Sanguine Drawing

The American Artist: Drawing magazine’s summer issue is featuring my sanguine and charcoal drawings.  The former editor Steven Doherty interviewed me about my research of the materials used by the Italian masters from the 15th century onward.  The article will not be available online but the issue can be found at your local bookstore after august 15th or ordered online here.  Please pick up a copy and check it out.

Up until recently, artists prepared the majority of their materials.  Recipes and knowledge were passed on from Master to student within the workshop environment.  Techniques were often modified to adapt to the local resources available.  This would assure a certain quality and permanence to the work.  Faulty techniques and materials were eventually avoided thanks to the accumulated experience and knowledge of artist’s workshops.  Information was very often exchanged different artist communities.  (Artists, after all, love talking shop)

The term ‘Sanguine’ is derived from the latin for ‘blood’ (sanguis) and refers to drawings done with red chalk.  The mineral Hematite is what gives the chalk its red color.  In Italy it is naturally abundant.  The island of Elba once had a famous mine of sanguine that supplied Michelangelo.

The chalk must be prepared by grinding it into a powder and then reformed into sticks with the addition of water.  That way impurities can by removed and creates a more homogeneous drawing instrument.

Preparation of the sanguine
Completed stick

Here are a couple examples of my sanguine drawings:

Profile of Adiz, sanguine chalk on paper

The above is a portrait of a very interesting young man.  His name is Adiz and he is from Sarajevo. He is currently finishing his studies in Industrial design.  The drawing is life size.  The following is a figure study out of my imagination for sculpture that I would like to create.

Euripydes, sanguine chalk on paper

Below is a hand study for a painting of the Resurrected Christ.

Hand study for Il Risorto

Technique is bound to the materials that one uses. The feel and quality of the natural sanguine chalk is unparalleled for its consistency and subtlety.  The commercially produced sanguine is modified with waxes and binders to resist breaking and facilitate mass production.  Obviously the best materials are not a necessary prerequisite for creating a great drawing.  However, superior materials allow the artist to more freely express himself quickly and render the subtlety that his vision requires.

Christo Risorto
Figure study

13 thoughts on “Sanguine Drawing

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  1. Matthew, yes you are right regarding impurities; however it is possible to get good stone without impurities thus the ability to get the fine lines that the old masters got with their drawings and the delicate quality of the color. The method of making sticks from the pigment as evidenced by your drawings that have intense color is not found in the old drawings and the thick lines and heavy handling does not allow for sensitive lost and found lines and subtle build up of tones.

    I have good quality stone that can be bought from Donald Fels at Amber Varnishes .com. that achieves the old master quality. Fels talks about the use of the stone in his book “The lost secrets of Flemish painting” the information is taken straight from manuscripts that state that the artists said that they used the stone. If you would like to talk to him he said that I should pass on his e-mail address if you are interested. Fels cuts and sells the chips from stone that he got from mines that he from intensive research and personal inspection. Other companies sell the stone but of inferior quality.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jack. It is always nice to talk shop with fellow artists. Is Donald Fels a painter? Does he read Italian, French? After twenty years of studio practice and constant research into Old Master techniques I have become familiar with many of the theories and practices of our predecessors. Studying the manuscripts directly in the original language is essential to understanding the meaning, especially in a technical treatise of another era. If the translator is not an artist working within the tradition of the masters of the past mistakes are bound to happen. I constantly come across errors. And of course no single treatise is the final word either. Very often most treatise use very second rate artists as their source as well. I am not convinced that all drawing ‘sanguine’ was cut from blocks of chalk. Especially since most artists in the past that drew in ‘sanguine’ had active studios that prepared and produced the materials, paints, etc. ‘Sanguine’ in itself is a generic term to has attributed to many different red drawing stuffs. It was used to draw and paint with. Pigment was often prepared and stored in blocks or ‘cakes.’ It is a logical progression to infer that earth color and clays would be used to for drawing as well as painting.

