The Art Of Silverpoint Drawing
Silverpoint is a drawing technique that was extensively used during the Renaissance both as underdrawing in panel painting and as a medium for fine drawings. Fine drawings, particularly, were done on white or tinted grounds and were commonly highlighted with white watercolour applied with a brush. To this day, silverpoint, or metalpoint as it is also know, remains a traditional but seldom used artist’s technique for fine drawings..Essentially, the technique is based on coated paper upon which one draws with a fine silver stylus. Metalpoint drawings are also created with copper, platimum and gold. A contemporary metalpoint tool comprises a standard draftsman’s mechanical pencil. Instead of graphite “leads,” the artist inserts a silver, copper, platinum or gold rod. Silver and gold are readily available at jewelry craftspeople. For copper I use standard copper electrical wire stripped of its plastic coating. A fine metal file keeps the point relatively sharp, although too sharp a point may tear the paper.
…….To coat the paper, Renaissance artists took bones ( often from the dinner table ) and calcified them by placing the bones in a hot fire until they were a powdery white. The white calcified bones were mixed with a glue medium and then coated on a paper or wood surface. As silverpoint drawing began, minute particles of silver are embedded in the surface leaving a grayish line. In turn these lines tarnish with time giving the drawing a mature look. Silver takes considerable time to tarnish, perhaps even years, whereas copper will tarnish in a month’s time. Gold does not tarnish. Silver tarnishes the lines into a brownish line and copper produces a yellow-green line. Platinum and gold are simply too expensive.
…….Contemporary surface material for silverpoint drawing is standard flat white latex acrylic paint. Tints can be added to the while latex paint. My favourite tinting material is guache paint and watercolour. Any paper of reasonable weight is suitable for surface preparation for silverpoint work. Other commercially available surfaces include clay-coated paper, clay board and primed masonite.
…….I have spent considerable time exploring various grounds for my silverpoint work. It appears that old formulae for grounds are not necessarily any better than new, modern grounds such as Gesso. So, I am back to former means to coat my paper, using Gesso instead of flat white latex primer. Gesso ( for now ) will be the medium for other mixed-media surfaces ( silver enamel, gold dust, marble dust, plaster of Paris ) which I continue to brush, splash, spatter, roll ( under tracing paper ), sand, press and burnish, in a variety of very contemporary surface paintings experimenting beyond conventional boundaries.
…….The artist must possess a certain amount of confidence in his ability to draw as silverpoint lines cannot be erased. Neither is silverpoint a sketching medium. Instead, it is a fine drawing medium. Lines can be built up through hatching, contour lines, drifts, and other drawing techniques, but never to a point that lines disappear in an overall grey. To strengthen some areas of the drawing I will use limited graphite to increase the density of black. I must, however, be careful not to overpower silverpoint with graphite especially when my aim is to create a metalpoint drawing.
…….Silverpoint began to decline in the late sixteenth century as other drawing materials became more available and tastes changed. The advent of etching and engraving also spelled a demise for silverpoint work. By the seventeenth century there were few silverpoint drawings. Rembrandt, one of the most revered classical masters of line and drawing, is known to have made only one silverpoint drawing. There was some renewal of interest in the late nineteenth century, but its true revival belongs to the twentieth century, when such a revival of metalpoint drawing flourished in the United States dating back as early in the century as 1904. In Canada little work in silverpoint is created, at least to the extent that such work enjoys public appreciation and awareness. John Gould, one of Canada’s drawing masters uses silverpoint in his repertoire of drawing techniques. I began using silverpoint in the early nineties. The medium remains exacting yet very rewarding as somehow, as an artist, one feels “connected” to the work of centuries ago, and as I continue this journey of walking in the footsteps of master, I feel particularly blessed to have begun to master this ancient yet every bit contemporary technique.
…….One of the greatest satisfactions in exploring various grounds is the effect of graphite in silverpoint in my new-found technique. My previous silverpoint technique employed cutting lines ( with a sharpened stylus ) into latex primer and gesso grounds leaving graphite only as a means to strengthen a few lines and possibly add a bit of tone. However, the new technique of a gentler polished-round silver stylus on a sanded and burnished ground of mixed media ( gesso, marble dust, etc. ) has given me a whole new experience of drawing on silver with graphite. The process is extremely sensuous as if I am drawing with butter on butter. The effect, especially in tonal areas, is a gradual strengthening of values that complements the silverpoint.
Examples of Gerrit Verstraete’s silverpoint drawing can be viewed in Masterpeace Fine Art Gallery at www.masterpeacegallery.com
www.drawingsociety.com ( Gallery of Canadian Drawing Masters )