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Drawing Lesson 35, Part 3 – Drawing the Human Body

Drawing the Human Body – Silverpoint Drawing by Old Masters

Video Lesson Description

In this video lesson you will discover the process of Drawing the Human Body in silverpoint.

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Drawing the Human Body in Silverpoint

The silverpoint media is not as widely used today for Drawing the Human Body as it was in Medieval and Renaissance times. In part because of its laborious drawing approach; but mainly, because other more easier and convenient drawing media have since become available.

Old Masters were Drawing the Human Body in silverpoint because not many other drawing tool were available at a time. Graphite only came into use in the 17th century. Before graphite, natural earth chalks and charcoal were also used for sketching and preparatory cartoons, however, these drawing materials lacked the precision and permanence of metal-point. Cennini recommended the combination of these mediums, Drawing the Human Body, sketching with charcoal first and then retracing and fixing the drawing in silverpoint. In fact, many surviving artworks of the Old Masters present the use of this technique. For example, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s silverpoint drawings have traces of red chalk or charcoal.

Many fine artists say that silverpoint drawing is the most difficult art media when it comes to Drawing the Human Body, as it requires great drawing skill and discipline. One of the main disadvantages of this technique is permanence of the marks that are not removable by a rubber eraser. However, scraping off or sandpapering the ground can remove indelible silverpoint marks. Such an approach, of course, is damaging to the ground.

Silverpoint drawing is well suited for making detailed, small-scale artworks when it comes to Drawing the Human Body. Works on a bigger scale and loose sketches with free-flowing lines would look more effective in another media like charcoal, sanguine, or pen and ink.

The Old Masters used silverpoint for Drawing the Human Body by rendering light-and-shade chiaroscuro on toned grounds. The tint of a ground was used as a middle-tone while shadows were rendered in metal-point and lights highlighted in white paint, usually white lead.


Drawing the Human Body
By the 16th century, use of silverpoint as a drawing media had declined because new drawing materials became available. Some fine artists continued drawing the human body in silverpoint on rare occasions.

For example, Rembrandt made the portrait of his wife, Saskia, in 1633 using the silverpoint technique. In the 19th century, silverpoint media had once again gained the attention of fine artists.

The demand for silverpoint materials was big enough for Windsor & Newton to produce and sell silverpoint-drawing kits.

Styluses for Silverpoint Drawing

A thin stylus for silverpoint drawing should have a rounded and polished tip that would not scratch the drawing surface when drawing the human body. A thicker stylus can have working ends prepared in different ways. One end can be pointed like a sharpened pencil lead, while another can be filed under a 45° angle so an even wider line can be drawn. The 45° angle tip can actually produce two types of lines – thin and wide. If this end is placed on the surface on its flat polished surface, the wider line can be produced. On the other hand, turning the stylus so it touches the paper with a sharp edge, gives slimmer lines. In this way, tips on either end of the stylus can be used to make a variety of lines with different thicknesses when drawing the human body.

Metals for Silverpoint Drawing

Many soft metals and metal alloys are suitable for drawing the human body. Each metal has its own unique characteristic and reacts in a different way to the ground and environment. One of the ancient metals used for writing and drawing is lead. It is one of the softest metals used in art, it does not require a specially prepared ground and it has the ability to mark plain, uncoated paper. This is the only erasable metal-point. However, it is toxic and therefore not advisable for use.

One of the most used metal-points is silver. Many Old Masters favor this metal when drawing the human body for its noble origins, purity of lines, permanence and affordability compared to Gold Point. Silverpoint was so commonly used that the metal-point technique is often interchangeably called silverpoint. Silverpoint gives grey tint lines that, with time, tarnish into brown color.

One of the metals that will not tarnish is gold. Gold-point produces warm-grey marks with high permanency of the color. Gold-point also gives delicate lines and is very pleasant to draw with when drawing the human body. However, the price for a golden-point stylus is much higher than for silverpoint.

Other metal alloys can be used for metal-point drawing.

For this Discobolus drawing, I am using the Nickel-Silver alloy stylus. Despite its name, it contains no silver. It is actually made of copper and nickel; sometimes zinc is added to this alloy. The ‘silver’ in its name is only for its similar appearance to the precious metal. Originally nickel-silver was first invented in China and smuggled into the East Indies despite a ban on its export. It is unlikely that nickel-silver was used by the Old Masters in Western Europe. Only by the second part of the 18th century were German metalworkers able to reproduce similar alloys of copper and nickel to satisfy demands for a silver-looking metal. That is why this alloy is named ‘German Silver’.

Before starting this “Drawing the human body” video lesson, I have tested pure 999 silver and gold, as well as brass and nickel-silver metals. The nickel-silver stylus produced the darkest marks on this ground and therefore, was chosen as my drawing tool.

Other copper alloys that can be used for metal-point are brass and bronze. Brass is the alloy of copper and zinc, while brass is made of copper and tin. Copper alloys tend to tarnish with time…giving a greenish tint to a metal-point drawing.

Grounds for Silverpoint Drawing

When it comes to the traditional recipes for silverpoint drawing grounds, in the past such abrasive materials were used like: bone dust, egg-shell or sea-shell powder together with the lead white pigment. Bone dust and shell-powder can be substituted by the fine marble dust or white chalk, which are available in local art supply stores.

The ground materials are bounded by mixing with mediums, such as glue water, gum arabic or other animal or plant glue. Sometimes, linseed oil is used for that purpose. Usually 2 to 3 coats of ground are sufficient for use as the drawing support. However, some artists were applying up to 9 coats with intermediate sandpapering of dry ground layers to achieve a smooth surface. These days, commercially produced gesso for oil and acrylic painting can be used as well.

While white ground gives a clean, fresh look to the support, toned surfaces can enhance the appearance of metal-point artwork when drawing the human body. White ground can be toned by adding pigments to the ground blend. In the past, dry pigments for oil or tempera paints were the obvious choice for that purpose. Today, the variety of traditional natural pigments or new synthetic colors can be added to the ground mix. Colored gouache or watercolor paints are well suited for that task.

Making a Silverpoint Drawing

Protecting the ground is the major concern while drawing the human body in silverpoint, during as well as after a piece of artwork is done. A metal stylus leaves fine marks that would not be any darker or broader if more pressure is applied. Thicker marks can be achieved by using a wider metal wire. For example, for fine details, I am using a 0.9 millimeter (or 0.035 inch) stylus and a 2 millimeter (or o.o8 inch) stylus for broader marks.

Increasing the pressure on the stylus would not give a darker line, but can damage the ground surface when drawing the human body. A light pressure on the stylus must be applied throughout the drawing process for this gives a uniform surface to the artwork.

Great art starts with a great drawing, and nothing improves your drawing skills better than metal-point drawing.

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