Drawing Lesson 34, Part 2 – What is Metal Point

Discover What is Metal Point

Video Lesson Description

In this section of the video lesson you will discover ‘What is Metal Point’ and how to prepare ground for metal point drawing.

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What is Metal Point

When it comes to the question “What is Metal Point”, many contemporary artists have never used this drawing techniques. Metal Point is the drawing media in which an artist makes marks on a specially prepared metal point ground by a stylus made of soft metal like silver, bronze or gold.

Metal Point Ground

The tonal quality of a metal-point marks very much depends on the ground. Not all surfaces can be marked with a metal-point; plain paper is not suitable for that purpose and has to be coated.

What is Metal Point
For this artwork, gouache will be used as a main ingredient with an addition of Sepia Gouache for toning.

Titanium White Pigment is added to the mix. Designers Gouache, which comes in a tube, has sufficient binding power to absorb a little amount of additional titanium pigment without adding extra binding material.

Titanium White pigment is optional. It serves the purpose of abrasive dust. It can be replaced with white chalk or marble dust, for example. Abrasive qualities are required for a good metal-point ground. Metal stylus leaves marks by depositing small particles of metal on the ground surface. It is similar to drawing on very fine sandpaper.

Other recipes for metal-point grounds can have various binding mediums like: Gum Arabic, Shellac, Animal or Plant Glues, and Casein.

For paper support, two coats are sufficient enough to keep the paper flexible. A rigid board can hold more layers. Each additional coat of the ground 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.

What is Metal Point – Nickel-Silver Point

This artwork is done in Nickel-Silver Point. The stylus is a 0.9 millimeter wire made of alloy copper, nickel and zinc. Despite its name, it contains no chemical silver. 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.

What is Metal Point – Drawing in Metal Point

Drawing in metal-point is quite a laborious technique. Values of tones are gradually built up by multiple renderings with the same stylus pressure over and over again. As more metal particles are deposited on the surface, the darker the area becomes.

The darkest areas of the drawing are rendered first. They will be used as the point of reference as to the maximum volume of tone achievable with this particular metal stylus and ground combination.

What is Metal Point – Metal Point Media

Unlike in graphite pencil drawing, where one grade of pencil can be changed for a softer one to get darker tones, in metal-point, there is a limit to how dark you can go. Increasing the pressure on the stylus would not give a darker line but might damage the ground surface.

Metal-point is a very good technique for perfecting fine art skills. It trains the eye and hand as well as provides drawing discipline. Unfortunately, it has been neglected as a learning exercise in almost all contemporary fine art educational institutions. Hardly any fine art academy or art college offers their students tutorials on metal-point technique. At the time of the Old Masters, metal-point was one of the “must practice subjects” for young apprentices to develop their drawing skills before they continued on to painting in oil.

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 technique. On the other hand, the metal-point technique has many drawbacks. It is an unforgiving media because mistakes cannot be easily erased. Rendering in silverpoint takes time; and it can only be used on special grounds.

One of the reasons why this method lost its popularity is because cheaper, more versatile and erasable graphite became available as a drawing tool. Graphite pencil leaves marks on almost any hard surface and doesn’t require support to be coated with special ground.

What is Metal Point – Nickel-Silver Point vs Pure Silverpoint

Even though Nickel-Silver alloy contains no silver, the marks it produces are very much similar to pure metal point.

The difference in media will become apparent with time, while nickel-silver is resistant to tarnishing, pure silver will eventually turn brown by reacting to air fumes and chemicals of the ground.

I have tested the pure 999 silver stylus with this particular ground, it produced good results; however, nickel-silver gave darker marks than silver and therefore, was chosen for this drawing.

Silver was a very popular choice for metal-point; that is why the word “silverpoint” became the name of this technique. Many drawings in this technique are called silverpoint even though the actual metal might not be silver. In this video lesson, I will use metal-point and silverpoint interchangeably.

What is Metal Point – Supports for Metal Point drawing

This drawing has paper as a support. A heavy-duty drawing paper is good for this purpose. In fact, the majority of Medieval and Renaissance silverpoint drawings are done on a paper support. Apart from paper, other supports were also commonly used, such as wooden boards and parchments. Parchment was coated in the same manner as paper, so it remains flexible, while rigid boards can hold a much thicker layer of ground that can be sandpapered for a smooth polished surface.

Grounds were often tinted off-white. Tinted background can serve as a mid-tone, making the silverpoint drawing process more economical. In such cases, artists only need to render dark shades in metal point while leaving middle tones untouched. The highlights are then washed in white, water-based paint, like watercolor or gouache.

What is Metal Point – Tinted Backgrounds for Metal Point Drawings

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 Laurite, was limited to illustrations in medieval scripts.

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