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Ronnie, The Bren Gun Girl Series, 2011
Silver Point Drawing on Treated Parchment,
76cm x 91cm (30" x 36")

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All images (Unless Otherwise Stated) Copyright © Andrew R. Hutchison 2000 - 2014

Silverpoint Drawing Technique

A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod of wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer. Silverpoint is one of several types of metal-point used by scribes, craftsmen and artists since ancient times. Metal-point styli were used for writing on soft surfaces (wax or bark), ruling and underdrawing on parchment, and drawing on prepared paper and panel supports. For drawing purposes, the essential metals used were lead, tin and silver. The softness of these metals made them effective drawing instruments. Goldsmiths also used metal-point drawings to prepare their detailed, meticulous designs. Albrecht Dürer's father was one such craftsman who later taught his young son to draw in metal-point, to such good effect that his 1484 self-portrait at age 13 is still considered a masterpiece.

In the late Gothic/early Renaissance era, silverpoint emerged as a fine line drawing technique. Not blunting as easily as lead or tin, and rendering precise detail, silverpoint was especially favoured in Florentine and Flemish workshops. Silverpoint or Metal-point drawings of this era include model books and preparatory sheets for paintings. Artists who worked in silverpoint include Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael. Cennino Cennini's "Il Libro dell'Arte" provides a window on the practice of silver and leadpoint drawing, as well as preparing metal-point grounds, in the late 14th century. Drawing styles changed at the end of the 16th century, resulting in a decline for metal-point. The discovery of graphite mines at Seathwaite in Borrowdale, Cumbria, England, in the early 1500s and its increasing availability to artists in a pure, soft (and erasable) form hastened silverpoint's eclipse. Artists sought more gestural qualities, for which graphite, red and black chalk were better suited. Ink and wash drawings are also prevalent in the period. In addition, these other drawing techniques required less effort and were more forgiving than silver, which resists erasure and leaves a fainter line. Furthermore, the preparation of silverpoint supports, usually with hide glue with finely ground bone ash, was labor intensive. Modern practitioners use zinc, titanium white tempera or marble dust as a ground. Natural chalks and charcoal have the advantage of producing immediate results on uncoated papers.

Dutch artists including Hendrik Goltzius and Rembrandt van Rijn maintained the silverpoint tradition into the 17th century, as it declined in other parts of Europe. Rembrandt made several silverpoints on prepared vellum, the best-known being the portrait of his wife Saskia, 1633. However, artists who continued the tradition of fine line drawing, such as J. A. D. Ingres, turned to graphite, which gradually improved in quality and availability throughout Europe since the 17th century. Silverpoint was for practical purposes rendered obsolete by the 18th century. There has however been a contemporary art revival among some, especially European, artists and academies because the medium imposes considerable discipline in draughtsmanship since drawings cannot be erased or altered.

A traditional silverpoint stylus is made with a small fine rod of silver, such as jewellers' wire, which is inserted into a wooden rod. The initial marks of silverpoint appear grey as other metal-points, but silverpoint lines, when exposed to air, tarnish to a warm brown tone. The oxidation becomes perceptible over a period of several months. The speed of oxidation varies according to the level of pollution in the air. Historically, silverpoint styli ranged widely in composition from pure silver to heavily alloyed with copper (over 20% weight) of which were used to create this series.

In the Middle Ages, metal-point was used directly on parchment for the underdrawing of illuminated manuscripts or model books. On uncoated parchment and paper, silverpoint is particularly light in value. However, since the 14th century, silverpoint was used more successfully on prepared supports. A traditional ground may be prepared with a rabbit skin glue solution pigmented with bone ash, chalk and/or lead white. The slight tooth of the ground preparation takes a little of the silver as it is drawn across the surface. Silverpoint has encompassed a wide range of styles from Durer's curvi-linear precision to Rembrandt's gestural sketches. Silverpoint has also proven adaptable to modern styles. Old Master silverpoints are typically intimate in scale, recalling the technique's roots in manuscript illumination.

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Example of Metal Point Drawing

Leonardo da Vinci
"Study for Angel - Virgin on the Rocks"
© Bibliteca Reale, Turin

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Example of Metal Point Drawing

Rembrandt van Rijn
"Thatched Houses"
© Staatliche Museen, Berlin