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Silverpoint Drawing Technique – Part 1

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Drawing in Silverpoint – Video [Part 1]

Almost lost secrets of the Old Masters

By Vladimir London

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Drawing in Silverpoint

Almost lost secrets of the Old Masters

By Vladimir London

Table of contents:

PART 1
1. Introduction
2. History of silverpoint
3. Metal-point drawing tools
4. Silverpoint supports
5. Preparing silverpoint grounds

PART 2
6. Silverpoint drawing techniques
7. Silverpoint tarnishing
8. Storing silverpoint artworks
9. Conclusion

PART ONE

INTRODUCTION

Metal-Point is an almost forgotten media. Today, the mainstream art education does not include metal-point drawing technique into a drawing curriculum and as a result, only few contemporary fine artists are creating artworks in this media.

The use of this fascinating technique has declined since the time of the Old Masters, when metal-point was arguably at its best. The allure of the Old Masters’ drawings in metal-point attracts visitors to museums still to these days.

The purpose of my story is to bring attention to this drawing technique and reveal some of its secrets.

One of the most used metals for metal-point drawings was silver. That is why the word “silverpoint” became the name of choice for this technique. Many drawings in metal-point are called silverpoint even though the actual metal might not be silver. In this presentation, I will use terms metal-point and silverpoint interchangeably.

The silverpoint drawing method is very old and precedes drawing in graphite. Comparing to other drawing media, metal-point drawings have the unique appearance of a unified surface that makes them so attractive. Such subtle rendering effects can be done only in metal-point.

Every line in silverpoint is thin but clearly visible. That makes this media well suited for creating detailed, small-to-medium scale drawings.

The metal-point technique has some drawbacks. It is an unforgiving media because silverpoint lines are very difficult to erase, so fixing mistakes is not an easy task. This drawing method demands a great deal of discipline and craftsmanship. Rendering in silverpoint takes time, and it can only be used on special grounds. This partly explains why only few living artists attempt to master this captivating drawing method.

Nevertheless, despite all the challenges silverpoint presents, I strongly recommend this media for any beginner and advanced art student to practice their drawing skills. It is a great media for perfecting fine art skills. It trains the eye and hand as well as provides drawing discipline.

At the time of the Old Masters, silverpoint was one of the “must practice subjects” for young apprentices to develop their drawing skills before they continued on to painting in oil. Unfortunately, drawing in silverpoint has been neglected as a learning exercise in almost all contemporary fine art educational institutions. Hardly any present-day fine art academy or art college offers their students tutorials on silverpoint.

With the pleasure, I will present the almost lost secrets of silverpoint. This presentation is illustrated with real-life examples of making silverpoint drawings. Those drawings are part of the Drawing Academy video lessons.

If you want to know more about silverpoint drawing techniques, subscribe for the Drawing Academy course now.

HISTORY OF SILVERPOINT

The history of silverpoint goes back many centuries. First, it was used as writing and marking tools; many medieval parchment manuscripts have writing lines and margins marked in metal-point.

Fine artists used silverpoint as a drawing media. There are many breathtaking drawings in silverpoint done by the Old Masters. Many great artists from the past left their creative heritage in this media – Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, Albrecht Durer, Rafael, Sandro Botticelli, Rogier van der Weyden, Hendrik Goltzius, Jan van Eyck, Dirk Bouts, Hans Holbein, and many others.

In his book, Il Libre dell’ Arte, Cennini, fine artist and art historian of the renaissance time, gives instruction to fine artists that the silverpoint technique should be mastered first by the apprentice before advancing to the medium of painting.

This advice corresponds well with the drawing in silverpoint by Raphael, who beautifully drew a portrait of a boy, which is assumed to be his self-portrait before the age of 17.

Young Albrecht Dürer does another well-known silverpoint self-portrait at the age of 13, when he was an assistant in his father’s goldsmith workshop.

The reason why Cennini was insisting on art apprentices mastering silverpoint first, is because this technique requires much greater control and precision than any other drawing media. The discipline of metal-point helps to develop a skill of drawing that is essential for any draftsmen who wants to improve their fine art skills.

By the 16th century, use of metal-point as a drawing media had declined because new drawing materials, like graphite, became available. Before that fine artists used such drawing media like charcoal, earth chalks, and metal-point.

In the 17th century some fine artists continued using silverpoint on rare occasions. For example, Rembrandt made the portrait of his wife, Saskia, in 1633 using the metal-point technique.

In the 19th century, metal-point media had once again gained the attention of fine artists. The demand for metal-point materials was big enough for Windsor & Newton to produce and sell metal-point kits.

