Getting started with Silverpoint Drawing

Leonardo da Vinci, Bust of a warrior in profile, Florence, Italy, AD 1475-80
© The Trustees of the British Museum

This  silverpoint drawing  is by Leonardo da Vinci,  in the British Museum collection. It is called ‘Bust of a warrior in profile’ , dated 1475-80, © The Trustees of the British Museum. It is one of my favourites. He was a young pupil of Andrea Verrocchio when he executed this exercise in silverpoint drawing.

Metalpoints or styluses were used by European artists and apprentices to make drawings and studies before the invention of graphite pencils. They required a carefully prepared surface in order to work – they do not make marks on ordinary paper – and they can be made of a variety of different metals, including gold, silver, copper and lead. The commonest metalpoint was made of silver, which works particularly well because of the way it oxidizes.

Today you can buy silverpoints from specialist art shops like L.Cornelissen & Son together with the grounds needed for them to work. The ‘ground’ is simply the surface you apply to the paper or board that you want to work on, and consists of a basic white pigment mixed with water and a ‘binder’. Traditionally artists used calcified and pulverized bone for the pigment, and animal glue for the binder. You can buy a ready-made bone ground with an acrylic binder which works well, or make a simple one yourself using zinc white gouache with gum arabic as a binder. I shall cover the process of making and applying grounds in my next post.

The silverpoints that you draw with are simply small pieces of pure silver wire, of varying thicknesses. You can buy them ready-mounted in a wooden pencil, or as a cheaper and more flexible option, you can buy (or find) small sections of wire and put them in a propelling pencil (take out the lead first!). Sculptor Eleanor Crook, my tutor at Central Saint Martins, introduced us to the idea of using a silver spoon to get bolder and darker effects – it’s fun to use and extends the scope of silverpoint drawing. I used it in my ‘syphilitic skull‘ drawing to create areas of deep shadow to contrast with the more delicately drawn areas.

Below are some silverpoints of different thicknesses and a silver teaspoon with the marks they make.

As you can see, silverpoint is an extremely delicate medium, which makes it hard to reproduce in a photograph. Silverpoint drawings are exquisite, intimate things, meant to be seen in the original and close-up. The medium requires a meticulous and detailed approach, and the oxidized silver marks have an iridescent sheen that mellows with time. A drawing will change within months of being executed – the grey lines and marks become warm-toned and patinated.

Drawing with silverpoint demands a certain rigour. Classic methods of shading and modelling using parallel lines, hatching and stippling work best. The marks cannot be erased or smudged, so there are no ‘cheats’ or shortcuts! Dark areas are built up by working layer over layer of shading; even so, you will never get dense black shades, so you need to modulate the shading very carefully to avoid getting a homogenous grey mass. Passages of pure linear work to contrast with densely worked areas of shading create interest, and the lines must be clear, fluent and unlaboured.  The chart I have prepared below illustrates some of the drawing techniques for silverpoint. Check out my Drawing Classes if you would like to learn these techniques in a studio environment.

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, author of the famous fifteenth-century treatise Il Libro dell’ Arte offers the following advice on starting to draw with a metal ‘style’ on a prepared panel :   “…run the style over the little panel so lightly that you can hardly make out what you first start to do; strengthening your strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows. And the darker you want to make the shadows in the accents, the more times you go back to them; and so, conversely, go back over the reliefs only a few times.”

In my next post I shall share some experiments on preparing silverpoint grounds. Meanwhile, one of the most comprehensive web resources devoted to all aspects of silverpoint, is well worth a visit.