Monday, August 31, 2015


In the last several years I've become increasingly fascinated by the metalpoint medium. It's an old way of making marks, dating back as far as the Romans and probably farther. At first it seems that people used small rods of lead to make marks on wood, parchment, and other surfaces. Metallic lead is quite soft and rubs off easily, but isn't always satisfactory for use. Gradually rods and styli of silver and other metals replaced lead. By the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, many artists began a painting with a detailed drawing in silverpoint. Silverpoint has the advantage of being quite permanent and difficult to rub out. That same advantage is something of a disadvantage as well--mistakes may be difficult to correct.

Silverpoint drawings by Renaissance masters like Durer and da Vinci have been part of my inspiration. Those artists and others had to have amazing drawing skill, since once a mark is put down with silverpoint it's not going to change. You simply must draw well.

Here is a copy I made of a da Vinci silverpoint from the 15th century. The support I used is a small hardboard panel primed with traditional gesso measuring 6 by 8 inches. With this one I simply picked up the panel and stylus and made the drawing. It took perhaps four hours. The photograph is a bit dark; the gessoed panel is white.

Head of a Warrior in a fantastic helmet, after da Vinci
In my copy my interest was more on getting that fantastic helmet just right than on traditional metalpoint technique. The masters used cross-hatching and line weight with great facility, but I was more interested in seeing how the medium works. Hence the sometimes choppy and uncertain lines. The original drawing is a chest-high image of a warrior. That drawing and a number of others are on view now at the British Museum. It's a show I long to see. The catalog is gorgeous, and the show contains work not only by masters of the 15th and 16th centuries, but also works by more contemporary artists like Otto Dix, Jasper Johns, and Joseph Stella.

As to my silverpoint works, besides the Leonardo copy here are several, all done on small gessoed, toned panels. The faint toning of the panels was done with transparent watercolor, applied and wiped to avoid too much soaking into the porous gesso. Although it's often been said that silverpoint suffers from an inability to achieve a wide range of values, that hasn't been my experience. Instead, the ability to differentiate value depends on the quality of the metal (softer and finer), the abrasiveness of the surface, and the pressure applied by the artist. Further, you can darken and widen your line to assist in development of depth. Overall, it's a wonderful medium for drawing, if indeed unforgiving.
Head of a hound, after a 15th century Durer original

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