the Bassano museum is so rich in Canova, it can provide several drawings for a commission, along with models, and prints (ordered by Canova) of the artist’s finished works.

Antonio Canova | Toilette of Venus | Black chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The drawings are in a range of media: graphite, black chalk, red chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, brush and ink. They are often roughly sketched out or vigorously drawn. Because Canova’s marble works are so refined, snow-white, and polished, the drawings provide relief.

Canova. Il segno della gloria. Disegni, dipinti, e sculture
Curated by Giuliana Ericani, Dir. Museo Biblioteca Archivio di Bassano del Grappa
Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi
Catalogue published by Palombi Editore


November 8th, 2012 § Comments Off on Caricatures § permalink

Caricature, a branch of portraiture, is much more associated with drawing and printmaking than painting and sculpture. Caricatures are humorous in nature, often affectionately playful, but they can also be merciless in their ridicule. They are generally executed rapidly, and some of the best are drawn with the fewest lines.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) – Caricature of Pope Innocent XI – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 114 x 182 mm – Leipzig

Very often the portrayed doesn’t know they’re being caricatured, and the artist wishes to keep it that way. Bernini, who was deeply religious, would not have wanted his patron Pope Innocent XI to see his caricature of him. The pope, known as a sickly man, is propped up in bed, and his ant-like head is topped by a tiara, while his bony fingers signal orders. The sheet is small, and is meant for Bernini’s amusement, and for his friends. (The artist sometimes included caricatures in the margins of his letters.)

Bernini’s drawing and a drawing such as Pier Francesco Mola’s, just below,

Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) – Caricature of a Gentleman Viewing a Painting of a Monkey – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 91 x 189 mm – Louvre

must have been satisfying to do. They must have had a therapeutic effect–there’s not much an artist can overtly do to get back at a powerful and difficult patron, but they could be cut down to size in a caricature.

The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci are often considered the first artists to create caricatures. An example of “ritrattini carichi” or small loaded portraits is just below. Annibale Carracci covered the sheet with little heads, some might be exaggerated likeness of real people, while others look like invented comic heads, the product of nervous doodling. As with much caricature,  heads are in profile allowing for the nose to be exploited to the fullest. With profile caricature, chins also get important treatment, whether exaggeratedly big or small; while with frontal caricature, the ears and eyes come into their own.

Annibale Carracci (1560 -1609) – A Series of Caricature Heads in Profile – Pen and gray-brown ink – 194 x 135 mm – British Museum

This drawing of Agostino is of mascheroni, or grotesque masks. The Carracci enjoyed crossing human and animal heads, like the ancient artists with their fauns  and satyrs. It is both amusing and disquieting. It seems like a particularly good example of grotesque heads since they are studies for gesso sculptures, the descendants of antique stucco work which came to be known as grotesque, from the subterranean grottoes where they were discovered.

Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602) – Mascherone Studies – Red chalk – 258 x 197 mm – Albertina

The word caricature was first used in print in 1646 and ever since the 17th century, there has been a lot of discussion about what a caricature is, when the practice began, if Leonardo’s testine mostruose are caricatures or grotesques. It’s well worth reading this essay by Gombrich (link to pdf here), which discusses why caricature should be considered an invention of the late 16th century because of the growing self awareness of artists and their place in society. That may be true, but it is certainly easy to find exaggerated and comic representations of people–even real people–earlier in time. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean they didn’t exist. The twisted, and often funny, damned in representations of the Last Judgement, Romanesque capitals with their leering heads, medieval manuscript margin drawings, and then the graffiti of hated emperors in Roman times. One can only imagine all the caricatures done on wax tablets in antiquity.

It seems logical that prehistoric man would also have found amusement in the warping of features. The sun can play atmospheric tricks making our shadow impossibly long or crushingly squat. A fire or candle’s light is usually flattering, but at the wrong angle it can grotesquely amplify features.


