Work in Progress: Holbein’s Drawing Processes

Victoria Button, PhD Student V&A / Royal College of Art Conservation (AHRC Doctoral Award Student)

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)

My research project involves a systematic examination of Holbein’s portrait drawings that relate to extant Holbein paintings and miniatures. The emphasis is on the function of the drawings, explored through his choice of materials and techniques.  A variety of questions are asked, for example: What information is held in the drawings that informs the method of transfer to oil or miniature and what could these methods have been? Does the function of the drawing help to dictate the processes and materials of production and in turn, how do they affect the appearance of his drawings? Is there a link between his drawing techniques and use of materials and his painting and miniature techniques?

For this workshop, just three aspects of the drawings were highlighted which reflected some initial findings to date: the rendering of the flesh tones; what appears to be his use of red chalk as the initial drawing media for facial features, and, finally, the as yet unresolved and most complex of the issues, the contouring, incorporating transfer. These three aspects were explored through four portrait drawings from the Royal Collection at Windsor: William Warham; Sir Thomas More; Richard Southwell and Elizabeth, Lady Audley - all of which correspond to extant paintings and a miniature by Holbein. 


Holbein’s portrait drawings are executed on both unprimed and primed papers. The application of the flesh tones on these types of paper can differ. The flesh tones on his unprimed papers – as seen in Warham and More - appear to be stumped chalks and or washes on their faces and necks. The presence of vermillion in Warham’s flesh tone may imply that it was applied as a wash and then built up with chalks for the modelling. Thomas More, on the other hand, has his flesh tones rendered in dry media only, again isolated within the contours of his face.

During Holbein’s second stay in England (1532-43), he primed the papers in a pink hue; this served more than one purpose – covering the entire surface of the paper it was time saving, giving a ready-made foundation for the flesh tone on which to model the features; it also makes the use of metalpoint an option, giving the media an appropriate surface on which to make a mark. Southwell and Lady Audley are examples of his use of pink primed paper.


Holbein’s predominant use of red chalk for the outlining, as well as the more subtle modelling of facial features, emerged as a key technique apparent in all the drawings examined to date. For example, red chalk is the first in the sequence of media in all four sitters’ eyes. It is not just present as underdrawing on which other media is laid, but serves also to define, model and give fleshiness to the finished eye. 


The function of contours in Holbein’s portrait drawings, along with their link to transfer, is often debated. Uncertainty in the literature relating to these contours is in part due to a lack of definition or clarification of what is being described but also the result of difficulties in deciphering the sequence of media. The contours have been described as having been reinforced with metalpoint and others in ink. Some of these so called ‘later additions’ are often considered not to have been executed by Holbein.  

In an attempt to clarify this issue, it helps to consider the contouring in Holbein’s portrait drawings in multiple ways. First there is the contour itself and the shape it defines. Then there is the issue of the make-up of those contours and how they have been affected – for example, have they been affected by the means of transfer (i.e.: metalpoint; a stylus of some kind or pricking); or by the action of reinforcement, which may not have anything to do with transfer – or indeed a combination of these things. Investigating the materials and techniques and trying to decipher the sequencing of these contours will eventually untangle these issues.  

Since contouring can include evidence of transfer, a definition of what that evidence may be is important. Obvious signs would be pinpricks for pouncing, less obvious though are the indentations that trace over the contours, and distinguishing between the use of metalpoint as a means of transfer or just as a means of drawing is problematic. There is little doubt that the contouring is significant – not only does it serve to work towards capturing likeness but it is key in providing the salient lines of that likeness for the potential transfer of that drawing. This talk addressed the differences in the contouring of these four Holbein drawings and what this tells us about the artistic process. 

In conclusion, my initial findings show a wide variety of drawing materials and the breadth of Holbein’s differing techniques. Further investigation will hopefully clarify some of Holbein’s approaches. The next phase of my project will build on scientific analysis and ongoing examination of the drawings to inform reconstruction, which in turn, may provide further insight into Holbein’s materials and techniques.

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