The complexities of red chalk drawings.

 The Medium of Red Chalk Artists have used many different mediums over time , each having special qualities. At the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh there is at present an exhibition of red chalk drawings, not the most common medium usually found in art galleries. The show includes works by Rubens, Salvator Rosa, Watteau, and Francois Boucher. The earliest piece on display is by Raphael and dates from about 1518. It is entitled ‘Study of a kneeling Nude’ (Einspruch, June 2012). The work was done in preparation for a fresco ( National Gallery of Scotland, 2012) Einspruch explains that it was often the medium used to make preliminary sketches for oil paintings, as when Geurcino used this medium fro a study in preparation for the monumental oil painting ‘Erminia Finding the Wounded Tancred’ ( circa 1660), but red chalk was also used to make decorative and quite elaborate landscapes. The writer goes on to state that red chalk became very popular during the Rocco period in France and was utilized

Figure 1, Allan Ramsey, Head of Margaret Lindsey, the artist’s second wife, looking down. ( Circa 1776)

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by artists such as Fragonard.

Sometimes red chalk is used not as a preparation, but as a medium in its own right , as when Rosa produced his ‘Head of a bearded man’ in the mid 17th century.

This particular technique can be used to exercise great control and precision. It is very easy to use , no mixing of colours, preparation of pigments etc., and gives a rapid result, using simple strokes. That of course does not mean that it does not also require great skill.

A famous picture in red chalk is usually referred to as Renaissance man is often credited as being a self -portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci, although it is perhaps a portrait of a relative of his. Scholars are in dispute about this. It dates from 1512 and is held at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy ( Daily Mail, 2009). It is rarely on public view simply because it is so fragile, because it is subject to foxing, yet at the same time it is often copied and so well known. There has recently been developed a special box, a Climabox, which will, it is believed, preserve the wonderful portrait from further deterioration.

Mayhew ( undated ) has spent a great deal of time researching the various materials used by early artists. He describes it as a natural material and easy to cut into sticks right from the earth as it was already very compressed. He states that da Vinci was the first artist to use it. However supplies became depleted by the end of the 17th century and so it dropped from popularity. By 1795 an artificial substitute had been developed by Frenchman Nicholas Conte, but Mayhew states that this ‘crayon’ simply doesn’t have the ‘glow’ of the natural product, and is harder to work with. He quotes Edward Burne-Jones as being in despair as he asks every colour man for the rare original, and saying ‘Now the ancient red is far more crimson and rosy tints than the brown sticks they give us now.’

Whether used to draw a detailed study from nature, a summary sketch or a highly polished finished drawing, red chalk is an enduringly popular, richly expressive and unique medium for draughtsmen. (The National Gallery, Scotland, 2012).


Figure 1, Ramsey,A., Head of Margaret Lindsey, the artist’s second wife, looking down. National Gallery, Scotland, Circa 1776, 4th June 2012,

Daily Mail, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Discovered in an Italian Village, 25th February 2009, 4th June 2012,

Einspruch ,F., Seeing Red in Edinburgh, June 1st 2012, 4th June 2012,

Mayhew, D, The artwork of David Mayhew , undated, 4th June 2012

National Gallery of Scotland , Enfilade , 2012, 4th June 2012,

Mayhew,T., The artwork of Timothy David Mayhew, undated, 4th June 2012,

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