Silverpoint – drawing with silver
Silverpoint: What is it?
During the fifteenth century, before graphite was discovered, artists drew with metalpoint. As you might guess, metalpoint was a sharp ended stick of soft metal, usually silver or a silver alloy, hence the common description of the medium as silverpoint. It was used by both Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. It is also possible to draw with gold.
How to use it
Silverpoint only makes a mark on paper when it is coated with something. This used to be calcined bone, but I’m glad to say that more modern products are available! This substance is called a ‘ground’, so the first step in any silverpoint drawing is to apply a couple of layers of a suitable ground to your paper. I use a hot-pressed watercolour paper, which, being very smooth, is ideal for my highly detailed drawings.
Getting the drawing right first time is really important because silverpoint is incredibly difficult to erase completely – a ‘ghost’ of where you went wrong always seems to hang around like an uninvited guest. Lights and darks are created by cross hatching the closer the lines, the darker the tone. Getting really dark areas is challenging, although the choice of ground does seem to make a difference.
Why is it special?
When newly done, a silverpoint drawing looks, at first glance, just like one done in graphite. However, the drawing catches and reflects light, which makes it shimmer. Graphite certainly doesn’t do that! Over time the silver also acquires a ‘patination’ – tarnishes, if you like – and develops a warm, mellow, brown colour. This is highly prized by collectors and is called the ‘self-developing of the drawing’. How fast it does this depends on the drawing’s exposure to air and pollution.
Where to buy materials
Silver can be bought (as silver wire) from specialist art suppliers such as Cornelissens in London, or jewellers. The wire can be held in a simple clutch pencil – much easier than grappling with a tiny piece of metal….
Chapman, H. Faietti, M. (2010) Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, London, British Museum Press.
Weber, B 1986 Silverpoint Drawing in American Artist