Silverpoint: A Rare Art Form

Silverpoint, or Metalpoint, drawing (the two terms are often used interchangeably) is perhaps the most challenging of graphic techniques, and its practice is often limited to the work of specialists. However, it has been used to extraordinary expressive effect by some of the most famous and canonical artists in history.

As the name suggests, it is a medium that uses a thin stylus of a soft metal, most commonly silver mixed with copper – although gold, brass, and pure copper serve equally well. The pointed or round-ended tip of the stylus leaves no mark on a plain piece of paper, except to scratch its surface, but once the sheet has been given a preparatory ground, it will deposit a shiny metallic line. 

During the Renaissance, silverpoint was one of the most commonly used mediums for young apprentices to practise their drawing skills before they advanced on to oil painting. Today, however, it is an almost forgotten medium, with only few contemporary artists practising it.

They have the unique appearance of a unified surface. Subtle rendering effects can only be done in silverpoint. Each line is visible, making it suitable for detailed small to medium-sized drawings. It has drawbacks, it is an unforgiving media because silverpoint lines are very difficult to erase. This drawing method requires a great deal of discipline and craftsmanship, rendering takes time, and it can only be used on special grounds.

Silverpoint Stylus by Faber-Castell

History

In the late Gothic / early Renaissance era, silverpoint emerged as a fine line drawing technique. Silverpoint drawings of this era include model books and preparatory sheets for paintings, with artists including Jan van Eyck, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael working in this medium.

In The Craftsman’s Handbook (“Il Libro dell’Arte”), Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c.1360-1427) gives instructions to fine artists that the silverpoint technique should be mastered first before advancing to the medium of painting. As it requires much greater control and precision than any other drawing media, it became essential training for any draughtsman or artist.

Thus, there are many silverpoint drawings by well-known artists in their youth, for example, Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Age Thirteen (1484). This drawing is not only the first-known work by Dürer but also one of the earliest extant self-portraits in European Art.

Albrecht Dürer Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1484)

Goldsmiths, like Dürer’s father, also used metalpoint drawings to prepare their detailed and meticulous designs, and taught his young son to draw in this medium. It is believed that the self-portrait was set as a task by his father. Dürer’s inscription, “This I drew myself from a mirror in the year 1484, when I was a child.”

The use of silverpoint began to decline at the end of the 16th century for a number of reasons:

Rembrandt van Rijn Saskia in a Straw Hat (1633)
  • Discovery of graphite – pure, soft, erasable, and more available – in the 1500s
  • Changes in drawing styles – artists sought more gestural qualities in their works, and graphite, red and black chalk, and pen and ink washes were better suited for this purpose
  • Less effort required by other drawing media, and more forgiving in terms of making corrections
  • Labour-intensive work involved in the preparation of supports made it unpopular

Rembrandt, however, maintained the silverpoint tradition into the 17th century, and made several silverpoint drawings on prepared vellum, the best-known being the portrait of his wife Saskia in a Straw Hat (1633).

In the 19th century, there was a little revival of silverpoint drawing, but enough for Winsor & Newton to begin producing metalpoint kits.

Tools & Materials

Drawing Tools

The silverpoint technique has changed little since the time of the Old Masters. The artist uses a soft metal stylus which leaves small deposits or particles on a surface coated with a special ground. A traditional silverpoint stylus is made with a small fine rod of silver, such as jeweler’s wire, which is inserted into a wooden rod. Originally held in a wooden handle, today we use mechanical pencils.

Many soft metals and metal alloys are suitable for this technique, and each has its own unique characteristics and reacts in a different way to the ground and environment.

  • Silver … one of the most used. Favoured for its noble origins, purity of lines, permanence, and affordability. Grey tint lines that tarnish to a brown colour over time. Thin silver wire held in a mechanical pencil. Different tips for wider lines. Silver bullion coin.
  • Gold … Precious metal. Expensive. Lighter warm grey mark. Doesn’t tarnish over time. High permanence. Delicate lines and pleasant to draw with.
  • Copper … Pure copper has a reddish-orange colour. For metalpoint drawings, copper was often used as an alloy ingredient. Melted with silver with proportions of up to 20% copper, reducing the price of these expensive metals. Grey marks tarnishing to a yellowish-greenish tint.
  • Brass … is an alloy of copper with zinc. Cheap. Bronze screw. Any metal that can be used.
  • Nickel-Silver … Affordable. No silver despite its name. Alloy copper, nickel and zinc. White silvery appearance (also known as German Silver).
  • Lead … Ancient metal for writing and drawing. Very soft. Does not need a prepared ground and can be erased but blunts easily due to its softness. During the Old Masters’ time, lead was alloyed with other metals to produce styluses. However, lead is toxic and not advisable for use.
  • Pewter … Good alternative to lead. Made from tin and copper and therefore not toxic. It is soft which gives both advantage and disadvantage in metalpoint drawing. Can be used on most grounds. But becomes blunt much quicker than other metalpoints.

