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Drawing with White Chalk on Black Paper in the Style of Caravaggio

In everyday practice, many artists are most familiar with building values with dark pencils on white or light toned papers when they draw. In this video tutorial, senior instructor Fernando Freitas demonstrates how to work in reverse, building lightness and form using white chalk pencils on black paper.

This approach is similar to what is used in many of Caravaggio’s paintings, where he might have painted with lead white to build form before applying colour. Caravaggio is known for intense chiaroscuro, illuminating his subjects with strong dramatic lighting. This demonstration emulates Caravaggio, using an arm from “David and Goliath” as a reference.

You will need:
• White chalk pencils
• Black paper
• A white eraser
• A kneaded eraser
• Soft-haired and bristle brushes

Let’s get started!



Hey guys, it’s me again, Fernando Freitas, senior instructor at the Academy of Realist Art. I thought today, we’d have a little fun by playing with white chalk on black paper. Now, most of us draw on either white, completely white paper, or maybe some toned papers, working with chalks like charcoal or carbon or graphite and building our values darker and darker to create the illusion of form. So today, I thought we’d reverse that and we’d start off with the pure black paper and only work with white chalk, building our values using just the chalk.

This will be a lot of fun. It’ll also be similar to the approach of how Caravaggio would have worked his paintings and how he would have done his under-drawing. So with this, you’ll see a similarity between Caravaggio’s method in terms of building his lights. For that reason, we’re going to actually use one of Caravaggio’s paintings and we’re going to take a specific body part. We’re going to look at an arm of David from “David and Goliath” and we’re going to render that arm in this segment.

Alright, so what we’re doing here is we’re just blocking in our shape. We’re looking at the light shape of the arm, using the scapula area to the back of the neck, coming down to the elbow. And I’m looking at proportion already, I’m looking at the direction of the arm. And I’m just looking at a light shape. I’m not worried about any other part of the drawing. We’re using nice, flat, squaring lines, looking for the main high points that will shape the light shape of the arm.

Now gently what you want to do, working with the white chalk off the black paper, is start very lightly. You’re working in reverse in a way. If you think about how you work with graphite or carbon or charcoal on a white piece of paper, you would be building your values darker and darker. So here, to get the darker values, you work very lightly at first, and then as the form begins to turn and get lighter, you would build up with a heavier or denser application of your white chalk. Working with tools like a soft-haired brush or bristle brushes, you can work with a stomp. Obviously you’re going to need your kneaded eraser, even your white eraser. You’re able to manipulate the powder. So if you’ve gone too heavy too quickly, your soft-haired brush, for example, can lighten, can remove some of the white powder so that you get back to a darker value. So think of the big form first.

So up in the shoulder area, I’m looking at that whole section as one big form. I can already apply where I think it’s going to get lightest, so I’ve built up a nice highlight where the form is going to get lightest. But I’m really working how that form is turning, how it’s caressing, how it travels from lighter to darker. Little by little I will keep adding more white chalk to get the volume to swell, to engorge itself and get more volumed. And I’m carefully going around and checking my shapes, making adjustments to the detailing of the shape, to the articulation.

It’s just a fun way of taking what you might already have learned from working on white paper, or even a light toned paper. You’re really just working with the white chalk to create the same effect, but in reverse in a way: working off a black sheet of paper. Look at how hard or how soft your transitions are: the form shadow, the contained shadow, you want to look at how the core shadow edge travels over the surface of the form. By giving it more articulation, you are describing the form a little bit more, so don’t just rely on the shading to create the volume of the form. Describe the contour of the arm as accurately as you can, describe the bedbug line, or the terminator edge or the core shadow edge, as well as you can.

And then you can start building some smaller forms as we’re doing. We’re looking at the deltoid form, we’re looking at the tricep, the bicep, we’re looking at the muscles of the forearm, and moving our way down to the hand. Again I lay in very lightly, I bring in my brush, get the powder to grab onto the paper and see how light that becomes. And then I decide on how much more white powder or white chalk to build up to give myself a feeling of the knuckles and the fingers and the digits, the wrist bone. And it’s a great way of just having a little fun with this reverse idea.

You can than apply this to portraiture. You can apply this to anything. But we just thought that by using Caravaggio, an image of Caravaggio here, which he works in the chiaroscuro, he has that very strong dramatic lighting, taking one of the light shapes from a Caravaggio painting really gives you that same sense of how he might have painted with lead white and impastoed thinly to thickly to rehearse his forms on his paintings. And then he would have worked with glazes to add colour.

Alright, so I hope this is giving you an idea of how to play with what you’re learning from things like we do here at the school – like from the Bargue plates. Drawing the bargue plates helps us understand our shapes, our values, our forms. And now, we’re taking that information and reversing it where we’re using white chalk on black paper and having some fun with it. So, you can see we’ve really developed up on the top and — we’re just going to continue and keep working down. But you can see the effect of what’s happening and how you are able to create the illusion of form using just your white chalk on black paper and playing with the thickness and thinness of it.

So, do visit our website at Look for our instructional DVDs – “Drawing the Figure” and “Bargue Drawing Companion.” For those of you who are really learning how to first do all of this, I recommend the “Bargue Brawing Companion” DVD which will take you through learning your values, your edges, your shapes. And hopefully, you’ll join me again next time.