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Metal Point

The First Pencil

From the Medieval to Renaissance times, before graphite or “lead” pencils were developed metal point was the means to draw and on occasions write on paper. The reason I am including this medium on a website about painting is that, in many occasions during the Renaissance it was utilized as a means to create an under drawing for egg tempera and oil paintings on panels.

Although silver has become the favored metal in this process , many soft metals have been used such as gold, nickel, copper, bronze, and lead all producing a different final results and color. Copper is the quickest to tarnish and turns into a golden/green patina where as silver tarnishes into a dark brownish tint. Most metals other than silver, nickel and copper do not darken or tarnish as well, which is why silver had become chosen for artists use.A serious amount of time and patience is required to create silverpoint drawings making large pieces a grueling task. By creating lines with the single hatch and/or cross hatch strokes the drawing techniques are very similar to methods used in print etching.

“Portrait of a Young Woman”
 Rogier van der Weyden
166 x 116 mm   c. 1440
Silverpoint on prepared paper
British Museum, London

click on image for enlarged view

The marks can be erased by gently rubbing with fine sandpaper but, must be made with light precise stokes leaving little room for error.

In the drawing process, particles are rubbed off the tip of  a pointed rod of metal and set in in the surface of a specially prepared toothed ground that works similar to a super fine sandpaper where the gray colored stokes are made. Dictated by sunlight, humidity, and the percentage of sulfur in the air, these lines sometimes take months to a year to tarnish on the surface as the metal oxidizes.  Darker stokes are made by carefully layering over the previous stoke since pressing harder will only result in damaging the surface or ground.

Appropriate Supports & Grounds

Medieval and Renaissance documentation suggests that early silverpoint was drawn on paper or board with a ground produced of calcined bone ash (calcium phosphate obtained from burnt bone) in a glue binder usually of either  Rabbit Skin Glue or Gum Arabic.

However, it is my personal belief that a blend of  calcined bone ash  or white kaolin clay in a binder of  Neutral pH PVA (poly vinyl acetate) Adhesive diluted with distilled water today will produce a greater archive quality ground. It can be tinted with dry pigments, gouache, or just about any tube watercolor. My judgment is based on the fact that Neutral pH PVA once dry is more flexible and much more effective than RSG or Gum Arabic  for the restriction of  water absorption into the paper. In fact Gum Arabic (the watercolor binder) will break down if exposed to water even after it has been dry on the surface for a period of time. To hold up to this type of work it is best to use a rugged and smooth archival  ‘hot pressed’ 140lb. or higher weight cotton rag watercolor paper.

Modern surfaces include panels and heavy paper coated with latex grounds such as  Golden Silverpoint/Drawing Ground  (Watch this Video) and/or Gouache as well as prepared supports like  Claybord Panels. There are also heavy weight drawing boards such as Crescent 405111 Professional Grade Illustration that look favorable but, for use with this medium they will still be required to have a ground applied before starting.

If you were to use a paper backed with a rigid panel, a superior silverpoint ground  would be a blend of casein glue with calcined bone ash and/or zinc white casein paint. This ground provides more tooth than acrylic gessoes and if applied with a high pH (buffered with borax) it will chemically react with the metal fibers left on the paper from drawing to accelerate the patina. This ground can also be toned with any casein paint to draw on.

Getting Started

The traditional drawing tool is a metal (dead soft) rod about 1/8 inch in diameter and about  4 -6 inches long. It can be pointed at both ends but should have have a flat chisel edge on one end for making wide strokes. The modern finer drawing tool (stylus) used for fine detail consist of a handle with metal wire that looks and works much like a drafting pencil. The heavier gauge wire can be held freely where as the thinner gauge wires will require a stylus. Finding metals for and tools for this use is generally be both difficult and costly. Natural Pigments are the only ones I have found to supply them consistently in all the metals.


 The techniques used in metal point drawings are much like engravings where as it’s a drawing style in which extremely fine precise lines are drawn close together to create the variation of tones.In viewing Leonardo’s drawing to the right you will notice demonstration use of numerous drawing stoke patterns and techniques used in this image.

  • First is the faint tint of what appears to be a toned wash over the initial ground. (This could also be caused from natural aging of the paper.)
  • Contour lines appear as the initial outline.
  • Single Hatching (where the lines run in the same direction) appear in the medium toned areas.
  • Cross Hatching is visible in the deep shadowed lines of this study.
Study of hands - Leonardo da Vinci “Study of hands”
Leonardo da Vinci
214 x 150 mm   c. 1474
Silverpoint with white highlights
on pink toned paper
Royal Library, Windsor
click on image for enlarged view
  • Finally the highlighted areas could have been achieved two ways. One would be to apply a lighter toned wash over the existing drawing in the areas requiring highlights. The other would be to lightly sand the toned area out.

Due to the extreme detail opportunity metal point provides, it has become very popular among miniaturists. Similarly for many artists silverpoint has become a medium to explore as a mixed medium designed in a minimum palette layout as well as utilized in under drawings for egg tempera painters.


Related links and Notable Metal Point Artists

Gordon K. Hanley ARC Living Master –  (Very inspiring work)

Metalpoint Drawing: History and Care of a Forgotten Art  (.pdf file) by Beth Antoine

Tom Mazzullo Drawings

Victor Koulbak and silver point drawing

SilverPointWeb.Com – Complete Silverpoint Drawing Info




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