Tracing Paper Uses in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Art and Design

Following David Hockney’s claim in 2005 that artists of the Italian Renaissance customarily used tracing paper and other “optical resources” as aids to conceiving their initial artistic designs, scholars from the disciplines of science and art history have been hotly debating whether this was so.

Certainly, tracing paper or carta da lucido was readily available to them as they could easily make it for themselves (or more realistically, allow one of their workshop assistants to prepare the paper for them). In his handbook, written during the 1390s and likely produced as a technical guide for apprentice artists, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini regales his readers with various methods for making tracing paper.

The first method is described as follows: 

If you do not find any ready-made [clear tracing paper], you will need to make some of this tracing paper in this way. Take a kid parchment and give it to a parchment worker; and have it scraped as much that it barely holds together. And have him take care to scrape it evenly. it is transparent of itself. If you want it more transparent, take some clear and fine linseed oil; and smear it with some of this oil on a piece of cotton. let it dry throughly, for the space of several days; and it will be perfect and good.

Cennino also describes a further method:

If you want to make this tracing paper in another way, take a good smooth slab of marble or porphyry. Then get some fish glue and some leaf glue, which the druggists sell. Put them to soak in clear water and arrange to have one porringerful [small bowl with a handle] of clear water to six leaves. tehn boil it until it is all melted, and after boiling strain it two or three times. Then take this size, all strained, melted and warm, and a brush: and lay it onto these slabs just the way you tinted papers. The slabs must be clean; and they should be greased with olive oil previously. And when this size which was laid on them has dried, take the point of a penknife and start to pry this skin off the slab in the form of a paper, without damaging it. And if you want to find this skin or paper [more durable] before you pry it off the slab, take some linseed oil, boiled they way I shall teach you for mordants; and with a soft brush lay a coat of it all over. And let it dry for two or three days, and it will be good tracing paper.

And finally, the artist gives us a more quick and simple method of production:

This same tracing paper which we have been discussing may be made out of paper, the paper to begin with, being made very thin, smooth and quite white. The grease this paper with linseed oil, as described above. It becomes transparent, and is good.

Perhaps also, apprentices were encouraged not only to copy the drawings of their own and other famous masters every day, but to trace images and transfer onto paper in order to continue their artistic scholarship in their own time, outside of the workshop. Ceninno called this process “obtain[ing] the essence of a good figure or drawing” and described in detail how to go about the process:

You should be aware that there is also a paper known as tracing paper which may be very useful to you. to copy a head, or a figure, or a half figure, as you find it attractive, by the hand of the great masters, and to get the outlines right, from paper, panel, or wall, which you want to take right off, put the tracing paper over the figure or drawing, fasten it nicely at the four corners with a little red or green wax. Because of the transparency of the tracing paper, the figure or drawing underneath immediately shows through, in such a shape or manner that you see it clearly. Then take either a pen cut quite fine or a fine brush or fine minever; and you may proceed to pick out with ink the outlines and accents of the drawing underneath.; and in general to touch in the shadows as far as you can see to do it. And then, lifting off the paper, you may touch it up with any highlights and reliefs, as you please.

As late as the seventeenth century, tracing (according to the Bassanian painter Giovanni Batista Volpato) being one of the methods of transferring an image from paper to canvas, was considered mundane and lacking imagination. Volpato desribed it as “the work of the boy and not the artist.” 

Maybe Volpato was being a little harsh however, as the use of traced elements in the construction of complex compositions can actually allow an experienced artist to visualise how elements of a painting could look, before finally committing to a decision. Accordingly, the ability to overlay a prepared canvas with sheets of tracing paper that can be easily moved around would work to promote greater artistic creativity and freedom. 

According to the Grove Encyclopaedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, tracing paper was widely used by the trecento and may have been used by artists from the eighth century. They go on to explain that tracing paper would likely have helped in the process of mass producing illuminated manuscripts as some of the more complex elements could be traced and reproduced repeatedly. 

More recently, in 2019, Cecilia Frosinini suggested that even Leonardo da Vinci took inspiration from the polymath’s “observation of the writing in reverse on the tracing paper that he used for his drawings after turning them over.” 

Images: After Andrea Mantegna, The Entombment, late fifteenth – early sixteenth century, pen and brown ink on cream tracing paper, The Leonora Hall Gurley Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute. 

Italian School after Niccolò Boldrini, after Titian, 1550-1570, The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist and St Elizabeth, pen and black ink on brown waxed tracing paper laid down, British Museum, London. © 2019 Trustees of the British Museum.

Umbrian/Roman, after Raphael, 1483-1520, The Dead Christ Being Carried to the Tomb (traced from a sketch by Raphael), paper, British Museum, London. © 2019 Trustees of the British Museum.

Book of Hours, Florence or Fiesole, ca. 1480, illuminated manuscript on vellum, signed by Biagio di Piero di Jacopo da Fiesole, The Ruth and Lyle Sellers Medical Collection, Bridewell Library, Texas. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Forster I (folio 7 recto), late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

References: Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Il Libro dell’ Arte, trans. Daniel V. Thompson Jr., New York: Dover Publications, 1960, pp. 13-14.

Tom Anderson, “Science backs Old Masters versus Hockney in ‘tracing’ row,” The Independent, 23 January, 2005. 

Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to the XVIIIth Centuries, Volume 2, London: John Murray, 1849, pp. 721-725.

Mrs Mary P. Merrifield, Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting: Original Texts with English Translations, New York: Dover, 1967. 

Colum Hourihane ed., The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture, Volume 2, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 143. 

Harry Cockburn, “Leonardo Da Vinci ‘could write, draw and paint with both hands’, experts claim,” The Independent, 11 April 2019. 

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson


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