Drawing in Silverpoint
I first tried my hand at silverpoint in 2007, as part of Paul Missal’s Techniques of the Old Masters class at PNCA; since then, it’s become a regular if not frequent tool in my creative lexicon. ”Silverpoint” is a pretty literal descriptor of the medium, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, here’s an extended definition (courtesy of Wikipedia):
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)
Following old masters class, I began using silver to sketch my initial compositions for paintings. Its archival qualities coupled with its inert relationship to paint made it an ideal medium for sketching on primed painting supports. It eliminated the problems of smudged charcoal and graphite bleed-through.
In 2010, when I was doing preparatory work for my undergraduate thesis, I began treating silverpoint as a medium in its own right. I love the way its lines build, delicate mark after delicate mark, and feel the process is akin to drawing through hard ground with a needle.
My most successful artwork from that exploratory period is a diptych, consisting of a portrait of my grandmother and a block of text, letterpress-printed with silver rubber-based ink. This work appeared in the 11th Annual PNCA BFA Juried Exhibition, and is now part of a private collection:
It was part of a body of work that (without getting too specific) pondered the nature of family narratives, which walk a hazy line between fiction and truth, and the process of realizing that the adults we love unconditionally when we are children are, in fact, flawed humans – not benevolent deities. Ultimately I decided that body of work was too personal to move forward with in the context of the very public thesis process, a decision that eventually led me to produce Stories From the Stone House.
Recently I recreated this drawing of my grandmother in a smaller format, on a low-tooth panel. The toothiness of the panel made it impossible to recreate the subtlety in her expression, but I occasionally like to redraw old work (mine and old masters) as an exercise. I’ve been drawing more than printmaking lately, spending time that I would normally spend in the print lab developing the Geometries project and the grant that I hope will fund its creation.
When I draw in silverpoint, I use a piece of silver wire roughly the diameter of drafting lead (around 12 gauge, if I remember correctly) and secure it in a lead holder for comfort. My partner gave me this piece of silver, but it’s easy and inexpensive to purchase. Most people purchase silver wire from jewelers’ supply stores; in the past, I’ve purchased pieces from Cline Glass here in Portland, Oregon.
To prepare the wire for drawing, I file the tip so that it has two flat edges and looks like a “V” from the side. The V point can be used for making fine lines; the flat areas are great for soft tones and shading.
Silver is pretty soft, so I have to periodically reshape the drawing tip, particularly if I’m working with it a lot. I actually enjoy the reshaping process; it’s similar to but much less rigorous than sharpening engraving tools.
To sharpen my stylus, I just wrap a wood block in medium-to-fine grit sandpaper and rub the flat sides against the sandpaper until it looks right. Some people will sand one side only, leaving an oval-shaped flat instead of the half-circle. Either way works.
Silverpoint drawing fell out of common use following the invention of graphite drawing sticks, which makes sense. Graphite writes on more surfaces, is erasable, and comes in a wide range of hardnesses and softnesses. (Fun fact: pure graphite is the softest and darkest; harder and lighter grades are created by mixing clay with the graphite.) Still, silverpoint is lovely, and doesn’t mix into my pigments when I paint over or into drawings.
If you’re interested in silverpoint, Anita Chowdry wrote a more thorough blog post last year, “Getting Started with Silverpoint”, which you can find here. She describes silverpoint drawings as “exquisite, intimate things,” which is why I like them. You might also want to check out silverpointweb.com. It hasn’t been updated since 2011, but there’s plenty of good information.
A lot of information sources really geek out on the details and complexities of silverpoint drawing, which is nice, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. All you need is a piece of silver and a gessoed support – and any good gesso with a reasonable quantity of titanium dioxide will do. While a smoothly sanded support is best for finely detailed work, a rougher surface is fun to scratch away at too. Most importantly, just have fun with it. Personally, I find the slow drawing process relaxing.