by Gerrit Verstraete AOCA, BFA, ACAD
Silverpoint is a drawing technique that was extensively used during the Renaissance both as under drawing in panel painting and as a medium for fine drawings. Fine drawings were created on white or tinted grounds and were commonly highlighted with white watercolor applied with a brush. To this day, silverpoint, or metal point as it is also known, remains a traditional but seldom used artist’s technique for fine drawing. Essentially, the technique is based on coated paper upon which the artist draws with a fine silver stylus. Metal point drawings are created with a stylus of copper, silver, gold, and platinum. A contemporary metal point tool comprises a standard draftsman’s mechanical pencil. Instead of graphite “leads,” the artist inserts a silver, copper, platinum or gold rod or wire of about 2mm in width. Silver and gold are readily available from jewelry craftspeople. A fine metal file keeps the point relatively sharp, although too sharp a point may tear the paper.
To coat the paper with a “ground,” 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, such as rabbit skin glue, and then coated on a paper or wood surface. As silverpoint drawing began, minute particles of silver were embedded in the surface leaving a grayish line. In turn these lines tarnished with time giving the drawing a mature look. Instead of calcified bones and rabbit skin glue, a contemporary ground for silverpoint drawing is standard flat white latex acrylic primer paint or Gesso. Tints can be added to the while latex paint. My favorite tinting material is guache paint and watercolor. Any paper of reasonable weight ( Stonehenge 245 GSM is an excellent paper ) is suitable for surface preparation for silverpoint work. Other commercially available surfaces include clay-coated Plike paper, clay board and primed masonite. I have spent considerable time exploring mixed-media surfaces using such materials as silver enamel, gold dust, marble dust, and plaster of Paris. I will brush, splash, spatter, roll, sand, press and burnish the ground experimenting beyond conventional boundaries.
The artist must possess a certain amount of confidence in his or her ability to draw because silverpoint lines cannot be erased. Neither is silverpoint a sketching medium. Instead, it is a fine drawing medium. Lines can be built up to create tonal values through hatching, contour lines, drifts, and other drawing techniques. The overall tone of an original silverpoint drawing is a light to medium grey. To strengthen some areas of the drawing, especially in the form lines that contain the image, 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 metal point 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. 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 metal point drawing flourished in the United States dating back as early in as 1904. In Canada little work in silverpoint is created, at least to the extent that such work enjoys public appreciation and awareness. I began using silverpoint in the early nineties, inspired by the drawings of Canadian master, John Gould. The medium remains exacting yet very rewarding as somehow, the artist feels “connected” to the work of centuries ago. As I continue this journey of walking in the footsteps of masters, I feel particularly blessed to have begun to master this ancient yet every bit contemporary technique.
In addition to traditional representational drawings in silverpoint, I have “pushed the envelope” along with a few others to take the medium into abstract and minimalist work. Very exciting. The journey continues…..