Pinpricks and Charcoal Dust: The Renaissance Cartoon

A lesser-known use of charcoal in the context of fine art can be witnessed in the cartoon, a technique widely employed by Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci to imprint segments of larger works onto walls prepared for painted masterpieces. It was also used in the creation of tapestries. This unique method, representative of the technologies available to artists of the era, allowed them to assign responsibility to apprentices: the transferred image, faithful to the master’s original concept and composition, could subsequently be worked upon, in varying degrees, by others.

Here’s how the process functioned. Several pieces of paper were first glued together at the edges in order to create one expansive piece—something not yet readily available at the time. The artist then drew upon this surface a detailed, often heartfelt study of the intended work, a first look into its eventual expression in painted or textile form. In fact, Leonardo’s ethereal charcoal study The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist was briefly exhibited to the Florentine public, attracted enthusiastic crowds, and received wide acclaim on its own merit. 

Renaissance Cartoon

Virgin with Child with St.Anne and John the Baptist - Leonardo da Vinci.

Next, minute pinpricks were pierced into the contours of the drawing. When the cartoon was applied to the prepared surface, the image was then transferred by way of pouncing: the drawing was lightly patted with a thin cotton bag containing charcoal dust, perfectly suited to filter through the holes and relay a dotted pattern to the work surface. Alternatively, the drawing could be cut through the paper in an unbroken line, but this inevitably left the cartoon tattered and unusable for future projects. It was preferable to be able to reuse cartoons, so a duplicate was often created by placing an extra sheet of paper below the segment during the painstaking piercing process.

The few surviving Renaissance cartoons carry their own singular esthetic that often represents a highly personal glimpse into the internal processes of the old masters. Because the pouncing process darkened the cartoon, and because the pricking or incising obviously left it in a fragile and damaged state, we really only have access to cartoons that were not, in the end, employed as the foundation for finished pieces. These drawings stand as intriguing mysteries to a modern-day public hungry for fresh insights into the celebrated artistic giants of the Renaissance. Leonardo’s famous cartoon, dated to 1499-1500, may be viewed at the National Gallery in London.

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