Michelangelo, who is universally recognized as one of the greatest artists, regarded himself as primarily a sculptor. The peak of his early career, however, was the vast ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel, in which he depicted scenes from the Old Testament.
This is a preparatory drawing for the monumental nude youths who sit at the four corners of every other narrative scene in the fresco. It is one of a small group executed during the second phase of Michelangelo's work on the chapel ceiling (1511-1512), in which he used red chalk with a precision more typical of penwork. During the first phase, in 1508, Michelangelo had used traditional techniques: most often black chalk for loose figure studies and pen and brown ink for more finished drawings. In 1510 Michelangelo's patron, Pope Julius II, became engaged in war, and the ceiling project was discontinued until the following year. When work resumed, Michelangelo began the unusual practice of using red chalk for finished drawings instead of fine hatching in pen and brown ink, presumably after finding a supply of red chalk hard enough for such exact work.
In the Cleveland drawing Michelangelo first traced an earlier drawing to the sheet with black chalk and then drew the elaborate shading over it in red chalk, probably studying the subject from a wax or terracotta model. The precise function of the drawing was to provide a detailed image of the surface modeling to copy directly onto the wet plaster of the ceiling within the outlines that had been transferred from a full-sized cartoon.