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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

First Thoughts to Cartoons: Italian Renaissance Drawing

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

The Italian language is expressive and the terms used to describe art are evocative and just fun to say out loud. Terms like chiaroscuro (light and dark), contrapposto (standing with weight shifted to one leg), sfumato (a smoky atmosphere typified in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings) and one of my favorites, di sotto in su’ (a viewpoint looking up from below) all pointedly describe art.

Drawing has its own specific terms, some of which don’t have equivalents in English, and they are also very descriptive of the artistic process and purpose.

There were many types of drawings artists used in their processes. The terms below represent the careful preparation prior to oil or fresco painting, hours of intense study, drawing and re-drawing. Generally, the terms below follow the artistic process from first sketch to final preparation.

Primo pensiero (preem-oh pen-see-air-oh) Literally “first thought” often in pen and ink. Artists experimented with different poses and gestures.

Schizzo (skeet-zoh) Rapid sketching.

Abbozzo (ah-boh-zoh) First draft of a composition or group of figures, rough and subject to change.

Disegno (dee-sen-noh) A general term for a drawing, but not the finished drawing. Also refers to the concept of design.

Modello (mo-del-lo) Fully realized drawing, a blueprint for the artwork. The modello is often marked with squares to aid in transferring it to the canvas or wall.

Cartone (car-tone-nay) The finished preparatory piece, often in mixed media, made to scale. The English word cartoon derives from this term.

Drawing as we think of it today didn’t really exist until the early 1500s in Italy. Prior to that, drawing was done on prepared vellum or parchment only as preparation for a specific artwork, and the surface wiped clean for reuse. We only have about 100 drawings from the early 1400s.

Central Italy was the drawing mecca. Very few drawings survive from Northern Italy, especially Venice. The ratio of known Florentine to Venetian drawings is seven to one. 1501 was the first recorded occasion of a public viewing in Florence of drawings when crowds gathered to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne and Michelangelo’s cartoon of the Battle of Cascina. The drawings were much admired. This marked a turning point as drawing came into its own in the early 1500s.

In Central Italy, until the major artists of the Renaissance, namely Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, and Raffaello Sanzio (simply known to us as Raphael), drawing was not art in and of itself. Drawing on paper, which was very expensive, was only limited to function: working out compositions, details in figures, or life studies that were used as patterns for current and future work. All three Renaissance masters made significant contributions to the art of drawing.

The Game Changer – Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, the elder of the three, can be credited with changing the concept of drawing from purely functional to experimental. Drawing became more than preparation for painting as artists engaged in allegorical, nature studies, and fantasy drawing. Leonardo was fascinated with analysis – human form, nature, mechanics, hydraulics, proportions, anything inhabiting his imagination or his real world. His early drawings are in silverpoint with an inventive later preference for red chalk. Pen and ink served him well for detailed anatomy studies while red chalk mirrored the modeling and softer edges of oil painting.

Leonardo da Vinci, Compositional Sketches of Virgin Adoring Christ Child, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Leonardo da Vinci, Compositional Sketches of Virgin Adoring Christ Child, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1480-85. Silverpoint with pen and brown ink for shadows on pink paper. He rapidly drew various combinations of figures with virtuosity. In the right corner are lines indicating perspective presumably for the artwork. Paper came in many colors; purple, grey (cheaper), yellow, white, pink, blue. In the 1450s a high-quality sheet of paper cost the equivalent of a week’s wage for a laborer. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.

We have about 6,000 pages of Da Vinci's material, only a small fraction of what he produced. Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo’s manuscripts are a mix of drawings and writings. Of these three artists, Leonardo had an affection for drawing landscapes, water, and nature. Da Vinci’s remaining manuscripts, called a Codex, are presently divided into ten different “books.” After Leonardo’s death, the Codices were carelessly kept, cut apart, re-arranged, sheets ripped out and sold. Most of the Codices were in Italy until Napoleon invaded and they became the spoils of war. Bill Gates of Microsoft fame purchased a Leonardo Codex in 1994. The Royal Library at Windsor in Britain has an excellent collection of Renaissance drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci, Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Leonardo da Vinci, Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarters View, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1510-13. Leonardo used black, red, and white chalk to achieve a muted sfumato technique, a beautiful blending of chalk to softly model the face. The drawing is closely related to the painting in the Louvre, Paris, Virgin and Child with St. Anne. Disputed by some art historians as an authentic Leonardo, a scientific examination of the drawing in 2002-2003 substantiates left-handed strokes (Leonardo was left-handed) in the dense chalk lines as well as Leonardo’s smudging of the chalk for the smoky sfumato effect. It is now widely regarded as a true da Vinci. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.

Extraordinary Drawing - Raphael. We have more than 400 of Raphael’s drawings which helps us understand his artistic process, first doing broad conceptual sketches in pen and ink, then more figural drawings to get just the right pose, gesture and expression. He then moved on to compositional drawing with groups of figures and playing with lighting and modeling. A mixed media modello put the pieces together before the final cartoon was assembled, the last phase before transferring the drawing to the wall, wood, or canvas.

