Did Michelangelo have an eraser?

As an artist, I depend on my erasers — sometimes to correct mistakes and sometimes to remove preliminary pencil lines after I have finished the piece.

Plus, I also use a soft eraser (like a kneaded eraser) to lift out areas in a drawing for a highlight — like the white triangle on the cheek in my drawing below.

Isabella, a friend in Italy. By Jane M. Mason (C) Charcoal and graphite on paper.
Isabella, a friend in Italy. By Jane M. Mason (C) Charcoal and graphite on paper.

As I was working the other day, I started sorting my collection of erasers...

Erasers pictured include: top center, Pink Pearl-style eraser; lower right corner, white plastic erasers; lower center, kneadable erasers; upper left, my rarely used Art Gum erasers — they just crumble and leave too much residue.
Erasers pictured include: top center, Pink Pearl-style eraser; lower right corner, white plastic erasers; lower center, kneadable erasers; upper left, my rarely used Art Gum erasers — they just crumble and leave too much residue.

And, while thinking about great artists who created great drawings, I wondered if Michelangelo and other artists in his era had erasers.

Generally, you only bother with erasing on work that is finished or something that you will be showing to someone else. Otherwise, why bother?

Michelangelo was known to be extremely suspicious of other artists and paranoid of everyone, really. He guarded his work doggedly for fear of being plagiarized or having his ideas spilled out before he was willing to share them. He didn’t even let the Pope see his progress on the Sistine Chapel during the four years he worked on it.

I know he burned many of his drawings, in part, presumably to protect his inspirations from prying eyes. But did he ever erase any of his "works on paper" — as drawings are known in the museum world?

During Michelangelo’s life (1475 - 1564), paper had been available for artists in Europe for hundreds of years. Fabriano, a paper company that still produces paper, was founded in Italy in 1264.

The cover of a block of paper I used for watercolor painting from the Fabriano mill in Italy.
The cover of a block of paper I used for watercolor painting from the Fabriano mill in Italy.

Through the centuries, Fabriano and other mills tried various fibers, like old ropes and nets, and settled on using cotton rags for paper pulp. Fabriano mechanized the grinding and shredding of rags to improve the process of creating the slurry for paper.

By the 15th and 16th Century — Michelangelo's lifetime — paper was still precious and valued highly. But it was within the budget of many artists, particularly those with wealthy patrons, such as Michelangelo.

According to Fabriano, Michelangelo used its paper for some of his work. And he created a lot of work on paper. Although we tend to think of Michelangelo as a sculptor and painter, the bulk of his work was his drawings. He is said to have created 20,000 drawings.

This number is an estimate, because, as I mentioned, he burned much of his work. He burned some of his work when he left Rome to return to Florence after Pope Julius died. When he moved back to Rome (about 1530), and at the end of his life, he burned work in his studio in Rome. These are just a couple of the burnings I am aware of.

But other than burning drawings, did Michelangelo ever correct any drawings by erasing?

For many centuries, they did have a technique for erasing. Until the 18th Century, wads of fresh bread were used to erase marks. The clumps of bread were balled up, moistened, and pressed onto pencil marks to lift them off.

You may remember a recent discussion about another artist using bread in his painting. That was in my post about JMW Turner "Turner sometimes used a hunk a bread he was eating to swipe it across the paper and lift some paint on his canvas or paper." I concluded in that post that his use of this technique was for smearing the paint or lifting the paint. But perhaps, he too was using bread to erase pencil marks.

A hunk of bread. When wadded up, the soft center may have been used as an eraser. The whole hunk could be used to absorb excess paint.
A hunk of bread. When wadded up, the soft center may have been used as an eraser. The whole hunk could be used to absorb excess paint.

These bread wads were easy to create since bread was easy to find. But they had a short shelf-life. They could quickly dry out and if too dry, they risked tearing the paper. Or they could get moldy, and risk transferring the mold to the paper. Or, given the state of hunger through the centuries, I presume sometimes they were eaten.

Michelangelo had these “wet-bread erasers” available to him, but did he use them?

I don’t know. But, I doubt it. Or if he did, I doubt if he used them often.

There are many preliminary and repetitive marks in his drawings. His drawings often were created from cadavers which he would more likely burn those drawings than have them fall into unintended hands. Cadaver use was a seedy business.

Also, he generally used male nude models since female models were much more difficult to acquire at this time. So his drawings for women were often originally based on a male nude (or a cadaver) and then morphed to look more female. Some of his drawings are somewhat midway in the process of becoming female, with male musculature and a female face or female breasts. I doubt if he felt confident having these composite drawings in the public. Again, why bother to erase marks; just burn the drawing! Obviously these drawings shown here exist in collections. They were not burned. I'm speaking theoretically about the type of drawing he may have burned.

Preliminary drawings for the Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel., Michelangelo.
Preliminary drawings for the Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo.

Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel.
Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel.

In the actual image of the Sibyl Libica (from the Sistine Chapel), you can see that her back is muscular but more like a strong woman than a man. The torso and hip are rounded, and the legs and toes are much prettier. She is a strong, important woman.

These sketched studies represent his thought process. I don’t think he planned for these to be seen by the public. That’s why I think he disposed of so much of his work. In his mind, these “preliminary” sketches would expose his flaws, his tentative lines, or, material he didn't want seen.

As an artist, when you review your rough, unfinished drawings, you often recall the muscle memory you used to create the “right” stroke. Not too much curve. Not too little. By seeing how you did it previously, your brain is reinforced with the execution of that line. Even if the rest of the page is of no use to save, that one precise, correct line may the perfect reminder.

Rather than erasing anything, I think he kept his older drawings for reference and for muscle memory.

That is…until he burned so many of them.

Since we're steeped in erasers discussion here...now I'll bring you up to date on contemporary erasers

After the “wet bread model,” erasers were made from rubber.

In 1770, a British engineer, Edward Nairne, and an English chemist, Joseph Priestley, were instrumental in the creation of what Priestley named “rubber.” It formed what we in the United States know as an eraser.

His naming of the outflow product (the latex that was drained from trees) became the common name of the tree, the rubber tree.

The original manufactured rubber erasers were made from rubber and an abrasive. Pumice, or sometimes glass powder, was added to create a gritty texture for sanding away unwanted marks. Although, it’s not exclusively the abrasion that removes the mark, part of the process of erasing is that the stickiness of the eraser pulls the graphite or chalk off the paper.

Have a sudden urge to buy an eraser? LOL...My Eraser Recommendations

My favorite erasers are made of vinyl, or are kneadable erasers made from soft rubber. Both these styles do not suffer the flaws of previous erasers; they don’t crumble, they don’t leave shreds of residue on your paper, and they don’t get moldy...or get eaten.

Kneaded erasers are intended to be warmed in your hand and then stretched, like taffy, to be molded into the shape that is handiest for you. Often you shape it into a point to erase in a very small spot. You press the eraser to the spot and lift the graphite. An additional stretching and kneading hides the graphite inside the eraser and presents a new, clean surface on the eraser for your next erasing task.

Plastic or Vinyl Erasers erase cleanly and leave little residue. My favorite "general use" eraser.

Pink Pearl is my default recommendation for a traditional eraser that is inexpensive and works well. Today is is made of synthetic rubber, so perhaps a bit of a hybrid.

I've included my photo again so you can see the erasers. I do not use the cubes of Art Gum erasers because I find they don't erase well. They are crumbly, and they leave a big mess on the page. I don't know why I have so many of these!

Now, an appropriate quote about "erasing" from Golda Meir, Former Prime Minister of Israel.

“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”

— Golda Meir


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