The 600 year old drawing material is having a revival

Holly in silverpoint on paper

Metalpoint predates the graphite pencil and is simply the technique of drawing with metal, commonly silver or gold and referred to as silverpoint, goldpoint or metalpoint in gold. Other metals can be used such as titanium, copper and bronze. Gold and titanium will not tarnish, but the others will oxidise over time. Silver produces subtle brown/blue tones, and copper will turn green/blue. This oxidisation process is much loved and a drawing will become increasingly more beautiful over time.

The metal rod is housed in a stylus, much like a pencil lead, but metalpoint requires the drawing surface to have a ‘tooth’ whereas graphite does not.

The surface, usually paper or panel, was originally coated with a primer made from calcium carbonate mixed with rabbit skin glue, but today artists use any number of gesso grounds or primers, even watercolour can provide a reasonable surface and prepared surfaces specifically made for the use of silverpoint are available. As the stylus moves across this textured ground, it deposits miniscule particles of the metal and leaves a mark.

Silverpoint underdrawing

Metalpoint was common across northern Europe in the early 15th century. The fame of Netherlandish artists such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Gerard David spread quickly, and many young German artists travelled down the Rhine to learn in their workshops. Metalpoint was used for recording facial types, figure compositions and ornament designs until the mid-16th century.

The ultimate draughtsman of the German Renaissance, Dürer experimented throughout his career with every type of technique. His earliest recorded drawing is in metalpoint, a self-portrait made at the age of 13 which is now in the Albertina, Vienna, and his delicate silverpoints are among the most sensational ever produced. Some of these early drawings were enhanced with a white bodycolour to emphasise the sculptural quality of form. The ground was tinted with watercolour to give the artist a distinctive variety of brilliant colours, which was hugely appealing at the time as only white or blue papers were available.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) often used metalpoint, specifically silverpoint. It is most suitable for detailed and careful drawings as tones need to be built up with repeated marks. Metalpoint was a good method of training young apprentice artists as it required control and discipline and as it is very difficult to erase without damaging the surface of the ground, it encouraging good observational practice. Its popularity waned before experiencing a revival in the 19th century that continues to this day.

Silverpoint underdrawing

I was familiar with the technique and began to experiment with the medium and surfaces, firstly using small canvas boards, then primed watercolour paper and then tinting gesso with acrylic and applying it to the canvas boards as well as paper. I did multiple test drawings on each surface, not with the intention of producing a finished piece, but to make decisions about what I liked and how I could use it. I used the metals that were available to me, a gold ring and some silver jewellery wire. I loved the effects I was achieving and bought a silverpoint stylus tool, which is now one of my favourite drawing materials.

I left some of these drawings to tarnish but others had built up a very reflective silvery surface and I wanted to try and preserve this. The tarnishing of silver is quite a slow process so I had plenty of time to do some research. I used transparent layers of oil paint and thinners to gradually build up a tinted surface that worked with the underlying silverpoint drawing. The finished paintings are then varnished using archival quality materials.

I have found that whilst the reflective surface is reduced, some of the shine does show through the transparent glazes of oil and the tonal quality of the drawing isn’t reduced at all, unless obliterated by opaque glazes. I’m really enjoying the work I’ve produced so far and have more ideas that I want to try out.

Ethereal landscape in silverpoint and oil
Night Walks

The above pieces titled ‘Night Walks’ and ‘Mulgrave Woods’ were part of an exhibition hosted by Art D’morte and curated by Drawing In Dark, who you can follow on facebook. The theme for this exhibition was ‘Monsters’ and I explored this by thinking about the ethereal landscapes where monsters might live, which was a great opportunity to imagine all kinds of stories and phenomenon. ‘Night Walks’ sold recently and ‘Mulgrave Woods’ is currently available in my online shop.

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Thank you for reading.


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