Raphael, Eight Apostles, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Raphael, Eight Apostles, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Approximately 1514. Raphael first did a stylus underdrawing, then drew over that with red chalk and leadpoint. Like many of these drawings they were cut down and sold, in this case it was cut in half then put back together. Drawings are not very large. The Eight Apostles is only a little larger than 3 x 9 inches. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.

Raphael was a master draughtsman known primarily as a painter of Madonnas. However, he is appreciated for blending classical and naturalistic elements, compositional skills, subtle modeling, expression, and pictorial unity. His most famous works were done in the Vatican.

Raphael, Lucretia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Raphael, Lucretia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This pen and brown ink over black chalk drawing, considered quite large (11 x 15), was completed about 1508-10. Lucretia is about to commit suicide after being raped by Sextus. Raphael demonstrates his love and knowledge of Roman art. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.

Waste Not Want Not - Michelangelo. Michelangelo is a category by himself. He favored black and red chalk, which could by nature be very light in tone or dark and greasy. Only about 750 front and back sheets of paper remain from him, mostly because he had bonfires of his drawings for self-protection as he notoriously wouldn’t show any drawings to anyone. At the end of his life he became even more concerned with burning his drawings to deter plagiarism. No silverpoint drawings remain by Michelangelo although he was certainly trained in this method.

His drawing practice remained very consistent over his career, very focused on project drawing with very little fantasy or imagination drawing, and no landscape drawings remain. Most of his drawings are figures – nude males. Very few compositional drawings remain.

Always concerned with thriftiness, he wrote shopping lists on the backs of beautiful figure drawings, small sketches in the corners, re-using sheets until they were full. This is the artist who died with large quantities of gold locked in his chest! He drew for each project from scratch, avoiding re-using poses and patterns from previous paintings or projects. He only drew when he had a project, not for other purposes.

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1508-10. This drawing was completed for the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes in red chalk with small accents of white chalk. The finished fresco figure, representing a prophet, was three times life size. Michelangelo sketches tentatively at first, then more boldly. He uses a male model for the female figure as it would have been improper for a nude female to pose. Note the pentimenti (changes) in the left hand and different ways he tries to figure out how to represent the toes. The Libyan Sibyl fresco took twenty days to paint. This drawing is about 8 x 11inches. Michelangelo would not be pleased to have the public view his initial attempts to draw the figure. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were so popular and sought after as artists that their drawings were requested as art themselves. They had more commissions than they could fulfill so a presentation drawing might please a powerful client when it wasn’t feasible to commit to a painting. A master’s drawing became a coveted treasure. Sometimes artists would do a sketch or drawing as a gift, an intimate exchange not unlike a letter or a poem. They were meant as private communication, never thought to be exhibited in a museum or reproduced.

Methods. Artists did not have access to #2 pencils. Black and red chalk were commonly used as well as pen and ink. Charcoal was also used although not as frequently. Silverpoint, or metalpoint, was a favorite of Raphael, but later fell out of favor to chalk. The silverpoint process started with paper prepared with lead white paint mixed with pigments and powder made from bone with a glue binder. The drawing was made over the prepared paper with a metal stylus. There were no do-overs with silverpoint and the result was a finely detailed delicate line drawing. However, unlike chalk, silverpoint lacked the ability to model and create rounded forms.

Artists frequently mixed media with different colors of chalk, leadpoint, or a silverpoint underdrawing. Leadpoint was a type of metalpoint that did not need a prepared paper surface. Artists used bread to erase leadpoint work. Artists frequently used a wash to produce shadows or tonal differences. Wash was watered down ink. Pen and ink is a little misleading term, as it really was quill and ink.

Artists needed to reproduce their drawings, to scale them larger or transfer them to prepared surfaces prior to applying paint. Chalk drawings were counter-proofed for future use by dampening paper and laying it over the chalk drawing to lift off an imprint. Drawings were saved for re-use in many workshops (not Michelangelo) as the figural poses or compositions could be re-cycled or modified to save time and effort. A copy of a drawing could also be made by blackening the back of the drawing or by pouncing, dusting with charcoal over pricked lines.

Sprezzatura. Collectors or close intimates might be offered a modello from the artist but certainly not a schizzo or disegno. Renaissance artists put a lot of effort into seamless perfection. The final artwork should appear natural and graceful, without a trace of the initial concept, hours of preparation and constant re-working of details.

Preparatory work was for the artists and their workshops only, not for distribution outside their circle. There is a wonderful Italian word for the concept of nonchalance, a courtly refinement concealing hard work: sprezzatura. Raphael and Michelangelo would not be pleased their drawings are available for study into their creative process as they valued the sprezzatura of their final product.

Raphael, The Small Cowper Madonna, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Raphael, The Small Cowper Madonna, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. About 1505. Oil painting on panel. A perfect example of sprezzatura in its beautiful and refined portrayal of the Virgin and Child. Raphael makes it look easy and natural. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.


Ames-Lewis, Frances. Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy. Yale University Press, 2000.

Chapman, Hugo and Marzia Faietti. Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings. Lund Humphries, 2010.

Hall, Marcia, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo and His Drawings. Yale University Press, 2004.

Kemp, Martin. Leonardo. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Talvacchia, Bette. Raphael. Phaidon, 2007.

Zollner, Frank and Johannes Nathan. Leonardo da Vinci: The Graphic Work, volume II. Taschen, 2011.

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