Color Notes

December 11th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

I wanted to read about drawings in India, and found this drawing through a search involving the words India preparatory drawing. It had been in a Christie’s sale a few years ago, and it reminded me more of an underdrawing than a drawing made in preparation of another work. The catalogue didn’t go into detail (relatively low value work with a $2-3,000 estimate), but it looked to me like an early stage of a collaborative effort. The overall design had been roughed out in brush and gray color (looking like graphite) and wonderful color touches were applied in paint. (The cataloguer wrote “transparent and opaque pigments” which seems like a more sensible way of putting it – better than worrying about whether to write watercolor or watercolour and choosing between gouache or bodycolor or tempera.) The touches of color look like they are meant as a guide for the next artist in an assembly line.

India, Kotah, 18th century | Preparatory Drawing of a Seated King | Opaque and transparent pigments on paper | 330 x 277 mm | Christie's NY 20 March 2008, lot 206

After this I was thinking of written notations about color in drawings and there seem to be two main reasons for their inclusion: as memory aids for artists and as guides for collaborators. The drawing below, from an album (now dismantled) at the British Museum, gives both painted indications for color and written indications for color and fabric types for the costume makers who would have to execute the garments.


Stefano della Bella | Ballet Costume Study for a Gardener | Pen and brown ink, with brown wash and watercolour, over graphite | 276 x 202 mm | British Museum


As an example of memory aid color notes, I found this completely atypical drawing of Ingres. Atypical because he usually draws in the most controlled way. Instead, here it is all about registering the colors in a cloud formation quickly.  Gris, bleu tendre, clair and the other words are dashed off as rapidly as the cloud outlines. M. Ingres was in such a rush that rather than write clair again, he used id.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres | Cloud Study | Graphite | 202 x 182 mm | Musée Ingres, Montauban

Two Leonardo Drawings at Windsor for a Salvator Mundi

July 9th, 2011 § Comments Off on Two Leonardo Drawings at Windsor for a Salvator Mundi § permalink

Being just as curious as the next guy about the recently attributed panel picture to Leonardo, I thought I’d post images from Windsor of two red chalk preparatory drawings by Leonardo for a Salvator Mundi. Links to the Royal Collection allow for enlargement of the images.

LINK to Leonardo’s Studies of Drapery for a Salvator Mundi at Windsor

LINK to Leonardo’s A Study of Drapery for a Salvator Mundi at Windsor

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) | Studies of drapery for a Salvator Mundi | c.1504-8 | Red chalk with pen and ink and white heightening on pale red prepared paper | 164 x 158 mm | Royal Collection | Windsor

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) | A study of drapery for a Salvator Mundi | c.1504-8 | Red chalk with touches of white chalk and pen and ink on pale red prepared paper 22 x 139 mm | Royal Collection | Windsor

The picture below has just popped up on the internet, a good deal changed, and more believable than the pre-conservation photo.

Attr. to Leonardo | Salvator Mundi | Oil on walnut panel | 65.6 X 45.4 cm | Robert Simon et al. | NYC


Leonardo ?

January 17th, 2010 § 7 comments § permalink

Old master drawings disgorge in museums just as surely as rivers flow into the sea. Collectors donate their collections to museums for mankind, tax deductions, recognition, and to spite their ungrateful children. Once in museums, it’s over for the trade, mostly. Deaccessioning does happen, but is frowned upon and discourages future donations. Without much supply, dealers and collectors (include myself here) are working with what they have, and that means upgrading attributions.  Museum curators do this too. There is no way they can make the brilliant acquisitions of past curators because of simple lack of supply and the hideous cost of whatever little there is left.  So, art works get reevaluated up, and seldom down, much like Moody’s ratings of instruments in the financial world. (The growing number of Caravaggio pictures, whether in the private realm or museums, is particularly puzzling.)

Newspapers, fed by what seems a PR machine, have been reporting the recent upgrade of an anonymous 19th century drawing to Leonardo. Right out, I am very doubtful.  However, it is always wonderful when something that is thought to be late, is instead very early.  This was the case of a drawing of peonies, in an auction as anonymous, what seemed like another beautiful botanical illustration, and instead turned out to be a preparatory drawing by Dürer’s idol, Martin Schongauer.

Leonardo ? | Portrait of a Young Woman | Pen and brown ink, bodycolor, and colored chalks on vellum | 330 x 239 mm. | Paris ?

