January 17, 2007

Preparing to Draw

How you Begin Drawing On A Little Panel; And The System For It.

As has been said, you begin with drawing. You ought to have the most elementary system, so as to be able to start drawing. First take a little boxwood panel, nine inches wide in each direction; all smooth and clean, that is, washed with clear water; rubbed and smoothed down with cuttle such as the goldsmiths use for casting. And when this little panel is thoroughly dry, take enough bone, ground diligently for two hours, to serve the purpose; and the finer it is, the better. Scrape it up afterward, take it and keep it wrapped up in a paper, dry. And when you need some for priming this little panel, take less than half a bean of this bone, or even less. And stir this bone up with saliva. Spread it all over the little panel with your fingers; and, before it gets dry, hold the little panel in your left hand, and tap over the panel with the finger tip of your right hand until you see that it is quite dry. And it will get coated with bone as evenly in one place as in another.

My questions:
Where do I find a boxwood panel?

What's cuttle? I think this must be cuttlebone, the same stuff they feed canaries. It can also be ground into powder for polish. That makes sense in this context.

"Enough bone"? What kind of bone? Cuttlebone? See below

Am I strong enough to grind bone "diligently for two hours"?

Cennino answers the bone question himself just a bit further on:

Silver-Point Drawing - What kind of Bone is Good For Treating the Panels

You must know what bone is good. Take bone from the second joints and wings of fowls, or of a capon, and the older the are the better. Just as you find them under the dining-table, put them in the fire; and when you see that they have turned whiter than ashes, draw them out, and grind them well in the porphyry; and use it as I say above. The thigh bone of a gelded lamb is good, too, and the shoulder, calcined in the way described.

Chicken wing bones. Easy enough. But of course his answer raises a few more questions, not to mention a wonder at state of the 14th century dining room floor.

What's a porphyry? According to the dictionary it's a very hard, igneous rock with crystals in it. I am going to venture that this is what his mortar and pestle were made of.

How does one throw bones on a fire in a modern Tokyo apartment? I'm thinking the Weber grill must be about the only fire I'm going to get. I'm certain Tod will be happy to cook some lamb while I burn my chicken bones.

Cennino also mentions some other kinds of panels.

How To Draw On Several Kinds of Panels.

For that purpose, a little panel of old fig wood is good; and also certain tablets which tradesmen use, which consist of sheep parchment gessoed and coated with white lead in oil, following the treatment with bone according to the system described.

So I guess I don't necessarily have to find boxwood panels if I can find fig wood ones instead. Or I can make some gessoed, lead-coated sheep parchment. I think I'll stick with boxwood.

I realise now that not only do I have to translate from 14th century to 21st century, but I'm also going to learn a lot of Japanese so that I can explain to shopkeepers just what I'm doing and why I need esoteric chemicals and animal skins.

cuttlebone イカの甲
boxwood ツゲ材
sheepskin parchment 羊皮紙
mortar and pestle すり鉢とすりこ木
white lead (lead carbonate) 炭酸鉛

January 18, 2007

Boxwood Blues

Armed with the word for boxwood in Japanese, tsugezai, I started doing some research on the Internet to see if there was a convenient place to buy some panels to draw on. Shogi tiles are made of boxwood, as are traditional wooden combs, so I figured it might not be too hard to locate. But nothing on the web pointed to a lumber yard selling boxwood planks.

So I went off to Tokyu Hands, the popular and vast DIY/art supply/trendy homeware store. They seem to have everything you could ever want, until you want something specific. I poked around the exotic woods section for a while before asking someone about tsugezai. He led me over to a small heap of mug-sized logs. Tsugezai, but not in the format I needed. Still, it gave me a chance to see and feel it.

Boxwood is very dense. It is fine grained, heavy and almost waxy along its cut edge. What could substitute for that? I decided to buy a variety of small wood planks marketed as "postcards" until I can get my hands on some proper boxwood.

Walnut is dark wood with a fine grain. It feels quite smooth and I when I press a thumbnail hard across it, it makes only a slight indentation in the wood.

Oregon pine has a large uneven grain, almost lumpy. It dents easily when I run a thumbnail across it. Not suitable for drawing, I think.

Japanese cherry, sakura, is commonly used for carving woodblock prints. It is finely grained, heavier than any of the other woods I have and does not impress easily with a thumbnail. I think this one will work best, so I bought a larger piece of it as well.

Elm, called nire in Japanese, alternates narrow bands of hard and soft woods. Even milled, it's a bit rough to the touch and rather soft.

Japanese horse chestnut, tochi, is very pale with a fine grain the has a watered silk-like pattern. It does not pass the thumbnail test - too soft to draw on.