There are artists who work today in this technique. However, it is by no means a mainstream media. Here are some examples of contemporary artworks in silverpoint:

– Demis J. Martin
– Richard A. Kirk
– David Ladmore
– Tom Mazzullo
– Douglas S. Gillette
– Curtis Bartone
– And one of my favorite silverpoint artists – Victor Koulback

The silverpoint drawing method has changed very little since the time of the Old Masters. The same principles are in place – an artist uses a soft metal stylus, which leaves small deposits on a surface coated with special grounds.

These days, more modern metal-point materials are available for fine artists. For example, I have done many drawings in a Nickel-Silver alloy on grounds containing Titanium White. Such alloys and pigments were not invented yet at the time of the Old Masters. In the next chapter, I will go into more detail about materials that can be used for silverpoint artworks.

METAL-POINT DRAWING TOOLS

Because the silverpoint technique is not widely used today, you may find that your local art supply store might not stock metal-point drawing materials. Nevertheless, you can go around it and fill your drawing toolbox with necessary materials when you know what to look for.

All materials for silverpoint drawing can be divided into:
– Drawing tools
– Grounds
– And supports

Let’s Start with Drawing Tools.

A metal-point stylus is made of soft metal that leaves small particles on specially prepared grounds.

Many soft metals and metal alloys are suitable for the metal-point technique. Each metal has its own unique characteristics and reacts in a different way to the ground and environment. Here’s the list of most used metals for drawing:

1. Silver

Silver is one of the most used metal-points. Many Old Masters favor this metal for its noble origins, purity of lines, permanence, and affordability. 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 a brown color.

A silverpoint stylus can be made from silver wire, available in the jewelry making industry. Here is a 0.9-millimeter, Dead Soft, pure 999 Silver. The stylus is thin silver wire held in a mechanical pencil.

There are other thicker wires available, like this 2 millimeter, Dead Soft, Silver stylus. It has two workable ends, which are shaped differently – one has a pointy tip, the other end is cut under a 45° angle.

A 45-degree-angle tip can produce even wider lines. This working end can actually give two types of lines – thin and wide. If this end is placed on the support on its flat polished surface, the wider line can be drawn. 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.

Any other pieces of silver metal can be shaped and used for drawing. Just to illustrate how pure silver works, I will use a 999 silver bullion coin. It is a one troy ounce, Austrian Philharmonic, coin. The coin marks grounded surfaces very well.

The dead-soft, silver stylus is made of the same pure silver as the bullion coin.

2. Gold

The most noble of all metal-points is gold. This precious metal gives a great deal of satisfaction both during the drawing process and as a finished artwork.

Here is a pure 999 Gold stylus. Needless to say, it comes with a hefty price tag.

A pure gold-point gives a lighter, warm-grey mark. Gold is one of the metals that will not tarnish with time. Its warm-grey marks will keep high permanency of the color.

Gold-point gives delicate lines and is very pleasant to draw with. However, due to the high price a gold-point technique is less popular than silverpoint.

I have to say though, that one small piece of 0.9 millimeter golden wire will last for years and can be used for hundreds of metal-point drawings. In the long run, it will justify its price.

3. Copper

Copper is another metal that can be used for metal-point drawings. Pure copper has a reddish-orange color. Man has used this metal for thousands of years. For metal-point drawings, copper often was used as an alloy ingredient. It can be melted with silver with proportions up to 20% of copper, or gold, thus reducing the price of these expensive metals.

Copper leaves grey marks on a ground; with time it will tarnish to a yellowish-greenish tint.

4. Brass

Brass is another alloy of copper with zinc. It is cheap, so you don’t have to invest in expensive metal-point materials.

Here’s a bronze screw with a sandpapered end. I think you have an idea by now that any soft metal, which leaves marks on a specially prepared ground, can be used for drawing purposes.

The brass stylus that’s made from a screw, gives very noticeable marks as well. Brass marks are slightly lighter and have a gray color with a slightly yellowing tint.

5. Nickel-Silver

Another metal-point is the Nickel-Silver. Here’s the 0.9-millimeter Nickel-Silver stylus. It is a good and affordable metal-point tool.

Despite its name, this metal alloy contains no chemical silver. This stylus is made of alloy copper, nickel, and zinc.

The name Nickel-Silver derives from its white-silvery appearance. It is also called German Silver, as this metal was reinvented in Germany in the 18th century. Early on it was produced in China; however, it is unlikely the Old Masters had the benefit of using it because the export of this strategic metal was banned in ancient China.

