Silverpoint is rarely used today except by a few persons who take an interest in traditional artists' materials, yet it was a favorite technique of the old masters. The disuse of silverpoint, after graphite sticks came into use during the 17th century, is one of the most curious details of technical art history. It is peculiar that an instrument once used by the most famous artists who ever drew on paper should have come to be neglected and despised by their successors and neglected so entirely that they lost the tradition of its use. Despite the modern tendency to revive the use of traditional art techniques, silverpoint is almost entirely neglected. Fortunately, this situation appears to be changing today.
The first part of a series on the traditional metalpoint technique and its contemporary use in fine art.
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, also known as Saint Luke Madonna, 1435, Rogier van der Weyden, Oil and tempera on panel, 137 x 111 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The neglect of silverpoint is regrettable because it has distinctive and valuable qualities of its own. It is a hard pencil that hardly wears down, does not break or require sharpening, and gives a dark grey line of the most intense clearness and subtlety. It is such a drawing instrument that a lover of perfection in form would naturally be tempted to select a fine stylus that literally and truly encourages refinement of style.
Silverpoint consists of a short length of silver wire sharpened so that it will make a fine line without piercing the paper. Set in a mechanical pencil holder, it resembles a drafting pencil, and the resemblance is not merely external, for the work done has similar though not identical qualities to it. The property of a drafting pencil is to make a line of uniform thickness. At first glance, this does not appear to be an advantage in fine arts. The graphite or charcoal pencil, with which a thin or a thick line, or a line thick at one place and thin at another, can be drawn by simply varying the degree of pressure or the angle by which it is held, is a more flexible tool than the silverpoint stylus. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to condemn this technique when great masters have used it. The techniques they used were often limited, yet the results were masterful.
Study of a Woman's Head, c. 1490, Leonardo da Vinci, Silverpoint on greenish prepared paper, 18.0 x 16.8 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
If the line drawn with the silver stylus were ragged and broken, if there were no telling whether it would draw to the end or stop midway like an ink pen sometimes does, if it were accidentally thick or thin—if, in short, it could not be relied upon by the artist, then silverpoint drawing would be a flawed technique and deserve the demise that has been its fate. It is unlikely that Raphael or Leonardo would have tolerated such a flawed technique, but as they found silverpoint reliable, they easily dealt with its uniform lines. We must remember, too, that the stylus can be made with differently shaped points and sharpened to varying degrees and that the artist can keep two or three different styluses if required. The common practice, however, seems to have been to draw with one point instead of a sharp one.
The primary objection to silverpoint is that silver does not mark paper. On unprepared paper, it leaves a mark useless for artistic purposes; but paper can easily be prepared as it was by the old masters, and when that is done, the marks of the point are a dark grey, equivalent in tone to a hard lead pencil.
A thin ground of opaque white is all the preparation needed for the paper. The white may be tinted with any color or used as is. The old masters prepared papers in many tints without an apparent color rationale.
Heads of the Virgin and Child, 1508-10 c., Raffaello Santi da Urbino, called Raphael, Silverpoint on pink prepared paper, 14.3 x 11.1 cm, British Museum, London.
It is not too difficult to tint paper, which provides the advantage of getting precisely the value and hues you like best and those most ideally suited to the intended drawing. The paper should be smooth and, if lightweight, stretched as if for watercolor painting, and the ground applied evenly with a wide soft-hair brush.
An advantage of tinted paper is the possible extended range of tonal values. The silver or metal lines appear darker over the tinted paper, and bright highlights can be introduced with white paint. The old masters often heightened the tonal value of the tinted paper with white. These harmonize best with the silverpoint lines when they are sharp and delicate and applied with the point of a small sable brush. White paint can be made with egg yolk, gum arabic, animal collagen, or casein. The old masters used lead white to heighten their drawings. These lines of lead white often turned black due to polluted air containing hydrogen sulfide. In the late 19th century, Philip Hamerton describes a drawing by Pietro Perugino of an angel leading a youth. "The drawing is in silverpoint on a greenish ground, and what were intended to be highlights in thin sharp touches of white are now black lines." This type of discoloration is reversible and has been restored in this drawing at the British Museum today.
Eliza, 2006, Koo Schadler, Silverpoint and egg tempera on blue toned gesso panel, 6 x 8 in, Collection of the Evansville Museum, Evansville, Indiana.
Today, artists have a vast selection of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and barium sulfate (barite or blanc fixe) as whites for heightening the value of tinted paper. Each white has its individual qualities, such as opacity, color temperature, specific gravity, etc. These pigments can be tempered with one of the mediums and brushed on with the fine point of a small brush.
In the next issue, we will discuss the preparation of toned grounds.
1. This drawing is in the collection of the British Museum, D. 1860-6-16-139. Hamerton, Philip Gilbert. The Graphic Arts. Little, Brown and Co., 1902. p. 126.
This article is adapted from The Graphic Arts by Philip Gilbert Hamerton.
Where to Buy
Silverpoint Drawing Kit
Silverpoint Drawing Kit has everything needed for silverpoint (and metalpoint) drawing. The kit includes 2 mm and 0.9 mm, metal holders (styli), two fine silver points, two copper points, two nickel-silver points (a total of six metal points), a copper wool pad, silverpoint ground, vinyl eraser, and step-by-step instructions, all in a wooden case.
Silverpoint and Metalpoint Supplies
Natural Pigments has all supplies for metalpoint drawing, including silver, sterling silver, aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, lead, nickel-silver, steel points, holders, gesso boards, grounds, and drawing aids.
For Toning Grounds
Natural Pigments introduces a new way of making traditional waterborne paint and grounds: Rublev Colours Aqueous Dispersions. Aqueous dispersions are pigments dispersed in water, ready to be mixed with water-based mediums. These dispersions are specially made for traditional painting mediums, such as egg, casein, fresco, watercolors, and distemper (glue tempera). They are also ideally suited for use with gesso for making toned grounds for drawing and painting.