Inky Experiments

Inky Experiments 3: Shading the Underdrawing

This post is part of a series of practical experiments regarding marking under drawings for embroidery. An introduction to this project can be found here.

Practical Experiment: Shaded Underdrawing

After completing these experiments I had further questions: 

  • How easy is it to use this ink over prick and pounce markings? 
  • How does solid Gum Arabic compare to the modern liquified variety? 
  • How easy does this ink shade as described in Cennini’s writing? 

Therefore I decided to perform another experiment putting what we have learned in this research together. 


  • Pattern image 
  • Large pointed needle, think needle point, crewel or chenille sized.
  • A few inches of wool rolled up into a ball
  • Powdered charcoal 
  • Two containers, one for ink and one for water 
  • Brush or quill pen 
  • Gum Arabic (I purchased the edible crystal variety from amazon) 
  • Mortar and pestle to crush the gum into a fine powder

I prepared an image and applied the prick and pounce method to transfer the image to some linen fabric. To do so, I printed the image onto printer paper (rather than drawing it onto parchment) and pricked the paper using a larger needle. I timed this process and it took about 10 minutes. 

The Image after pricking as seen on the reverse

Then I carefully stretched my fabric on an embroidery hoop, and placed my paper on top. A square or rectangular slate frame would have been used in this period, and users of a hoop should give special care to straightening the grain of the fabric in the hoop. I then applied powdered charcoal using a rolled up piece of wool (rather than a pouncing bag). 

Next, I measured about a tablespoon of the Gum Arabic into my mortar and pestle and crushed it into a fine powder.

I put this powder into a tupperware container and mixed it with water. I stirred this with the other end of my paint brush until the gum dissolved. It was a little gooey and required more water than I initially thought to dissolve. Then I added powdered vine charcoal to the mixture and gave the mixture a good shake. 

Satisfied with the consistency, I began painting, connecting the lines of the prick and pounce dots. 

The ink created deep dark lines. I had to wipe excess ink off my paint brush continually to maintain fineness in my lines. A pen would have created even finer lines than these. You can see in this image that the ink soaked the fabric in a few places (around her neck is one). But the ink did not bleed from where I placed my paint brush. 

Shading the Underdrawing 

One of the most difficult parts to understand of Cennini’s explanation of painting for embroidery, is his explanation of the shading on the underdrawing. He writes: 

“Then brush away the charcoal, then take a well-washed sponge with the water squeezed out. Rub the linen on the opposite side from the drawing, and use the sponge just so much that the linen (cloth) is wetted as much as the drawing will bear. Then take a small soft minever brush, dip it in the ink, squeeze it well, and with this begin to shade in the darkest places, lightening and softening little by little. You will find that however coarse the cloth may be, in this way the shadows will be so softened that it will seem a marvel to you. And if the cloth should dry before you have shaded enough, wet it over again with the sponge as usual, and this is sufficient for working on cloth.” (Cennini Chapter 164).

Cennini Chapter 164

Generally when I embroider I work from a line drawing, but Cennini is saying the drawing should be shaded to act as a guide for the shades of the floss. If you have ever made an opus anglicanum style embroidery with multiple shades of floss, you might know how exhausting it is to keep looking back at your reference photo or drawing to create the right shadows. With this technique, you paint them on, and thus no longer need a reference! 

I wet the fabric with a sponge and followed Cennini’s directions by painting in the shadows on the reverse side of the fabric. I layered them slowly and mixed my ink with the water to create varying depth of shadows. 

The result when you turn your fabric over is extraordinary. You are left with sharp lines from your initial drawing, and soft shadows where you use the ink to shade. Notably, the shadows dried much lighter than they are when wet. I also wonder if these shadows would always have been painted in black or brown tones. Christ Carrying the Cross embroidery and similar pieces such as The Adoration of the Magi from the late 14th Century include underdrawings, in a brownish sepia tone. The silk stitches cover It is certainly possible the “ink” Cennini referred to was colored giving the stitcher a fantastic underdrawing to work from. 


This experiment has taught a variety of lessons. The first of which is that drafting an underdrawing for an embroidery using historical methods may be done by the modern embroiderer with relative ease. Additionally, traditional techniques, such as Cennini’s water shading method can be used not only to achieve additional historical accuracy, but to create a more detailed underdrawing, thus speeding up the embroidery process later on.

The other lesson is that regardless of what method you chose to use to apply or transfer a design to your embroidery fabric, remember that medieval embroiderers most likely didn’t do any of it at all, but instead outsourced this work to their nearest painter or draftsmen.

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