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


  1. 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

    • 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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

    • 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,

  4. 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!


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