Drawing With Silverpoint
In preparation for this week’s silverpoint drawing demo with Darryl Smith, we wanted to delve into the history and specifics of this time-honored medium. Silverpoint is one of the oldest and also one of the most archivally stable art mediums. Metalpoint drawing has been used since antiquity- a stylus made of metal is used to create meticulous and delicate linework. It allows for indelible marks of intricate detail on a variety of prepared surfaces: silverpoint does not make marks at all on un-prepared paper. Its inability to be erased makes it an excellent medium for student artists developing discipline and planning. One of the primary mediums for sketching by apprentices and artists alike before the invention of the graphite pencil, silverpoint was a favored drawing medium of master artists like da Vinci, Dürer, Rembrandt, Raphael, and van Eyck. The silver in silverpoint oxidizes and tarnishes over time, naturally creating darker colors and warm brown tones of patina. For more information about silverpoint, check out http://silverpointweb.com.
Draftsman Darryl Smith Goes Into Detail:
Silverpoint is an old method of drawing reaching its peak popularity around the 13th century in Italy and carried well through the Renaissance. It is a very delicate style of drawing that many students learned in apprenticeships where they would draw with a stylus made of silver.
Drawing is a fundamental part of learning about art, and silverpoint is dependent on drawing skills. Rendering form with a delicate line is a very difficult task, and this material can teach artists at any level the art of the line. Silverpoint drawing can be a demanding medium for some because, unlike working with graphite and charcoal, it is rather impossible to erase without destroying the paper. Traditionally students in apprenticeships would take bone ash and saliva on a wooden board and do quick sketches and wipe them away by covering the board again with saliva. Nowadays we have a couple of different grounds that work for silverpoint drawings. The ground is the most important part of the silverpoint drawing process because this is what allows the silver, or any other metal, to be deposited onto the paper.
Rendering in silverpoint is only done with lines and not shading or smudging like in more contemporary drawing media. When you draw with silverpoint, the value range is very limited; one cannot achieve a very rich black like drawing with charcoal or graphite. Instead, one has to carefully and strategically layer lines over top of each other to achieve a somewhat dark tone. In ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s artist’s guide from circa 1400, he explains the technique, which has remained unchanged for 600 years:
“…run the style over the little panel so lightly that you can hardly make out what you first start to do; strengthening your strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows. And the darker you want to make the shadows in the accents, the more times you go back to them; and so, conversely, go back over the reliefs only a few times.”
In modern times, a fun way to practice drawing for silverpoint is to try drawing with a very thin pen, to get used to not being able to erase or smudge.
I am often drawn to this historical medium because of the delicacy and the craft that comes along with it. I often enjoy the toil and trial-and-error factor that comes with learning these historical methods of art making. I too have struggled with silverpoint drawing; sometimes I have even pierced my ground and thus destroyed the paper! I enjoy the sense of timelessness that comes with making art in traditional media. It is very challenging and you learn to grow from these obstacles to create something quite exquisite.
This weekend at Merion Art, I’ll be bringing my own metalpoint drawings done in silver, copper, and 24-karat gold. I will also be discussing grounds for silverpoint that we already have at Merion Art and Repro, as well as ready made papers for those who want to practice the material right away! I’ll also answer any questions in the comments here, so please don’t hesitate to ask!
Darryl is a member of the Society of Metalpoint Artists http://www.metalpointartists.com. He studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and currently works in a variety of drawing media from sumi ink and charcoal to silverpoint and graphite. He will soon be pursuing his Masters of Fine Arts in Drawing at the New York Academy of the Fine Art.