      Be careful about judging artwork contemporary or antique from reproductions, printed or on a screen. In my work, although I strive to emulate the ‘quality’ one finds in the great works of the past, I by no means aim to imitate the Old Master look. My drawings are studies, in and of themselves or preparatory works for another piece. I have done extensive study directly from original drawings from the 14th century up until the 20th in Italy, England and the States. The variety expression and technique that the artists of the past achieved with simplest of materials is impressive and vast.

      However, everyone is entitled to their opinion and I respect it. All the best, and Buon Lavoro!

  2. Matthew,
    Zecchi in Florence sells sanguine/hermatite lumps. If you ground up one of these lumps how many sticks could you make? I have no idea hoping you know. Thanks
    Fred Smith

    1. Fred,
      Thank you for your comment. I know Sandro Zecchi very well and the sanguine in the article was acquired from him. It is sold by weight. The amount of sticks that comes out of 50g depends completely on their size. I made at least 20. When they become stump I grind them all together to create more sticks.

  3. Hello Matthew I have never used sanguine stick before and would like to know if you can make it into different hardnesses as in pencils, or is there just one application. Do you mix the sanguine with water or other media? Manya thanks Katie

  4. Hello!

    I realise that this post is already a little bit old by now, but I would like to ask you if you think it is possible to make the sanguine sticks with red ochre (also iron(III)oxide) and water. There is a good art supplies shop here in the Netherlands, which sells good quality pigments. It would safe me some time and energy, but would still allow me to draw in a beautiful colour.

    Do you have any experience with this (I-just-made-up) method?
    I do not necessarily want to go “old-master”-ish all the way by grinding hematite. I do love it that you wrote about this, though, and I will absolutely try it sometime for the experience.

    I do not mean to offend your beautiful methods in any way, it is truthfully wonderful! Hope to hear from you soon!

    Kind regards,

    A student from the Netherlands

    1. Hello Renate,
      The easiest thing to do is to give it a try. If the pigments does not make a good stick then you can always use it for paint.
      Another option is to order a small quantity from Zecchi art supply in Florence, Italy. They ship worldwide.
      All the best,

  5. Hi Matthew,

    I’ve done a lot of internet reading on this subject and I’ve found your information to be the most useful and it has inspired me to source some sanguine. I have faith that what you describe is very likley to be a/the method used all those years ago.

    As someone who has never ground pigments (or even done anything similar) could you please provide a brief outline of the process you use?

    What tool do you use to grind the material?
    How fine does it need to be?
    You mention removing impurities – how are these identified?
    Approximately what kind of consistency or “paste” am I aiming to achieve?
    Are the sticks left to dry naturally once formed?

    I realise that I could experiment and probably produce suitable results eventually, but I thought it was wise to ask an expert first!


    1. Hi Tony,

      Big apologies for the extreme delay of my reply. I have been confused with the new wordpress dashboard.

      To grind pigments into powder you need a marble slab and a muller. The resulting powder does not need to be very fine and it will naturally arrive at the appropriate state within a few minutes of grinding. Impurities tend to be discolored larger stones that become immediately evident once the grinding begins. The paste should be ‘lean’ as possible with little water. The sticks dry naturally.

      Good luck and all the best,

      1. I strongly believe that the old masters used actually chips of the stone to create their drawings in mostly a shading of parallel lines or with light or heavy variations of lost and found edges or contours with possibly some slight rubbing to create some delicate massing; although one must get parts of the stone with the right density which is hard to do today because of the rarity of getting good material from depleted mines as I understand. I do no see a powdery granular application as produced by making sticks as you mentioned and find a n entirely different look in comparing your work with the older masters, not to say that your draftsmanship is at all lacking. I have achieved better results using chips off the split stone as I believe was done by the great draftsmen of the past.

      2. We can politely agree to disagree. After 20 years of studying first hand Old Master drawings, I would agree with your assessment of the facture of Italian drawings from the 14th-17th Centuries: hatching, rubbing etc. That has nothing to do with the materials used. To refer to drawing sanguine as ‘stones’ is incorrect. It is very compact clay. Rendering a block into powder and adding water does not change it. Although several of the mines used by Florentine artists have been depleted, there has always been an abundance of red chalk throughout the Mediterranean.

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