Tuesday, 15 January 2013

French Chalk - and drawing on stone

It seems whenever I need a pencil, there is never one to hand.   Having something to draw with quickly available is important - as I'm working on a sculpture and carving a line, a curve, a shape, I'm constantly assessing it, adjusting it, making it as beautiful as possible and re-drawing it on the stone.  As soon as I've chiselled, the drawn line disappears, or sometimes it just gets covered in dust and I cannot see it.  I draw on the stone to guide me where I ought to be carving - sometimes I just know where the shape is, and in goes the chisel, but for the most part, I need the drawing help, and particularly where lots of lines and curves join, or meet or when I'm trying to achieve an overall rythm to the sculpture.

However many pencils I have, all I can find is blunt stubs!

So here I am, looking at the sculpture and judging, I see exactly what line the shape should take - and I need the pencil now to capture it, before it disappears from my mind's eye.  Those insights and clarity very quickly vanish, so it is critical to commit a mark to the stone immediately.

Box of French Chalk sticks

Without taking my eye off the stone, I need to reach for a pencil and draw.  But so often the pencil is blunt and won't draw, or I cannot find it.  Either way, in rummaging round to find a drawing implement, or sharpening one - the moment is lost.

In an attempt to solve the problem I have brightly coloured pencils (easy to see quickly), I buy in bulk and sharpen many at once.  Pencil lead soon blunts when drawing on stone.  I've tried chalk, in different colours for good contrast and different colours for different planes within the sculpture, but chalk wears faster than pencil, breaks easily, rubs off quickly and crushes when trodden on. 

Sticks of French Chalk

Many years ago I saw a mason mark a block at the quarry with what I thought was normal chalk, but it left a beautiful line, and I asked what he was using.  I learned it was French Chalk - at the time I had never heard of it - but I have subsequently learned it is one of the best tools for marking and drawing on stone.

French Chalk is actually stone itself - soapstone, or steatite.  (Soapstone is a metamorphic rock composed mainly of talc).  Crushed, as talc,  it is used in almost every conceivable manufacturing process, used by tailors for marking cloth, welders in metal-working, dry-cleaners for removing oil, and added to food stuffs as a glidant!  I think it is known as French Chalk as the largest talc mine is in Luzenac in Southern France.

The chalk sticks are transluscent, almost glowing, and silky to draw with.

It certainly creates a supremely smooth, almost waxy, soft but longlasting mark and is very pleasing to use.

I have sticks of it in all my coat, and trouser pockets (it survives the washing machine!) and placed on all surfaces close to my work bench for good measure, so as not to miss any tiny moments of insight.


  1. Lovely insight into something I have come across but hadn't known what it was exactly. I really admire how hard you work, and love to see all the amazing things you produce.
    We realised our visitor that killed the ducks and the young goose was a polecat. It's not much bigger the a ferret so really can squeeze though gaps.

    1. They are such able predators I'm afraid, and difficult to keep out as you say. Good luck with 'polecat proofing'. Thanks for lovely comments!

  2. I bought a box of those a few years ago, made for metal workers - it doesn't disappear through heat.

    If I am drawing on a claw-chiseled surface, I use a paint brush and earth colour. Tip: Beware of greens and blues - they can sink about half an inch into the stone, and if you're half an inch away from the finish, this can be a disaster.

    1. You're right Tom, when drawing on a chiseled surface is when the pencil lead breaks or wears quickest, interesting you use paint - I would be too afraid to due to the ingress - do you wait until it is dry - doesn't it just smudge everywhere? Useful tips, thanks!

  3. I love the tip. I've been working with stone most of my life and I have never come across it. Can't wait to get my hands on a piece of it.. Thank you!


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