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Almost Invisible: The Cartoon Transfer Process

Infrared cameras now reveal concealed drawings under the surface of many of the Renaissance's most revered paintings. Learn how this radical drawing technique was done. Then visit the J. Paul Getty Museum between June 23, 2015 and September 13, 2015 to experience the companion exhibition, "Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action." For more information visit http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/del_sarto. Subscribe NOW to the Getty Museum channel: http://bit.ly/gettymuseumyoutube Love art? Follow us on Google+ to stay in touch: http://bit.ly/gettygoogleplus.

Video transcript

How did a Renaissance artist get from here to here? Artists in the Renaissance used a variety of drawing techniques to help create works like this elaborate panel painting. We know this because an infrared camera reveals extensive line drawings under layers of paint that set up the key compositional elements of the work. These deliberate traced lines are evidence of the cartoon transfer process widely used in the 15th and 16th centuries. How was it done? The artist begins with chalk or charcoal and a piece of paper. Since paper was only available in small sizes during the Renaissance, the full-scale drawn treatment, the cartoon, was made from multiple sheets of paper joined together. Next, the artist sketches out the composition on paper, adding as much or as little detail as desired in this stage of the process. By making a drawing first, the artist can refine the composition, which is much easier to correct in a sketch than in paint. One way the artist can transfer the drawing from paper to panel is by blackening the back of an intermediary sheet of paper with chalk. While many artists chose to blacken the back of the drawing itself, using an intermediary sheet of paper helped preserve the cartoon. To transfer the drawing, the artist gently places the intermediary sheet between the drawing and the panel. Using a stylus, the artist traces the main contours of the drawing, making a slight indentation in the cartoon as the black chalk on the back is transferred to the prepared surface of the panel, very much like an old-fashioned carbon copy. As the artist carefully readjusts the intermediary sheet, she checks to make sure the key lines transfer through. When the artist is finished, she has a compositional map of the subject ready to be painted. Cartoons were used when making tapestries or stained glass or frescoes whenever the artist found it useful to work from a visual guide. Cartoons were especially useful for intricate sections, like hands or drapery. As we look at the works of some artists, we see evidence that the same cartoon was used again and again. For example, the cartoon for this drapery was reused in at least three different paintings. Using the blackened intermediary sheet saved wear and tear on the original cartoon, allowing it to be saved for another work. Without using the sheet, the original cartoon was often damaged or destroyed during the transfer process. This is one of the reasons few cartoons survive today. In Renaissance workshops teeming with commissions and apprentices, the cartoon was a valuable stage in the creative process. While providing guidance, it still allowed artists to alter the work at the painting stage, especially important for an artist such as Andrea del Sarto, who constantly made changes to improve his compositions. And by the time the painting was finished, no one would know a drawing lay underneath, except by using an infrared camera 500 years later.