The drawing in question is of a young woman, bust length and in absolute profile to the left. The drawing measures 330 x 239 mm, and is executed  in pen and brown ink, brush and bodycolor, and colored chalks on vellum.  The names of Bianca Maria Sforza (1472-1510) and Bianca Giovanna Sforza (1482-1496) have been advanced for the sitter, although this is conjecture. (Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, was Leonardo’s patron from 1482 to 1499 and the idea is to keep it in the family.) If it’s Bianca Maria, the hair and eye color, for starters, don’t match up with a portrait in the Washington’s National Gallery of an older Sforza by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. I haven’t read enough about the Profile to know how this is reconciled by the owner’s expert team. Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis’s portrait of an unknown woman in the Ambrosiana, illustrated below, and which shows a scarily similar hairdo (minus the coazzone, coazzone is the name of the braid in Milanese dialect) and knotted hairnet, was once attributed to Leonardo. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to me if we start gearing up for an upgrade of this picture back to Leonardo if any trace of left-handed hatching (more about this below) can be found.

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis | Bianca Maria Sforza | Oil on Panel | 51 x 32.5 cm. | National Gallery | Washington

Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis | Portrait of a Woman | Tempera and Oil on Panel | 51 x 34 cm. | Ambrosiana | Milan

Martin Kemp and Carlo Pedretti, two towering figures in the Leonardo world, are convinced the drawing is by Leonardo. Kemp’s writing/written a book on the drawing. Nicholas Turner, known for his seriousness and excellent eye, is also convinced of the attribution to Leonardo. His essay, download available here, from the site of Lumiere Technology, a Paris firm involved in high high resolution imaging. Turner writing in 2008, anticipates what critics will find hard to square: that there are no Leonardo drawings on vellum and that the mixture of media–pen and brown ink, bodycolor, and colored chalks, in combination and so highly finished–isn’t found in other drawings of the master. He also carefully ties what Leonardo writes about art, and writes about ideal beauty, to the drawing. Skeptics will say this is being done because the visual evidence–other drawings–is so scanty.

The owner, pushing hard to make the case for his Leonardo, and not wanting to rely solely on connoisseurship, has had the vellum carbon dated to between 1440 and 1650 and had fingerprint analysis done by one Peter Paul Biro.  A scientific study of the pigments will also be interesting. In writing this post, I tried to find out about Biro and it seems his reputation in the fingerprint community is not great. Here is a video of a detective and fingerprint expert named Tom Hanley from Long Island poking holes in one of Biro’s prior projects involving Jackson Pollock fingerprints. Hanley in the video is circumspect, but it seems Biro was enhancing and reading into the fingerprints when there was insufficient evidence.

If the vellum is from 1440 – 1650, as one test has shown, the drawing is probably not from the 19th century (it would be worth investigating when forgers started using period paper, vellum, panels etc.).  Early paper is easily had from the end papers of books and the drawing forger Eric Hebborn made full use of such paper. Vellum too could be easily recycled from book covers, say account books, which are often not tooled and loosely cover boards. For what it’s worth, it doesn’t look like a Hebborn, at least the ones I remember illustrated in his memoir. Hebborn’s normally draws sheets of studies, often attempting to show the thought process of the artist, and to boost credibility, he includes inscriptions and collection marks. His use of inscriptions was pointed out to me by Konrad Oberhuber, whom Hebborn hated for first identifying his forgeries, and in childish repayment Hebborn misspelled Oberhuber’s name in his memoir–something Oberhuber found very amusing.

Many drawings purported to be by Leonardo, a left-handed artist,  have been discounted because of telltale right-handedness, a characteristic most easily seen in shading or hatching. Left-handed draftsmen  shade \\\ and right-handed artists like this ///. The draftsman of the Profile is left-handed and this is considered a pivotal point in attributing the drawing to Leonardo. The hatching can be seen just outside the profile. A clear example of Leonardo’s hatching can be seen in this study in Turin.

