Silverpoint (one of several types of metalpoint) is a traditional drawing technique first used by medieval scribes on manuscripts.
A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer. Silverpoint is one of several types of metalpoint used by scribes, craftsmen and artists since ancient times. Metalpoint 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. (Watrous, 1957) Goldsmiths also used metalpoint drawings to prepare their detailed, meticulous designs. Albrecht Dürer’s father was one such craftsman who later taught his young son to draw in metalpoint, to such good effect that his 1484 self-portrait at age 13 is still considered a masterpiece.
The silver tip is a drawing tool, consisting of a thin pointed silver rod, of variable dimensions, fixed on a handle or a type of mechanical pencil. It is used as a pencil to draw on a necessarily prepared medium, paper or parchment coated with a white substance or colored originally based on bone powder, called Renaissance Carta Tinta. The carta tinta can be replaced by a gesso type preparation or gouache.
The line obtained is of great finesse and a gray tone which evolves with time and the oxidation of the metal towards warm browns. Contrary to popular belief, due to the scarcity of its practice, the silver tip is a cheap tool: its manufacture is simple and very minimal wear. A silver rod of a few centimeters is set at the end of a handle usually made of wood. Otherwise, a piece of silver rod can be held in a jaw-sized mechanical pencil.
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 favored in Florentine and Flemish workshops. Silverpoint 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 metalpoint grounds, in the late 14th century (Thompson, 1933; Duval, et al., 2004). Susan Dorothea White’s recent book Draw Like Da Vinci (2006) describes the silverpoint technique of Leonardo da Vinci.
As noted by Francis Ames-Lewis, drawing styles changed at the end of the 16th century, resulting in a decline for metalpoint. The discovery of graphite deposits 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 (Ames-Lewis, 2000).
Dutch artists Hendrik Goltzius and Rembrandt 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 (KdZ1152, Berlin). 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 (Reiche, 2005). There has however been a contemporary art revival among 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 jeweler’s wire, which is inserted into a wooden rod. Another design is a silver-tipped metal stylus with points on both ends. An example of this type is shown in Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin, ca. 1435–40 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). For a contemporary stylus, jeweler’s wire may be inserted into a pin vise or mechanical pencil (Watrous, 1957).
The initial marks of silverpoint appear grey as other metalpoints, 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) (Duval, 2004; Reiche, 2004/2005; Watrous, 1957).
In the Middle Ages, metalpoint 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. Contemporary grounds include acrylic gesso, gouache and commercially prepared claycoat papers. 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 Dürer’s curvilinear precision to Rembrandt’s gestural sketches. Silverpoint has also proven adaptable to modern styles. Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s late 19th Century silverpoint portraits are essentially tonal, as are Paula Gerard’s mid-20th-century abstract compositions. Gerard’s “Vortex” (Fairweather Hardin Gallery) is an innovative combination of silverpoint, goldpoint and watercolor on casein-coated parchment (Weber, 1985).
Old Master silverpoints are typically intimate in scale, recalling the technique’s roots in manuscript illumination. However, modern artists have also utilized this fine line technique for works on an increasingly large scale.
The return of the silver mine is at the beginning of the twentieth century, with Pre-Raphaelite painters, Alphonse Legros in England, Joseph Meder in Austria and Germany, Joseph Stella in the United States. This technique is becoming more prevalent today. Some artists use the silver tip together with other techniques and do not hesitate to make large works.