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History of Silverpoint Drawing

Silverpoint (more broadly, “metal point”) drawing is an archaic medium which reached its peak in the Renaissance period.

Very early in the history of writing, scribes would use metal stylii to make marks in and on a variety of permanent and temporary media, including wax and clay tablets. Wealthy and royal persons who needed to keep records (business inventories and so forth) employed these scribes, and the stylus material served as notice to all of the status of the employer – gold and silver for the upper classes, lead for somewhat lesser beings. (An interesting essay on writing technology development.)

As writing developed further, animal skins were used (vellum and parchment). These skins (called the “support,” stretched and scraped thin and then dried), had to be prepared to accept the marks made with the stylus. So a “ground” was applied to and worked into the support material; the ground consisted of a pigment, usually white, in a binding vehicle, and becomes the “surface” upon which the marks are made.

The binding vehicle could be any number of preparations, including spittle and urine. Early on, the pigments included pumice (probably from Mount Vesuvius), chalk, bone ash, ground roasted bone (from chickens), and so forth. The use of prepared animal skins as supports for important documents written in silverpoint would continue for centuries. In archives and collections throughout Europe one can find historical documents written in silverpoint on animal skins by ancient scribes. I stumbled across one in a cathedral in northeastern England, displayed in a case with various artifacts documenting and illuminating the cathedral’s history. In spite of the relative lack of care, this example on vellum was in excellent condition and quite readable.

During the late medieval period (11th through 14th C.), paper technology gradually spread through Europe from the Far East. Paper at this time was literally worth its weight in gold. Scribes continued to use the metal stylus to make their marks on papers prepared in the same way as animal skins.

Soon artists got into the act. The Dictionary of Art (1996: MacMillan, Ltd., v. 21, pp. 339-340) states, “although a metal stylus had been used to inscribe surfaces since Classical times, metalpoint was employed for drawing only from the medieval period. It was in frequent use from the late 14th Century up to the early 17th and was particularly favoured in the Renaissance period in Italy, the Netherlands, and in Germany…” Cennino Cennini, writing in the 14th century, describes, in his Il Libro dell’Arte, the preparation of the surface to make it ready for silverpoint (he specifies dried chicken bones, burned until very white, mixed with color, then moistened with spittle). Leonardo da Vinci’s preparation of the paper probably included the spittle and bone ash, or perhaps the pumice mentioned earlier.

One of Leonardo’s drawings has received much attention as an example of silverpoint drawing of the period. What many people do not know is that this excellent, meticulous drawing of a soldier in a helmet was executed as a student’s demonstration of his ability as a draughtsman, since all apprentices were expected to do just that before moving on. There was no intent beyond that demonstration, and it is unlikely that the surface was prepared in any way to ensure its permanence; still, it exists, and is presently resting comfortably in England. (For more information on the history of silverpoints, see Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy by Francis Ames-Lewis.)

birchMany other “Old Masters” made effective use of the medium. Raphael used silverpoint in his studies, as did Dürer, Holbein, Rembrandt and Rubens. In fact, Durer had a “sketchbook” of prepared papers which he carried with him during his travels, and made sketches therein. A quick sketch I made appears on the left. Please note: it doesn’t smudge.

Metalpoint was not the only drawing and writing medium employed by artists and scribes during medieval and Renaissance times; chalks and ink were also employed. But metalpoint was superior in some very specific ways – it was fine enough to capture exquisite detail and would not smudge (unlike chalk) and was completely permanent, inert and fade-proof (unlike ink). It could be used on any prepared surface/support; thus, it made an excellent underdrawing for paintings and frescoes. Unlike charcoal or ink, it would not stain or otherwise impart any of itself to painting that followed, an important characteristic for egg tempera use, the dominant method employed during the medieval and early Renaissance periods. It was self-contained, portable, and easy to use. And it could double as ornament (some artists had very ornate precious metal stylii made which they would hang around their neck). The “inert” quality is important – some excellent examples of drawing from this period are silverpoint, and survived through seven hundred years quite well due to their inertness.

The “grounds” gradually underwent change; artists continued to seek better, smoother, more durable surfaces. Over a period of three or four hundred years a series of formulas emerged which resulted in extremely smooth, hard surfaces that not only allowed the marks to be made but amplified them; this is the area where I concentrating my research. The best examples of what I consider to be the ultimate surface come from the Netherlands, and were made with lead-based white pigment (flake white). Now I must caution you that some descriptions of the process state that there is a “chemical reaction” between the ground and the silver left upon it. I’m almost certain that this is not true, that it may just be a function of a physical state, that the extremely tiny particles of the silver left behind on the microabrasive surface just tarnish much more rapidly than coarser particles on a sandpaper-like surface.