Leonardo | Study for Angel – Virgin of the Rocks | Metalpoint, brush and white heightening on prepared paper | 181 x 159 mm. | Biblioteca Reale | Turin

None of Leonardo’s followers were left-handed and this makes differentiating Leonardo drawings from those of his followers fairly easy. Only fairly easy because they sometimes copied the left-handed shading, probably by turning the paper upside down. (Followers of Leonardo, and artists ever since, have copied works of the master as part of their training. That there are no copies of the Profile should be taken into account. ) Nowadays, about one in ten people are left-handed, but in the past people were discouraged from writing or drawing with their left, or sinister hand. Still, there have been plenty of left-handed artists (I hope eventually to post a table of these draftsmen).  Also, those who were left-handed and adapted to fully using their right hand, might well be considered ambidextrous and be able to shade with either hand.

Some clever people commenting on the blog the Daily Kos have said that the sitter looks like Kirsten Dunst, the American actress. There is a definite resemblance. And this is where the drawing fails to convince me. The sitter conforms much more to a 19th or 20th century ideal of what a Renaissance beauty should look like, rather than a 15th century ideal, and much more to a Northern European than to an Italian ideal.  (Yes, what Errol Morris was talking about in his Hans van Meegeren and Vermeer series of articles in the NYT.) At times I feel like I’m looking at Rapunzel.  The Louvre’s Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, a cartoon in colored chalks, with anything approaching the finish of the Profile, is very different. Very different.  The d’Este portrait, with the body turned out to the viewer, is far more innovative–and what one would expect from Leonardo– than the strict Profile, where the pose looks back to an earlier 15th century type which Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, and the Pollaiolo, had so famously exploited.

Leonardo | Isabella d’Este | Preparatory cartoon in black, red, and ochre chalks, heightened with white, on prepared white paper and pricked for transfer | 610 x 465 mm. | Louvre | Paris

I can’t keep but thinking that draftsman who executed this had seen not only the portraits of Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, but was also informed of Hans Holbein the Younger (left-handed draftsman). What would be interesting is to see the early 19th century German drawings Kate Ganz, a former owner of the drawing, and the experts at Christie’s (OMD NY 30 January 1998, lot 402) based their ideas upon. After some looking, I have to say that I can’t find any similar 19th century portraits.  Maybe it is by Leonardo, but it would then be like the Michelangelo painting after Schongauer which recently caused a stir, an anomaly. Another possibility is that an earlier drawing was colored and reworked in the 19th century, the fate of too many drawings, and then everyone could be right at the same time.

Iron Gall Ink

October 4th, 2009 § Comments Off on Iron Gall Ink § permalink

With Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom we can change the color of iron gall ink drawings from brown to black and see, at least vaguely, how the drawings would have originally appeared. When an artist uses iron gall ink it starts out gray, quickly oxidizes to blue-black, and over years changes to brown. It is hard to grasp that so many of the warm brown drawings we know were conceived in black.

wasp galls bomarzo

Gall Apples on an Oak Tree | Bomarzo

Gall Apple on an Oak Tree | Bomarzo

Gall Apple on an Oak Tree | Bomarzo

The color in iron gall ink comes from gall and vitriol–yes, a negative ring. Recipes call for ground wasp’s galls (tannic acid), iron or copper filings (vitriol or sulfuric acid), gum arabic, and water or wine. The photographs of the galls here are on oak trees in Italy.  Galls, also called gall apples, are nests built by wasps for their larvae.  This kind of ink was made in antiquity and again starting in the 13th century. It was the most commonly used ink until the 19th century. Part of its appeal was that it was indelible, unlike carbon ink. Since it eats into the paper, it could not be altered, a positive attribute for scribes with their official documents.

Most old master drawings in brown ink were created with iron gall ink. The other important brown inks are bister and sepia, both of them more stable.  One easy, and unfortunate, way to tell the difference between these inks, is that the iron gall ink bites into the paper, making it look seared or burnt. Some greatly damaged drawings appear lacy with all their holes. In this example by the artist Mola, we can see how the areas with concentrations of ink, especially in the eye and cuff sections, are weakening the paper. This is the action of the acid in the ink.


Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) | Caricature | Pen and Iron Gall Ink on Cream Laid Paper | 14.7 x 17.8 cm. | National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Ink Corrosion Website details the scope of the problem of deteriorating documents, drawings, and music scores created with iron gall ink and has information on what conservators are doing about it. The excellent site also gives recipes for the ink.