Red Chalk: the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh explores a delicate material

By Jenni Davidson | 29 February 2012
A red chalk drawing of a woman looking in a mirror held up by a cherub
Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Copy of the figure of 'Prudence' after Raphael's fresco 'The Virtues'. Red chalk© National Galleries of Scotland
Exhibition: Red Chalk: Raphael to Ramsay, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, February 18 – June 10 2012

The word chalk may first bring to mind blackboards or white cliffs, but red chalk is another matter altogether, as this new exhibition shows.

This natural material, which is also known as sanguine because it looks like blood, is mainly associated with classic artwork of the early modern period.

Red chalk can achieve a wide range of subtle effects that are impossible to make in any other medium. It can be used for a variety of purposes from sketches to finished pieces and portraits to landscapes. It is particularly good for rendering human features and three-dimensions.

A picture of a woman's head drawn in red chalk
Allan Ramsay, Head of Margaret Lindsay, the Artist's Second Wife, Looking Down. Red chalk.
© National Galleries of Scotland
Red chalk was first used in Italy during the late 15th century and became particularly popular with French artists three centuries later.

The medium was also adopted in Scotland, most notably by Allan Ramsay, whose drawing of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay, features in the exhibition.

Chalk for drawing is quarried directly from the ground and then cut into sticks, which can be sharpened to a point and either hand held or placed in a holder.

Alternatively, the chalk can be ground up and mixed with water then rolled into drawing sticks.

The exhibition explores this beautiful and gentle drawing medium through 35 works from the gallery's collections.

One of the highlights is Raphael’s Study of a Kneeling Nude, dating from around 1518, which is the earliest drawing on display. It was a preparatory drawing for one of the artist’s frescos and shows his careful preparation and skill as a draughtsman.

In contrast to that, Salvator Rosa’s mid-17th century drawing, Head of a Bearded Man, shows a finished work which was intended as a piece of art in its own right.

Because of the delicate nature of the medium, many of the drawings are rarely on show and some of the drawings are being exhibited for the first time.

  • Open 10am-5pm (7pm Thursday). Admission free.
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