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Drawing Techniques

You just finished preparing your support and surface, either by stretching paper and then coating it with multiple coats of ground or by using a panel of wood or Masonite. When the panel or paper is completely dry, it is ready to use for drawing. Don’t be in too much of a hurry – a slightly damp panel or piece of paper will not work well! Make sure it’s really dry!

Start gently at first to get a feel for the response – with practice, you will be able to feel how the point moves on the surface, and the unique feeling when the point is making its best line. With the cone-shaped end, you can rotate the point in your fingers as you draw, and this will help to maintain the shape for a very long period of time.

Mistakes cannot be erased! However, marks can be removed by using a very small piece of sandpaper, which actually removes the mark along with a small amount of the ground. Don’t breathe the dust, it contains zinc oxide and silver particles.

finelineExperiment with the points – (see the series of illustrations below) The pure silver point I provide has two usable ends, one cone shaped, the other beveled. An expressive line can be developed with the beveled end, as well as extremely fine ones; cross-hatching or tonal depth can be developed with the cone-shaped end. Discover through practice which end suits your drawing style. Tonal Blending using circular movements is delightful to experience! Great darks can be achieved either through an initially aggresive attack or through gradual buildup. I prefer the gradual approach. And, using a piece of soft leather such as a chamois or a piece of felt, you can do some blending, achieving fantastically rich and even skin tones; a paper blending cone or stump works also, but tends to pick up silver, and then deposit it again when you least expect or want it! The blending techniques work particularly well on smooth panels such as Masonite.

The “Traditional” point is usually used as one would a hard pencil, using strokes or cross hatching to develop tones and lines to delineate shapes, but to some extent one can use it in shading.

“Dressing” the pure silver point – Although the point will last for a very long time, it will wear, causing the shape to gradually undergo change. You can reshape the point with fine Wet-or-Dry sandpaper. Keep in mind that this drawing instrument is metal, and if the point is too sharp it will cut the ground, the paper, and even fingers. I recommend that you round the tip slightly, and also that you polish the surface a bit with a scrap of ground-treated board or paper.

A quick sketch which began with very fast crosshatching.

Gradual buildup of tones using the cone-shaped end of the rod point in a circular motion, with some crosshatching and blending with the stump.

A quick “direct drawing”, nothing subtle here.

An example of crosshatching using the cone-shaped end of the Modern point.

Combination of techniques, including gradual tone build-up.

Additional Tips on Usage

The angle on the conical end of the Modern point makes it easy to combine line styles with blending techniques. I find that the more subtle values are challenging because the ground is so “active” – that is, responsive to the point – and so I shape the point to maximize contact area and use very light pressure while building up tones gradually. The shape I use requires laying the point down at quite an angle in order for the sides of the cone to completely come in contact with the surface. Others might wish that the point could be a bit more vertical.

reshapeYou can reshape the thicker point to any angle desired, by rotating the stylus while dragging the point at an angle across wet-or-dry sandpaper. The point is provided with an angle I find convenient for me, but you may prefer a different angle to accomodate your particular style. Remember to keep the end of the point rounded a bit to avoid scraping the ground and / or cutting the paper.

The point should be polished as smoothly as possible. This will occur over time as the point is used on the ground, but in the meantime it will remove ground much as a tiny rasp would. Use successively finer grades of wet-or-dry sandpaper to smooth the point (220-320-400-600 grits), followed by emery polishing cloth or buffing compound. Alternatively, you can prepare a “polishing panel” by applying at least four coats to masonite, letting it dry for at least a couple of weeks, and vigorously rub while rotating the point on its surface.

buildupGradual buildup of tones work much better than direct, aggressive attack, although the “attack” approach can also achieve dramatic results. I recommend that you experiment with small pieces until you’ve gained an understanding of the response.

A gradual buildup technique I use for subtle tones involves gentle and very small circular movements, while watching the surface very carefully for the resulting tone. Further buildup and gentle blending with the point produces the richest darks you can imagine. The bevel end works much the same way, and is intended for very delicate lines (edge use) as well as a broader blending stroke (flat use).

