About  Pipo’s Authentic Renaissance Drawing Chalk

A couple of years ago I was introduced to a remarkable group of artists and teachers at the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas located in the River District of Asheville, North Carolina.  As I saw their work and heard them talk about the authentic techniques and materials they use I felt their direct connection back to the traditions of the  Renaissance.  I sensed that this group dedicating themselves to something real and enduring and worthwhile.  I was intrigued to find that they were making some of their own materials such as ink derived from walnut husks and glue and seizing from rabbit skins following ancient formulas and methods.

Being a fan of the Renaissance and an engineer by training and profession I could not help but be a fan of DaVinci. I’ve always found myself especially drawn to his sketches and notebooks, many of which were rendered in a dark red medium. This medium is described by art historians as chalk. With a little research I found that this mineral (not really technically chalk) was mined in a quarry in Italy, and that the best deposits are depleated.

In Asheville at the Fines Arts League I saw, in addition to oil paintings and drawings in pen and ink and charcoal, other drawings made in this same dark red shade.  They told me the medium was called conté and they showed me the ox blood red sticks they used. They were about a quarter inch square in cross section and two and a half inches long.

Then came the part that really drew me into the story. They began to tell me that they were very dissatisfied with the modern version of this product. The color was just a little off. It was too fragile by which they meant that the sticks would break easily and they would not maintain a sharp edge needed to produce fine lines for very long. There was a rough coarse feel when moving the conté across the surface of the paper which often interfered with the delicate lines.

As a materials engineer and researcher this seemed like the perfect project for me. They gave me some pieces of chalk and conté they liked and some that they did not. These I took into the lab and began the detective work of analysis using an electron microscope and other instruments. Before long I believed I understood what made the good stuff good and the bad stuff bad, which is the goal of this kind of detective work.  I then worked on formulating my own version using my observations and also a description of how the French engineer Nicolas Conté had worked on the same problem in the 1850’s. It took several iterations before I had what I felt was a satisfactory product.  The test was to take it to the Fine Arts League and get the reaction of the instructors there. They loved it and immediately asked when they could start buying it.

All that was left was to set up a small production line and work out  packaging and so forth. This was easier said than done because as luck would have it the same factors that result in the best drawing attributes also tend to make it a little difficult to produce. No wonder the commercial version of this product has changed over the years to make it more amenable to mass production in China. However, I was, and remain dedicated to the focus on the best function of the chalk sticks to create the most satisfactory and authentic experience for the artist. The artists of the tradition exemplified by the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas take incredible amounts of time and care with their work and I believe they deserve the tools and materials made with the same level of quality.

I am producing the chalk sticks here in the mountains of North Carolina and I hope you find them useful in your work.

Last Updated on Friday, 20 May 2011 09:23