Sadly, the metal points were gradually losing favor; preparation of the surface/support was very time consuming, and each generation of artists is always looking for faster methods. Painting was shifting away from tempera and toward oil, and becoming more expressive and direct, but less precise. And some enterprising soul discovered graphite and invented the pencil! (Actually, this took a fairly long time; graphite was discovered in England around 1560 CE, but commercial development of the graphite-and-clay rod sheathed in wood took until the 1800s or so.)

A little aside here: we call the material inside our pencils “lead” – in fact, it is NOT lead, but a compound of graphite and clay. The term “lead” is a holdover from the days when a lead point was actually used to make marks on paper. Lead, being softer than silver and gold, allowed much greater leeway in surface preparation, and could actually leave faint marks on UNprepared papers! The first recorded use of lead as a marking device is mentioned in the writings of the Greek poet Thessalonika.

There was a revival of silverpoint drawing in the 18th C., and again in the late 19th (Leighton, Strang – England), then again in the early 20th (Picasso, Joseph Stella, Francis Wilmer Dewing), and now. Currently, there are a few hundred artists working in the medium; most rely on descriptions in “standard” artists’ materials books, or individual explorations. Unfortunately, most descriptions are not completely correct, in that they consistently describe the medium as being “faint,” “delicate” and so forth.

It often is, but it doesn’t HAVE to be! The problem is that most descriptions are based on examples using Gum Arabic as the vehicle/binder and zinc oxide as the pigment, and the fact that an awful lot of people are prepared to accept the results of using house paint, acrylic gesso, and other less-than-perfect but quick-and-easy ground materials. (But to give them credit, even with a mediocre ground, it’s pretty astounding that silver will leave a mark on paper!)

lakebedThere’s nothing wrong with the zinc oxide – it became commercially available quite recently (late 18th C.), and is an excellent substitute for lead white (it’s not nearly so poisonous!). But Gum Arabic is problematic; it’s almost impossible to build up a thick, smooth surface with it, as in thicker applications it tends to crack as it dries (see an unfortunate example of this on the right). So there’s little pigment on the surface of grounds which depend on it. And that’s why those drawings are faint. (Whoever wrote those books didn’t look at the drawings from the Old Masters, as I did when I conducted my initial research in Her Majesty’s Collection at Windsor Castle and in the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Musem, London). The beauty of the gum arabic / zinc oxide formula is that it’s readily available – Zinc White gouache and/or Chinese White watercolor is nothing more than very fine zinc oxide powder in Gum Arabic!

mayerFor example, let’s take a look at the extremely brief discussion in Ralph Mayer’s famous book, The Artists Handbook of Materials and techniques :

“Silverpoint drawings…are characterized by a certain
delicacy of line… [The] paper can be made by coating
pure, smooth watercolor or drawing paper with a
thin layer of Chinese white…”

smithMayer’s Handbook is quite valuable for many processes, but in this one instance the subject is not as thoroughly researched or explained. Ray Smith’s The Artist’s Handbook is another well-regarded and fairly complete reference which should be in every artist’s studio, and in the case of silverpoint it does a somewhat better job than Mayer’s:

“Making your own surface by coating paper with white
gouache is…satisfactory… Other coatings may be
used, including bone dust, gypsum, and chalk, usually
mixed with glue size…” (4)

In spite of this introductory passage, the procedures Smith describes and illustrates specifies Zinc White gouache or Chinese White watercolor. Perhaps it is only intended to allow a beginner to witness and participate in the process. I propose to show you the promise.

After viewing some of the magnificent drawings held by the British museum, I knew that the kind of response one gets when using Gum Arabic as the binder falls far short of what is truly possible. So I made it my mission to develop a ground formula which allows a greater buildup of the silver and a more “contemporary” response – Bold! Direct! Expressive! – similar to what can be achieved in pencil, conte crayon, etc. I have gone back to the descriptions in the ancients’ writings, and have developed a formula with tremendous response. The result of this research and development was the Old Master Formula Silverpoint Ground™; one can find the formula for it in these pages still, even though I also have succumbed to the lure of  “faster and easier” and switched to the Golden product. Why, even the ready-to-use Silverpoint Sketch Papers have found a place in my arsenal!

I sincerely hope this “brief” history answers some of your questions about silverpoint!