I will continue to look for boxwood, but in the meantime, will begin to prepare the sakura and walnut boards by watering and polishing them with cuttlebone powder.

January 19, 2007

Cuttle polishing

Wow, that really works. Cuttlebone is 14th century sandpaper.

I found a cuttlebone at the pet store. I don't know that you can get them anywhere else and though I had a look around the jewelry making supplies at Tokyu Hands, I didn't try anywhere else. 21st century pet parakeets around the world keep the cuttlebone industry alive and well. That's good enough for me.

I also purchased a ceramic mortar and pestle so that I could grind the cuttlebone into powder. As it turns out, that was unnecessary. Jim explained how he used cuttlebone when he did antique paper restoration (I have a friend who has done paper restoration, wow), just peeling off the hard shell and rubbing the softer inside part against the paper.

I decided to try it both ways.

Ground cuttlebone

I broke off a bit of the cuttlebone and crushed it up in the mortar, then ground it for about 5 minutes to produce the powder pictured above. I sprinkled it on the sakura board and rubbed it in with a piece of unbleached muslin. It worked pretty well, especially when I took a teaspoon of the powder, wrapped it in the cloth and used that against the board.

Cuttle polishing directly on the board

But Jim's method worked better and it was easier since I didn't need to grind the cuttle first. After going over it thoroughly with the cuttle and producing a lot of dust, I used my powder-filled cloth to continue the polishing.

I discovered (maybe re-discovered is truer) that I am impatient with the work, so I put on some old pop music and sanded the big board for a full two songs. Then I dusted everything off with a clean rag and went to rinse the boards clean.

Cennino says

...smooth and clean, that is, washed with clear water; rubbed and smoothed down with cuttle such as the goldsmiths use for casting. And when this little panel is thoroughly dry...

I didn't wash the boards first, because I assumed that modern milling and distribution practices are pretty clean and tidy. Tokyu Hands is not full of sawdust. But I should not think I know better than my master. When I washed the boards after polishing, all of them but the walnut raised up their grain and became rough and scratchy. Maybe boxwood would behave differently. Regardless, now they are drying in the chilly, dry winter day. When they are dry, I will polish them again and simply do a very good job of dusting off the excess powder, instead of washing them clean.

I had chicken wings for lunch today just so I could get some bones. Yesterday my friend Maeda-san at Amorosso gave me some lamb rib bones (not the thigh or shoulder bone that Cennino recommends and who knows if the lamb was gelded, but I'll try the ribs and see how they go) Tonight I will fire up the BBQ and toss my chicken and lamb bones into the coals and see if I can get them to turn "whiter than ashes."

January 21, 2007


I entered the realm of alchemy when I tossed the chicken and lamb bones into the hot coals in the Weber grill on Friday night. First there was a huge amount of flame as the meat and fat burned off. We stood back and watched (so did one of our neighbors). "That a lot of calories," Tod commented.

Heating the bones

After the fire settled down, we watched the bones turn from charred black to white as they heated up and burned away everything but their calcium. This is called calcination. It's one of the 12 vital processes alchemists used to transmute substances.

Calcium shells of chicken and lamb

After about half an hour or so, the bones were "whiter than ash" and I drew them from the fire. They were lightweight, brittle and chalky. They cooled very quickly; when I photographed them less than five minutes after taking them out of the coals, they were room temperature.

I can understand why alchemists were impressed with calcination.

January 23, 2007

Grinding Dem Bones

First crunch. They were so brittle that they broke up quite quickly under the pestle.

Now I answer my earlier question " Am I strong enough to grind bone 'diligently for two hours'?"

Yes, I am, but after about 45 minutes of diligent grinding, my arm gets tired. So I broke the task up and spent a couple of days grinding first the calcined chicken bones, and then the lamb rib bones in a second batch. Four hours of diligent grinding in total.

Powdered chicken bone ready for storage in an origami folded packet

The chicken bones came out somewhat cakier - just a tiny bit more moisture in the bones, I guess - and a bit greyer from some soot on the bone ends. The lamb bones were somewhat crispier and a little bit harder to grind smooth. Even after two hours of grinding, they weren't quite as perfectly powdery as the chicken bones. Probably if I'd followed Cennino's instruction to use lamb thigh or shoulder bones, it would have worked better. Always do what the master says...

Grinding is tedious, but it gives me a chance to listen to audio books or watch crap on YouTube. I'd better get accustomed to the task because I've read ahead in the book and I know that I will be doing a lot of grinding in the upcoming months.