Supports

Metalpoint styluses will only leave marks on specially grounded supports. Some suppliers provide prefabricated grounds as well as ready-coated papers. Some supports include:

  • Wooden panels … bulky
  • Ceramic tiles … strong and tough but heavy and limited in size
  • Gesso panels … great support, but expensive
  • Paper boards
  • Paper … heavy duty paper, best support, many medieaval and Renaissance drawings done on paper
  • Vellum / Parchment … not cheap but will out-live paper

On paper, two to three coats of ground is sufficient to make silverpoint marks while keeping the paper flexible. Wood and gesso panels can take more coats but each coat must be allowed to dry completely before applying the next. Sandpaper every coat before applying the next to give a smooth surface.

Grounds

These grounds have to be a little bit abrasive so that the metal will rub off on it. In the time of the Old Masters, traditional metalpoint grounds were made with materials such as:

  • Bone dust
  • Eggshell and seashell powder
  • Lead white pigment

Today, artists use:

  • Premixed grounds (like Golden)
  • White chalk powder
  • White marble dust

Titanium white pigment can be added, as well as gum arabic to bind the ground. Gum arabic is the same as used in gouache and watercolour mediums. Other binders can also be used including shellac, animal or plant glues, and casein.

White gouache is a good choice, added with other colours to tint or tone the surface, for example: Ochre, Sepia, or Van Dyck Brown. Off-white or toned backgrounds have been used since the Old Masters, when they wanted to produce chiaroscuro or light effects. The toned background offered a mid-tone, with shadows in metalpoint and highlights in white paint, ususally white water-based paint. Tinted backgrounds made the drawing process more economical, by using the tone of the ground as a mid-tone, it saves time. In the past, dry pigments for oil or tempera paint were used. Now, artists tend to use gouache or watercolour paint.

Green, brown, grey and other colours are the most common colours used to tint the backgrounds. Dry pigments can be added to the white mix, like Terre Verte, Indigo, Vermillion, Ochre, and others.

Golden Silverpoint Drawing Ground Gesso

Preparing A Simple Ground

Ingredients

A relatively simple ground can be produced by mixing the following:

  • White designers gouache, which has gum arabic already present
  • White chalk powder, or Titanium White pigment or marble dust
  • Sepia or other gouache colour to tint
  • Some water

Step 1

In a small dish or tub, using a palette knife, mix up the white gouache paint, and any other colour tints you may want, with the chalk powder in this case, and some water.

Tools and materials for silverpoint ground

Step 2

Tape the paper to a board using masking tape, and then apply first coat evenly over the paper using a soft synthetic flat brush. Allow to dry fully.

Step 3

Using very fine sandpaper, gently smooth the dried first ground layer, and then apply a second coat. Allow to dry again, and repeat this process as many times as necessary. Two to three coats should be sufficient.

Applying the ground

Tips & Techniques

Silverpoint has encompassed a wide range of styles from Dürer’s curvilinear precision to Rembrandt’s gestural sketches. Silverpoint has also proven adaptable to modern styles. Old Master silverpoints are typically intimate in scale, recalling the technique’s roots in manuscript illumination. However, modern artists have also utiliSed this fine line technique for works on an increasingly large scale.

The initial marks of silverpoint appear grey as other metalpoints, but silverpoint lines, when exposed to air, tarnish to a warm brown tone. The oxidation becomes noticeable over a period of several months. The speed of oxidation varies according to the level of pollution in the air. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Rogier van der Weyden Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1435–40)

Start Gently

Go easy at first to get a feel for the paper’s response to the stylus. With practice, you will be able to feel how the point moves on the surface, and the unique feeling when the point is making its best line. With the cone-shaped end, you can rotate the point in your fingers as you draw, and this will help to maintain the shape for a very long period of time.

Erasing

Mistakes cannot be erased! However, marks can be removed by using a very small piece of sandpaper, which actually removes the mark along with a small amount of the ground. Try not to breathe the dust, as it contains zinc oxide and silver particles.

Experiment

Experiment with the points. The pure silver point rod has two usable ends, one cone shaped, the other beveled. An expressive line can be developed with the beveled end, as well as extremely fine ones; cross-hatching or tonal depth can be developed with the cone-shaped end. Discover through practice which end suits your drawing style. 

Tonal Blending

Using circular movements can work nicely. Great darks can be achieved either through an initially aggressive attack or through gradual build-up. Using a piece of soft leather such as a chamois or a piece of felt, you can do some blending, achieving rich and even skin tones for example. A paper blending stump also works, but tends to pick up silver and then deposit it somewhere else. The blending techniques work particularly well on smooth panels such as Masonite.

Use Stylus Like A Pencil

The traditional stylus point is typically used in the same manner as a hard pencil, using strokes or cross-hatching to develop tones, and lines to delineate shapes.

Sharpening The Point

Although the tip of the stylus will last for a very long time, it will wear over time, causing its shape to gradually change. You can reshape the point with fine wet or dry sandpaper. Remember that this drawing instrument is metal, and if the point is too sharp it will cut the ground, the paper, and even your fingers! You can reshape the thicker point to any angle desired, by rotating the stylus while dragging the point at an angle across sandpaper.

Leonardo da Vinci Studies of Hands (c. 1489–90)

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