clock menu more-arrow no yes

The secret to great Renaissance art: tracing

We take for granted that Renaissance artists drew their masterpieces freehand in a few strokes of genius. But the truth is they had tricks — including tracing.

Called "cartoons" by art historians (from the Italian word for a large sheet of paper) these sketches allowed them to create test versions that they could later imprint directly onto an artwork. We still have some Renaissance masters' first drafts today.

For example, take Raphael's classic fresco "The School of Athens." Use the slider below to alternate between the cartoon and the final iconic painting:

It's easy to assume these drawings were just studies for the final painting, but a new video by the Getty Museum makes the process clear enough for the layperson to understand. Artists actually used sketches to trace a drawing onto the painting itself. As the video describes, we know that this happened because infrared imagery has revealed them underneath works of art, along with old examples that have survived to the present. The process works similar to the carbon copies we use today.

An artist began with a drawing on paper. They then placed a sheet of paper covered with black chalk between it and the canvas and used a stylus to trace the drawing. The pressure transferred the black chalk onto the canvas.

The transfer process.

The transfer process.

Getty Museum

Cartoons weren't just common — they were even reused in different paintings. The same way Disney animators reused cel animation, Renaissance painters reused their cartoons. As the Getty Museum points out in the video, it's possible to spot the same drapery outline in several different paintings here:

A cartoon used three different times.

A cartoon used three different times.

Getty Museum

These sketches allowed for a basic structure that an artist or assistant could use — either as a straight copy or for an improvisation based on the original drawing.

Tracing was just one of the tools great artists used to create some of the world's classic paintings. They almost certainly used special reflective devices and curved mirrors to make more accurate drawings, as well.

To see more detail about the tracing process, check out the Getty Museum's full video:

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.