These restrictions make for a certain type of concentration and focus, as well as a fragility that comes from the way tones need to be built up by the gradual massing together of many fine lines.
Left: ‘Portrait of an unknown young woman’, c.1435, by Rogier van der Weyden
Right: ‘The Virgin and the Child’, c.1509, by Raphael
There was an exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago called Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, which brought together examples of metal point from a wide range of artists and times. Both Northern European and Southern European artists during the time of the Renaissance used silverpoint as it lent itself to the sharp delineation of details such as the folds of a cloth or the subtle variation of tone across the surface of a face. The at the time 'new' naturalism was ideal for the harnessing of a technique that would support close looking and fine details.
In this drawing of a dog by Durer you can easily see the sharp, distinct mark that is characteristic of a silverpoint line made on a drawing surface coated with an abrasive ground.
Des Lawrence is a contemporary artist that has taken to silverpoint to make obituary portraits. In this case the delicate, precision of the medium and the way it changes with age as the silver tarnishes, create a perfect mesh between chosen medium and subject matter. Not simply an allusion to the 'silver screen' but a recognition of the historical precedence of the medium, used in the past to depict saints, and now portraying a faded star; the medium of silverpoint becoming a way of preserving a celluloid 'ghost'.
Des Lawrence Obituary portrait: Jimmy Stewart: Silverpoint
The most common recipe for making an abrasive surface was to apply a liquid made of burnt and pulverised animal bones or cuttlefish bound together with glue or gum. This could be applied in layers to a variety of surfaces from prepared wooden panels to paper and parchment. You could also add pigment whilst making the ground, this could act as a mid tone onto which you could add white highlights with a very fine brush.
Jasper Johns: Silverpoint drawing
Jasper Johns is an artist that is always trying to play with the way a material can shift the meaning of an image, so it is to be expected that he would have used silverpoint at some time. The delicate etherial nature of the material produces an almost ghostlike image of one of his variations on a theme, making me think that in some ways for Johns the image is at times incidental. Compare an image using a different technique.
Jasper Johns: Painting in encaustic
You can just about see the faucet to the bottom right of his silverpoint drawing and one of his Rubin vases in the centre, these re-occur in the encaustic painting above. Johns shuffles the image pack every time he approaches making an art work and over the years gradually adds new ones. The Rubin vase occurs yet again in the etching below, the aquatint providing a tonal richness that once again changes the visual read of the image.
Jasper Johns etching
Taking an image through as many different ways of making it as possible is a direct consequence of Johns' often quoted maxim, "Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that", an approach to art making that often seems to work and is a great way of making a next step when you are unsure as to what to do next.
The artist Susan Schwalb has focused on silver and other metal point drawings for some time and has an extensive body of work devoted to the subtlety of this technique. In her case she restricts her images to tightly controlled abstract constructions, this allows you to concentrate more on the effect that the process has on the visual quality attained and stops you getting distracted by the narrative of the image.
Susan Schwalb: silverpoint
Susan Schwalb: Madrigal: aluminum/copper/silverpoint on grey gessoed paper
Susan Schwalb also uses the effect a toned ground can give. As you can see with the drawing on grey gessoed paper above, she has been able to sit the soft warm tones of copperpoint in amongst the cooler tones of aluminium and silverpoint, using the grey colour of the ground to help blend them all together.
Cynthia Lin depicts scraps of hair, bits of dust and those things that you usually want to wipe off the surface of a drawing when its been left out in the studio for a few days. She uses the delicacy of silverpoint on gesso to remind us that it is often the tiny insignificant things that we never notice that hold important messages about the way we move through life. Dust and hair the products of our own body gradually flaking off and leaving a faint delicate trail behind us.
Roy Eastland is an artist that has used silverpoint on gesso to suggest an image coming into focus. He works on and into thick layers of gesso which allows him to scratch and sand back into his drawings, he revises and redraws until the image arrives out of a haze of marks.
As always there is a scientific principle at work here, the mohs scale of hardness reminds us that the ability of a harder material to scratch a softer material allows us to think about how to use selected materials to shape and form others. As one surface rubs against another there is an intimation of geological forces at work, the drawing's surface working as a miniature landscape, being eroded and cut into by the forces of metals and minerals dancing in tune to hand gestures and a changing mind as the artist searches for an image in the ground.
You can easily make your own drawing tools if you want to work using metal points, or if you need to you can still buy both metalpoint drawing tools and prepared grounds from art suppliers such as Jacksons. I would personally recommend making your own but see this link if you want to just buy stuff and get on with trying things out.
You can buy silver wire for less that £1.50.
You can buy silver wire for less that £1.50.
Find here a link to an exhibition that brought together several contemporary artists using silverpoint.