Making simple grounds for silverpoint drawing

Silverpoint drawing requires a specially prepared ground because the silverpoint will not make a mark on ordinary paper. Preparing the ground can be a complicated business, and I shall be adding some posts which go into this in more detail. But in order to get started, I would like to suggest some simple options which will not take too much time to prepare. I suggest you simply use paper as the support, and my preference, as usual, is Fabriano Artistico hot-pressed, 200 or 300 gsm.

Ready Prepared Grounds

You can now buy ready prepared grounds which you simply brush on to a piece of paper; they are ready to draw on as soon as they are dry. Roberson’s silverpoint drawing ground from L. Cornelissen & Son is made of traditional ground chicken bone in a less traditional acrylic medium, and it is slightly pigmented to give it a cream tone. You have to shake it up well before applying – it’s quite a thin solution, so it is best to apply two or three coats – always waiting for the previous coat to dry first. It has a slightly granular surface, which provides a ‘tooth’ for the silverpoint stylus to work well. They also supply ready prepared boards with this product, but I am not over enthusiastic about these because the board they use has a softer surface than my preferred paper, giving a slightly squidgy feel to the drawing, and they are rather expensive for what they are.

Zinc White and Gum Arabic Ground

A nice ‘home made’ option is to use zinc white gouache mixed with some extra gum Arabic. Zinc white is a relatively modern pigment, and gouache was an early twentieth century invention formulated by colourmen like Winsor & Newton. It is simply a bulking up and extending of watercolour pigments to make them  opaque and creamy for designers and illustrators to use.

To mix up enough ground to prepare a sheet of Fabriano paper (which you can tear into two or four pieces), get a glass or ceramic bowl, and squeeze in a dollop of the paint – about the size of a walnut.  Gradually trickle in some water, using a small stiff brush to mix the paint up well with the water, untill you get a consistency like thin cream. The advice generally given is to make it like thick cream, but I find this does not go on very smoothly, and a thinner solution gives a better and smoother surface. When you have the required consistency, add some liquid gum Arabic – about a teaspoon full. A note of advice based on bitter experience – be careful to wipe the mouth of the gum Arabic bottle before you screw the lid back on – otherwise you will never get it off again! The gum Arabic is a necessary addition; without it you will find that the zinc white ground has a tendency to powder off slightly.  You can get away with a single layer of this ground.

Technique for Laying the Ground

Work on a clean drawing board made of wood or MDF. You do not need to stretch the paper – but you will need to moisten the back of it before you lay the ground onto the right side, to prevent the paper from curling up during application and drying. You will need a bowl of clean water and a 2 inch flat brush or a foam brush to do this. I like Pro Arte polar white nylon varnish brushes for this purpose, because they are thin and supple and do not shed hairs while working. Do not over-wet the paper, the idea is to dampen it and allow the moisture to soak into the paper. When this is done, turn the paper over so that the damp surface is on the drawing board, and the ‘right’ side is facing up. Use a fresh 2 inch flat brush to carefully apply the ground.

Joann Kosek shows the best way to apply a ground to paper, using controlled systematic strokes from left to right with a flat brush.

My friend Joanna Kosek, who is an experienced paper conservator, demonstrated the best way to apply a ground.

  • Load the brush half-way up from the tip with the prepared ground, and draw it gently against the edge of the bowl to remove any excess.
  • Holding it fairly upright. start working from the top of the paper using controlled strokes from left to right, making sure you go right to the edges of the paper, or just over.
  • Do not allow the paper to move as you are working, otherwise you will get ground on the underside, and this will stick firmly to the drawing board as it dries.
  • Work systematically down the sheet of paper using the same left-to right strokes, re-loading the brush before each stroke.
  • If you get a bit of lint or hair on the surface, try to pick it up with the tip of the brush.
  • You can try to smooth it over while it is still wet by misting it with a water spray (like a plant mister) and stroke lightly with the very tip of the brush, but it is best to interfere as little as possible once the ground is applied.
  • Leave the paper to dry exactly where it is, on a flat surface – this should only take two or three hours.
  • When dry, carefully lift the paper up, running a palette knife under the edges if necessary.

It will be ready to use immediately. If you want to store it, make sure you keep it flat. For example, you can keep it between the pages of a hard-backed sketch book.