The Art of Silverpoint Drawing

Essay by Gerrit Verstraete AOCA, BFA, MA. MTD, DCA. 

University of Alberta, 2011.

Abstract: This essay comprises an artist’s view of silverpoint drawing in both traditional style and conceptual abstract style. Included are original classical and contemporary metalpoint drawings by Gerrit Verstraete as part of his research journey at the University of Alberta and beyond. This is a rare opportunity to examine “up close and personal” an art discipline that dates back to the 15th century, in a form that has survived into the 21st century, where communication and technology have made it possible to preserve and promote the art of silverpoint drawing.

Silverpoint is a drawing technique that was used extensively during the Renaissance, in the 15th Century, both as underdrawing in panel painting and as a medium for fine drawings. Masters such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, later to include Dürer and Rembrandt, developed this unique discipline into a finished art form as stand-alone drawings. Fine drawings were created on white or tinted grounds and were commonly highlighted with white watercolour applied with a brush.

To this day, silverpoint, or metalpoint as it is also known, remains a traditional but seldom used artist’s technique for fine drawings. Essentially, the technique is based on coated paper upon which the artist draws with a fine silver stylus. Metalpoint drawings are created with a stylus of copper, silver, brass, gold, and platinum. A contemporary metalpoint tool comprises a standard draftsman’s mechanical pencil. Instead of graphite “leads,” the artist inserts a metal wire of about 2mm in width into the mechanical pencil. Silver and gold are readily available from jewelry craftspeople.

For copper I use standard 2mm copper electrical wire stripped of its plastic coating. A fine metal file keeps the point relatively sharp, although too sharp a point may tear the paper. To coat the paper, Renaissance artists took bones (often from the dinner table) and calcified them by placing the bones in a hot fire until they were a powdery white. The white calcified bones were mixed with a glue medium, such as rabbit skin glue, and then coated on a paper or wood surface. As silverpoint drawing began, minute particles of silver were embedded in the surface leaving a grayish line. In turn these lines tarnished with time giving the drawing a mature look.

 Silver takes considerable time to tarnish, perhaps even years, whereas copper will tarnish in a month’s time. Gold does not tarnish. Silver tarnishes the lines into a brownish line and copper produces a yellow-green line. Platinum and gold are very expensive. Instead of calcified bones and rabbit skin glue, a contemporary surface material for silverpoint drawing is standard flat white latex acrylic primer paint or white Gesso (Black Gesso is also used). Tints can be added to white latex primer. Any paper of reasonable weight (Stonehenge 245 GSM is an excellent paper) is suitable for surface preparation for silverpoint work. Other commercially available surfaces include clay-coated Plike paper, clay board and primed masonite.

I have spent considerable time exploring various grounds for my silverpoint work. It appears that old formulae for grounds are not necessarily any better than new, modern grounds such as Gesso. I often use Gesso instead of flat white latex primer when I want to create a more complex texture for my ground to create mixed-media surfaces using such materials as silver enamel, gold dust, marble dust, and plaster of Paris. I will brush, splash, spatter, roll (under tracing paper), sand, press and burnish, the ground in a similar fashion to creating very contemporary surface paintings for experimentation beyond conventional boundaries.

The artist must possess a certain amount of confidence in his or her ability to draw because silverpoint lines cannot be erased. Neither is silverpoint a sketching medium. Instead, it is a fine drawing medium. Lines can be built up to create tonal values through hatching, contour lines, drifts, and other drawing techniques. The overall tone of an original silverpoint drawing is a light to medium grey. To strengthen some areas of the drawing, especially in form lines that contain the image, I will use limited graphite to increase the density of black. I must, however, be careful not to overpower silverpoint with graphite especially when my aim is to create a metalpoint drawing.

Silverpoint began to decline in the late sixteenth century as other drawing materials became more available and tastes changed. The advent of etching and engraving also spelled a demise for silverpoint work. By the seventeenth century there were few silverpoint drawings. There was some renewal of interest in the late nineteenth century, but its true revival belongs to the twentieth century. A revival of metalpoint drawing flourished in the United States dating back as early in the century as 1904. In Canada little work in silverpoint is created, at least to the extent that such work enjoys public appreciation and awareness. John Gould, one of Canada’s great drawing masters used silverpoint in his repertoire of drawing techniques.

 I began using silverpoint in the early nineties, inspired by the drawings of John Gould. The medium remains exacting yet very rewarding as somehow, the artist feels “connected” to the work of centuries ago. As I continue this journey of walking in the footsteps of masters, I feel particularly blessed to have begun to master this ancient yet every bit contemporary technique. One of the greatest satisfactions in exploring various grounds is the effect of graphite on silverpoint. The process is extremely sensuous as if I am drawing with butter on butter. The effect, especially in tonal areas, is a gradual strengthening of values that complements the silverpoint. If ever there is a unique way of viewing drawings, I appreciate silverpoint work by candlelight. The experience is truly unique.

Presently there is a small community of about 200 artists primarily in the USA and Europe, as well as a few silverpoint artist in Canada, who remain committed to preserving this ancient disciple. Some have taken the discipline outside conventional drawing techniques to develop uniquely personal styles of conceptual silver and metalpoint drawing. The journey continues….