January 25, 2007

Priming the Boards

The problem with being an apprentice to a man who has been dead for hundreds of years is that he's not here to watch over and give advice. I tried to prime the boards with the ground bone yesterday, but something's not right.

...take less than half a bean of bone, or even less. And stir this bone up with saliva. Spread it all over the panel with your fingers and before it gets dry, hold the little panel in your left hand and tap over the panel with the finger tip of your right hand until you see that it is quite dry. And it will get coated with bone as evenly in one place as another.

So there were my instructions. I decided a "bean" should be about the size of a fava bean since I know those are popular Italian beans. Half a fava is about a lima, I reckoned. So with a lima's worth of lamb bone, I worked up a good bit of spit and mixed.

A splotchy smear of bone-and-spit

The mixture was uneven and difficult to apply smoothly. If I went over it twice with my fingers, it smeared around and left streaks. It seemed terribly transparent, too. By the time I'd gotten the board covered in bone, half a minute or so, the board was already semi-dry.

Holding it and tapping didn't seem to do anything, really. I tried holding it vertically and tapping on the surface with my finger. That succeeded in tapping fingerprints into the prime. I tried holding it horizontally and tapping the edge and bottom surfaces. That did make one largish crumble flake off and skitter over the board, but not exactly "evenly in one place as another." I wondered if he meant a motion more like greasing and flouring a cake pan, but that also didn't have much effect.

Daunted, I gave it a break and let it dry. The primer became more opaque, but it also felt sort of slippery and easily brushed off the surface of the sakura board, especially in the areas that were more thickly applied.

I gave the other two boards a coating of chicken bone mixture with not much more success.

Drying boards and grungy fingers

The walnut board, which is the smoothest one, produced the most satisfactory but even it seems too transparent and fragile a surface to draw on. The two sakura boards are so uneven and lumpy that I will brush them down and try again. Maybe a second coat on top of a thin first coat will be an improvement.

It makes me wonder where I've gone wrong: wrong wood? Are the bones not calcined or ground correctly? Too much spit? Not enough? Is my 21st century saliva too different from Cennino's?

If he were here, he'd look at my mistakes, show me what to do, and I'd be on my merry way. As it is, I'll search for online resources on silverpoint drawing (for this is where the preparation of the little panel leads next) and hope that I twig to some great insight soon.

February 05, 2007

Starting to Draw

Now I am past the panel preparation into the drawing. My three panels made with bone and spit are definitely not as fine as ones I could have made with purchased silverpoint medium. I'm sure they are not good at all. But after many coats, rubbings and recoatings, I think this is the best I'm going to get.

Later in the book, Cennino gives recipes for more permanent gessos. I hope they work better than this one did. It's tempting to buy some modern silverpoint gesso just to compare, but maybe another time. I really want to focus on what the master is trying to teach me.

So what do I do with these prepared panels? I draw on them.

How You Should Start Drawing with a Style, and by What Light

Take a style of silver, or brass, or anything else, provided the ends be of silver, fairly slender, smooth, and handsome. Then, using a model, start to copy the easiest possible subjects, to get your hand in; and run the style over the little panel so lightly that you can hardly make out what you first start to do; strengthening your strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows. And the darker you want to make the shadows in the accents, the more times you go back to them; and so, conversely, go back over the reliefs only a few times.

Let the helm and steersman of this power to see be the light of the sun, the light of your eye, and your own hand; for without these three things nothing can be done systematically. But arrange to have the light diffused when you are drawing; and have the sun fall on your left side. And with that system set yourself to practice drawing, drawing only a little each day, so that you may not come to lose your taste for it, or get tired of it.


I made myself a silver style from a 1.8mm silver wire (normally used for jewelry-making) and a thin brass rod. (Both purchased at the indispensable Tokyu Hands) The wire was exactly the size the opening of the rod, so by turning gently, I fit it in snugly. I used a file to make a slightly pointed end. I've read elsewhere that sandpaper is good for sharpening, so I'll try that next time I need to repoint the silver.

It's a very slender stylus, perhaps too slender for sustained drawing, so I will see how it goes and fashion a thicker grip of leather or paper if I need to.

I have not yet been drawing every day, even "only a little," but I did try making some marks on the walnut board. Here's the tiny sketch I did of the plant in the living room:


I need to practice every day to get my drawing skills back up to snuff. I have a long way to go in this apprenticeship. Here's an example of an early Renaissance metalpoint drawing (on paper with gouache highlights) by Filippino Lippi.

Standing Youth with Hands Behind His Back, and a Seated Youth Reading. From

No contest. I'd better stop writing now and pick up the style for a while.