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.
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.
Helloooo, thank you for your post, can you tell me if it is important for the gouache to be zinc white or would any other white work just as well, eg. titanium? Thankyou!
Zink white is the traditional one to use. I have used flake white successfully – that’s the historical lead white or ceruse. That of course is toxic. Modern titanium white is the best non-toxic substitute, and it is a lovely opaque pure white. You can also tint it using small amounts of other pigments – earthy ochres, or tiny amounts of indigo for bues, for example.
dear anita chowdry
my supplier of claycoat paper
(new york central) has gone out of business.
i tried a prepared paper made in florence
italy, but it is soft and “squidgy” and seems
poorly made. corneilson’s prepared paper
is not archival, they say. one final option
is in paris at the store that makes famous pastels.
but it looks like it is time to make my own ground. i’m assuming that all the painted-on grounds described on the internet are all
archival. but no one explicitly says so. golden
hints so with the word “permanent.”
how to assure archival quality.?? what a shame
to draw on fabriano, to see my ground
yellow in ten years! regards
I found out that whiting serves the purpose well and it’s cheap. found in hardware stores.
Hi Joe, I guess whiting is chalk, which is calcium based – similar to the original calcified chicken bone recommended by Cennini. What did you use as a medium?
Don’t know if you still check these replies Anita, but I just wanted to thank you for this silverpoint ground recipe. Tried it out yesterday, and it is very satisfying. Like it a lot better than my own experimental concoction of thinned acrylic wall paint with added chalk.
Hello Edze, I certainly still do still check out comments!
Thankyou so much for sharing this, I am so glad it works for you.
Best Wishes, Anita
Apologies for any recent glitches on this post – I am updating it. Look out for more posts on drawing and pigments soon!
Thank you, Anita. Your drawings are also lovely! I appreciate your taking time to respond to my question:). Best regards.
Can I draw with graphite or charcoal on this same preparation- do you know? I’m using rabbitskin glue in my toning preparation and want to move away from that.
I have also made grounds of rabbitskin glue and zinc white, and also rabbitskin glue and flake white. I can understand why you want to move away from rabbitskin – it is a rather soft surface compared to gum Arabic, and it smells like tanned leather when you use it. All of my students prefer the ground above.
On the gum Arabic and white ground, you can use just about any medium as long as it is not too wet (splashy watercolour is out!) but having said that, I do darken some areas using miniature painting stippling techniques with a fine brush and tiny amont of black watercolour. I hope that helps.
By the way, your drawings are beautiful!