Nickel-Silver stylus leaves well-pronounced grey marks that are even darker than those left by pure silver or gold.

6. Lead

Lead is one of the ancient metals used for writing and drawing. Pure lead is very soft and does not require a specially prepared ground. It will mark plain, uncoated paper. This is the only erasable metal-point. Due to its softness, lead stylus will become blunt quite quickly and requires re-sharpening more often than other metal point tools.

During the Old Masters’ time, lead was also alloyed with tin and other metals to produce drawing styluses. However, lead is toxic and therefore not advisable for use.

7. Pewter

A good alternative to lead is pewter. This alloy is made of tin and copper, and therefore is not toxic. It is reasonably soft, which gives both advantage and disadvantage in metal-point drawing. Being soft, allows the use of this metal alloy on most grounds for silverpoint; at the same time the stylus tip might become blunt quicker than other metal-points.

There are other metals and alloys that can be used for metal-point drawing. You can test various items like coins, keys, badges, etc. made of metal to see how they mark coated supports. You might find some unassuming items that can become your drawing tools.

Originally, a metal stylus was held in a wooden handle. You can easily make such handle yourself. Alternatively, a mechanical pencil can be used as a stylus holder. I’m using two sizes – 0.9 and 2-millimeter pencils, which hold metal wire very well. A mechanical pencil is a very convenient tool and a big improvement since the Old Masters time.

Apart from toxic lead, which can be used on plain paper, all other metal-points require specially prepared supports.

Today, metal-point is seldom used because there are so many other drawing medias available, which do not require support coating. However, even among contemporary drawing materials, there is no alternative to metal-point when it comes to capturing the smallest details. A thin silverpoint stylus produces permanent non-fading and non-erasable lines that will withstand the test of time. Some of the Old Masters’ drawings are more than 700 years old! Such permanence is explained by the inertness of the metals used. For example, gold-point will remain stable without oxidation for as long as the support lasts.

So here we are today, with the silverpoint support and ground dictating how permanent metal-point artwork will be.

SILVERPOINT SUPPORTS

Metal-point styluses would only leave marks on specially grounded supports.

Some suppliers provide pre-fabricated mixes for support grounds as well as ready-coated papers. Although main art supply stores do not stock metal-point drawing tools, you may find various supports suitable for silverpoint.

Such supports included:
– Wooden panels
– Ceramic tiles
– Gesso panels
– Paper boards
– Paper
– Vellum or parchment (which is most often made from calf skin)
– And other natural and synthetic materials.

Each of the supports has its advantages and disadvantages.

While wooden panels are strong and rigid, they can be quite bulky, imagine a collection of 100 separate drawings on wooden panels.

Ceramic tiles have the strongest and toughest surface, but they are very heavy, limited in size and therefore impractical.

Some art supply stores sell specially prepared gesso panels. Such panels offer great support and come with ready to draw surface; however, a fine artist might consider the price they come at.

Vellum or parchment is great and authentic support. The ‘La Bella Principessa’ drawing possibly done by Leonardo da Vinci is toned silverpoint drawing on vellum. Needless to say that such support has never been cheap. On another hand, properly stored parchment will outlive paper for many centuries.

The most affordable, light, versatile, easy to use, and store support is heavy-duty paper. In fact, many of Medieval and Renaissance silverpoint drawings are done on paper.

Each support must be covered with a special ground that will take metal-point marks.

Flexibility of a support dictates how many layers of ground can be applied on a surface.

For paper support, two coats of ground are sufficient enough to take the silverpoint marks while keeping paper flexible.

Parchment can be coated in the same manner as paper.

Rigid wooden and gesso panels can hold more ground layers. Each additional coat needs to be applied after the previous one is completely dry. A smooth surface of the board can be achieved by sandpapering every coat before applying the next layer.

In the next chapter you will discover how to prepare a silverpoint ground and what materials can be used for that purpose.

PREPARING SILVERPOINT GROUNDS

Plain supports must be coated with specially prepared metal-point grounds. Such grounds have to be a little bit abrasive, so a silverpoint stylus can deposit microscopic

particles of metal on the surface.

At the time of the Old Masters, traditional metal-point ground recipes were using such materials like:
– Bone dust
– Eggshell powder
– Seashell powder
– And the lead white pigment

Today, more convenient materials become available for fine artists. A silverpoint ground can be purchased as a readymade powder. Some online shops offer such pre-mixed grounds.