The point’s conical end can produce excellent crosshatching, but be careful if you’ve been doing a lot of blending with the sides, as this can make the end too sharp; round the point by gentle sanding. Don’t breathe the silver dust, it can’t be good for you.

When handling the prepared surface, wash and dry your hands carefully, and use a cover sheet to protect the surface. The prepared surface will absorb skin oils from busy hands, and the acid in the oil will affect both the response of the surface and the color of the marks (shifts rapidly toward orange brown).

On aging drawings:

Over time the marks will achieve a patina – a gradual shift of the color of the marks from warm black to umber or sepia. This can be accelerated by leaving the drawing outside in open air, where any sulfur in the atmosphere will come running to perform its task. Some local environments work faster than others. In western Pennsylvania, the transformation occurs rapidly in summer, I suspect due to sulfur compounds escaping from all the natural gas wells that dot the local landscape. I hear that rapid color shift also occurs in Florida, where a sulfurous odor is obvious in the water they use for watering civic lawns (recycled waste water from sewage treatment plants?) I have attempted to achieve this indoors, with a sulfur-compound gas and a fuming hood, but I was unsuccessful – wrong gas, probably. I’ve learned to be patient. If you live too near petroleum processing plants (Gary, Indiana? Long Beach, California?), you probably have the perfect atmosphere for rapid color shifts.

My perfect drawing surface:

I have hit upon a process which gives me what I consider to be the perfect drawing surface for silverpoint, using the glue-based ground formula. By the way, when I refer to “panel”, that can mean a piece of “cradled” Masonite (cradling is when you build a backing support or underframe), a piece of hardwood ply, or an archival board manufactured specifically for artwork (there are several places on the Web that offer these panels. See

  1. I cut a panel to fit the size of the paper I will be using and attach it to the cradle. Note: the cradle I use allows half an inch of overhang on all four sides, to accomodate clips. I then roughen one side thoroughly with medium sandpaper, but not so much as to raise clumps of fibers.
  2. I coat the panel with a liberal brushing of rabbit skin glue, a 10:1 ratio by weight, and let it set up and partially dry for about three hours.
  3. I place a sheet of plate bristol in the soaking tub for fifteen minutes or so, then sandwich in newsprint to remove excess surface water.
  4. I apply a second coat of glue to the panel, then position the paper and smooth any air bubbles out. Positioning is easier if you stand the panel up on an easel, then bring the wet paper to the panel vertically. I’ve used a sponge paint roller as a “brayer” to remove bubbles.
  5. I use small binder clips to ensure that the edges of the paper do not curl up away from the panel before the glue sets. If the piece is large, this takes 30 clips.
  6. The paper now bonded to panel is allowed to cure for a couple of days, then the clips are removed.
  7. Four coats of the Old Master Formula Silverpoint Ground are applied; the first three coats are lightly sanded smooth when dry, then the following coat is applied liberally and brushed smooth with a wide sable or equivalent. For the last coat, I pour the ground through doubled window screening material before applying and very careful smoothing. The screening is advisable because any ground which dries on the edges of the vessel it’s heated in will drop tiny flakes into the liquid which will not redisperse, and you don’t want to sand the last coat. Cheese cloth or other natural fiber screening will not work unless you squeeze it; it swells up with water absorption and stops the flow of the ground.
  8. The panel is allowed to cure for several days. If it has been attached to a temporary cradle by mechanical or other removable means, I can then cut it up into smaller pieces.

I have also stretched paper by just cutting it wider than a panel, bending the paper over the edge while wet and then applying the clips. This avoids the hassles of tape or the expense of commercial “paper stretchers”, and it works pretty well. The only drawback is having to cut off the stiffened bends. You can tape the edges of the bent over paper when it’s dry enough to accept the adhesive, then remove the clips prior to coating.