Anatomical sketches of arm, hands, ear, upper body of man

Studies of the upper body of a man and separate studies of an arm, a hand and an ear; sketch of a tree, 1511–1512, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Two shades of red chalk, some black chalk, 9 15/16 × 8 1/16 in. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, purchased in 1790. Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

During his lifetime, Michelangelo likely produced tens of thousands of drawings. But being protective of his ideas, and to give an impression of effortless genius, he destroyed many of them. Today only about 600 drawings by the Renaissance artist survive. A Getty exhibition highlighted 28 of them, giving viewers a window into Michelangelo’s artistic process. “He used drawings to record his observations, to explore certain ideas, to further develop these ideas, to reconsider them entirely,” said Assistant Curator Edina Adam.

The exhibition included a relatively high number of drawings in red chalk, which prompted the question: Why did Michelangelo use this particular drawing material?

Based on his surviving drawings, Michelangelo seems to have begun using red chalk extensively while working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes from 1508-1512. In preparation for some of the large-scale figures of ignudi (athletic male nudes), Michelangelo drew studies from live models in order to work out the forms of the figures and to capture the way the light from the chapel windows would fall on them.

He worked on highlights and areas of shadow, anatomical details, the outward appearance of muscles, as well as the details of fingers and toes. Probably the best-preserved example is the sheet of the Seated Male Nude, shown below.

3/4 view of back side of nude person.

Seated male nude; separate study of his right arm, 1511, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, heightened with white, 11 × 8 7/16 in. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, purchased in 1790. Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Michelangelo was keen on understanding the musculature of the human body and was known to attend dissections, said Adam. There, the artist could see exactly how a body was constructed from the inside out, and use that knowledge in his work. “Once you understand the musculature you can do anything,” said Adam, “including the highly complex postures that he’s known for because you understand the limits of the body.”

Yet Michelangelo also used red chalk for swift sketches of some of the figures surrounding the figure of God the Father in the Creation of Adam fresco, as on the sheet below, actually drawn on the back of the study above.

Sketches of arms and shoulders, one head.

Studies of figures and limbs; figure sketches, 1511, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, heightened with white, 11 × 8 7/16 in. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, purchased in 1790. Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

There are likely several reasons why Michelangelo opted to use red chalk while making these figure studies. First, the commission for the Sistine Chapel ceiling meant he was faced with a huge amount of preparation, and the ease of red chalk became increasingly important as he struggled to complete it.

To work out the details of all the figures in pen and ink would have been extremely labor-intensive, and sharpening quills and mixing inks would’ve added an additional distraction. Drawing in chalk necessitated great skill, but it also allowed Michelangelo a flexibility. He could create subtle tonal variations by applying more or less pressure onto the chalk or by wetting it. The red chalk also provided an immediate mid-tone on the paper and could be easily blended when modeling and shading forms. Being a naturally occurring material that was available to artists in sticks that could be sharpened as desired, it was also convenient and portable.

All of these features of red chalk would have likely appealed to Michelangelo as he came to create one of the most iconic works in western art.

To learn more about Michelangelo: Mind of the Master, take a video tour with curator Julian Brooks.

Michelangelo: Mind of the Master is generously sponsored by City National Bank. We thank them for their support.