It is quite easy to prepare a metal-point ground yourself. Some materials for that purpose include:

– A white chalk powder as filler for a metal-point ground.
– Marble dust is another alternative for the ground. It has an appropriate abrasive nature and works well for rigid supports.
– The Titanium White pigment can be added to the mix. It is very opaque and has a brilliant white color.
– Gum Arabic can be used as a binding material for the ground. This is the same binder that comes in watercolor and gouache paints.
– Some recipes for metal-point grounds have other binding mediums like: Shellac, Animal or Plant Glues, and Casein.
– Readymade gouache is a great ground for metal-point drawings. White gouache can be mixed with any other gouache or watercolor color to achieve the desired tint and tone. For

example, Gold Ochre, Sepia or Vandyke Brown can be added into white gouache to get brown tint.
– A palette knife is a useful tool to work with grounds.
– A flat synthetic brush is good for applying the ground on the drawing support.

White pigments and powders give a clean, fresh look to the support. However, many artists use off-white or toned backgrounds for metal-point drawings.

Toning the ground comes from the time of the Old Masters, when artists were creating light-and-shade chiaroscuro effects. 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.

Tinted backgrounds make the drawing process more economical. Using the tone of the ground as a mid-tone saves time, as an artist only needs to render dark shades in silverpoint while leaving middle tones untouched. The highlights then can be washed in white, water-based paint, like watercolor or gouache.

Various paints can be used for toned backgrounds. 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.

Tinted backgrounds can have any color an artist chooses. The common choices for the background tint were affordable and widely available pigments of green, brown, grey, and other colors. To tint a background, dry color pigment can be added into the ground mix. Pigments like Terre Verte, Indigo, Hematite, Vermellion, Ochre, and others were often used. The use of expensive pigments, like blue Lapis Lazurite, was limited to illustrations in medieval scripts.

Now I will illustrate the process of preparing a silverpoint ground and coating a support with it.

There are many recipes of making a ground for silverpoint drawings. In this case, I am using one that has simple ingredients and is fast to make. This ground has White

Designers Gouache as the main component. It also contains sepia and Titanium White pigments.

Modern materials made silverpoint less harmful to the artist’s health. One of the original recipes for the metal-point ground included toxic white lead, which these days, can be replaced with zinc oxide or Titanium White pigments. Titanium White pigment is optional. It serves the purpose of abrasive dust. It can be replaced with white chalk or marble dust, for example.

Components of the ground give necessary abrasive qualities to the coated support surface. It is similar to drawing on very fine sandpaper. Soft metal styluses will leave marks on such smooth yet abrasive coat.

Gouache has Gum Arabic as a binding medium. Mixing with mediums such as glue water, Gum Arabic or other animal or plant glue, can bound the ground pigments and dusts. Sometimes, linseed oil can be used as well.

The flat, synthetic brush is used for support coating. This brush is quite soft and leaves no visible brush marks, which is important for the metal-point artwork appearance.

Usually 2 to 3 coats of ground are sufficient for drawing support. However, some artists were applying up to 9 coats with intermediate sandpapering of dry ground layers to achieve a smooth surface.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Jasmin says:

    There are not many (if any) online courses out there that you can get so much from. Drawing Academy is definitely the number one. I am really impressed. So classy and professional. It’s a perfect community for anyone who appreciates Art and wants to find their own voice in the Art world. Thank you for creating all of this.

  2. Leticia R. says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge. I am glad you have made such education available on the internet.

  3. Oliver says:

    The course sounds interesting and something that I may enjoy. Still struggling as an artist and need a guidance you provide.

  4. Sasha says:

    I really appreciate the amount of work that has gone into these learning resources. I also appreciate your efforts to offer people an affordable way to learn representational art the traditional way.

  5. Collayne M. says:

    Drawing Academy is full of surprises. The Silverpoint package was one of them. Without seeing the fabulous silverpoint video you created, I doubt the idea of drawing in silverpoint would have occurred to me. Although there are many treasures to be found in Drawing Academy, that one gem alone is worth the price of admission.

    I can count on your tutorials… thank you very much for the instruction on drawing…
    Best regards
    Collayne M

  6. RodrigoLeal says:

    The quality of the video and the tutor presentation are fantastic, and the general curriculum of the course shown at the end is appealing undoubtedly!

    Thank you Vladimir for sharing that with me. I will enroll in the course after finishing my study with Natalie Richy at the Web Art Academy and before the end of the year, for sure, as i strongly need to improve my drawing capabilities to use in my paintings.

    Thanks for the video.

    Best Regards,
    Rodrigo

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