How to Make Medieval Artists’ Tools

by Danièle Cybulskie

If there’s one thing medieval people loved, it was writing educational treatises. Sometimes, these were a little on the fantastic side – like bestiaries or travel literature – but other times, they were extremely useful how-to manuals. I particularly love the how-to manuals because they can teach us so much about medieval techniques, technology, and thought processes. An amazingly detailed how-to manual from the fifteenth century is Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro Dell’arte, an instruction manual for artists that details both how to become a great artist, and how to make and use the tools of the trade. It covers everything from how to make specific pigments (like ultramarine, Chapter 62) to where to sit so you have the best light (Chapter 9), to how to paint “various beards” (Chapter 69). There is so much of this book that is worth sharing, but for today, here are five medieval artists’ tools, and how to make them (from the wonderful translation by Lara Broecke).

Cennino Cennini, Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints, Galleria Moretti


1. Oil (for oil paints)

Cennini details at great length how to create the pigments for all sorts of different shades of every colour, and then talks a little bit about how to make the oil with which to mix them. In Chapter 92, he says,

take your linseed oil and, in the summer, put it into a bronze or copper basin or a tub and when there is a Leo sun keep it in the sun; and if you keep it there until it becomes half it is absolutely perfect for painting. (p.128)

He then goes on to explain how to mix the pigments with the oil, ending the section on oil with one last handy tip:

get a tin or lead plate which is one finger high around the edge, like a lamp, and keep it half full with oil, and keep your brushes in it when they are at rest so that they do not dry out. (p.129)

2. Charcoal

Cennini recommends drawing with charcoal, especially for preliminary sketches (p.51), and suggests gathering “willow twigs … the length of 1 palm of a hand or, if you like, four fingers” (p.54). Then, you should “smooth and sharpen them at each end like spindles” (p.54), bundle them up with wire, and place them in a pan with a clay lid to keep it sealed. In a piece of medieval ingenuity that is my favourite part of the recipe, Cennini says, “Next go to the baker’s in the evening, when he has stopped work and put this pan in the oven and leave it there until the morning” (p.55). The charcoal should be entirely black but not crumbling, ready to go. Alternatively, an artist could do the following:

take a terra cotta casserole, covered in the way described above, put it under the fire in the evening, thoroughly cover this fire with ash and go to bed; in the morning they will be cooked. (p.55)

3. Brushes

According to Cennini, “two kinds of brush have to be used in the profession, that is, vair brushes and pig bristle brushes” (p.95). For vair brushes, he says you must pull the middle hairs out of “six or eight” (p.95) cooked vair tails, “and soak them in a drinking glass of clear water” (p.95). Afterwards, you must trim them with scissors (presumably until they are all the same length), and

gather together enough that you produce the thickness that you want for your brushes: some to fit in the shaft of a vulture’s feather, some to fit in the shaft of a goose feather, some to fit in the shaft of a feather from a hen or from a dove. (p.95)

Then you tie together the hairs with “thread or some waxed silk” (p.95) and tuck them into the end of the feather shaft. Cennini recommends pushing the hairs in as far as you can, “since the stiffer and shorter it comes out, the better and neater it is to work with” (p.95). You then get a twig that fits into the other end of the feather shaft, et voilà! A vair paintbrush. Bristle brushes are made in much the same way, it seems, although they need softening before they are ready to use (p.96). Cennini suggests that to protect vair brushes between uses, you should dip them in mud or clay and hang them, washing them out again when you need them (p.97). (You can see a modern person’s experiment with medieval brushes here.)

4. Tracing Paper

I don’t know about you, but medieval tracing paper didn’t even occur to me before I read this book. Cennini requires that artists study by copying the masters, though, so this is a handy way to do it. He suggests three different ways to make tracing paper. The first is to have a stationer scrape “kid parchment” (p.45) until it becomes transparent, then to rub it thoroughly with linseed oil-soaked cotton (p.45) and let it dry. The second is to “get fish and portion glue, which the apothecaries sell” (p.45), and after watering it down and straining it, brush it onto a clean piece of marble. After it dries, you can just peel it up as a sheet (p.46) and use it for tracing. I can imagine this would take some (very frustrating) practice to perfect. The third method is to use linseed oil on rag paper, much like in the first method (p.46). I’m guessing this was probably the cheapest, least frustrating way to make tracing paper, and since the paints were mixed with linseed oil, it probably wasn’t too damaging to the original work.

5. Erasers

There is no becoming a great artist without a good eraser! Throughout the book, Cennini suggests working with light lines first, then filling them in when you’re sure of what you’re doing, but even then, mistakes will be made. When painting a wall, he says, erase with “the broad bristle brush dipped in water, and do it again” (p.101). When using charcoal,

get a feather and, with the plume of this feather, whether it be from a chicken or a goose, rub and sweep the charcoal over what you have drawn; that drawing will come off. (p.51)

But my favourite is his advice on how to erase lead pencil from rag paper:

if at any point you make a mistake so that you want to rub out any mark that you have made with the lead point, take a small piece of bread from the heart of the loaf and rub it over the paper and you will remove whatever you want. (p.33)

It seems the bakery has come in handy once again!

These are just a few of the marvelous tips Cennino Cennini has to offer, in a book full of information on medieval artistry. I can’t recommend Lara Broeke’s translation of Il Libro Dell’arte highly enough for anyone who wants to learn more about Cennini’s work, or medieval art in general.

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