Dating back to the 12th century, the technique of silverpoint can be a wonderful addition to a botanical artist's technique toolbox. Read on to learn how to get started!
Post by Sheila Liddle, DipSBA, Botanical Artist, ABA Member.
My introduction to silverpoint or metalpoint was when I enrolled on the Society of Botanical Artists Distance Learning Diploma Course and was browsing through Margaret Stevens' book “The Art of Botanical Painting”, where there are several examples of silverpoint. The drawings have a very soft, subtle look to them.
Most of us will have admired the wonderful drawings of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. A large number of their drawings were achieved using silverpoint and with time have oxidized to give a sepia tone to the drawing. It is thanks to this technique that the drawings have survived.
So, what is silverpoint or metalpoint as it is also known?
Early scholars used wax tablets and chalk or charcoal. The problem with chalk and charcoal was that it was not durable. In the 12th century, scholars started using metals on treated backgrounds to write and draw. Silver and lead were commonly used as they were readily available.
People also used other metals such as gold, aluminium and copper.
The drawing implement was either made from the actual metal or a metal wire was inserted in a suitable piece of wood or dowel.
Silverpoint drawings were made on a smooth but “toothed” background which could be wood, skin or paper. Some materials were just coated with oil paint, but generally the background was coated with a finely ground bone ash, marble or clay mixed in with the paint. One medieval record by Cennino Cennini, an artist in 1396, described the process of preparing the background: 'by retrieving chicken wing bones from under the table, put them in the fire and let them turn to a white ash, collect them up and mix with white lead, animal glue and/or paint, then paint the background'.
The technique was replaced with the invention of graphite in the early 16th century, which had a similar durability but could be erased when required. Metal point cannot be erased without difficulty. Although the majority of artists switched to graphite, the technique has seen a resurgence in recent years.
If you wish to try silverpoint, you will need a metal stylus and suitable background on which to draw. For a recent workshop with my local botanical painters, I prepared hot pressed watercolour paper by coating it with Liquitex Acrylic Gesso. Rather than painting it I poured a thin line of paint across the top of the paper and coated the paper by dragging a credit card across the paper. I allowed it to dry before applying a second coat. The instructions suggest allowing 24 hours for the coating to dry. It gave a nice smooth background on which to draw.
Pigment can be added to the acrylic gesso if one requires a slightly coloured background.
Rather than buy an expensive silverpoint pencil, I used a reasonable quality mechanical pencil (0.7mm lead) and inserted a 5cm piece of 0.6mm sterling silver wire in the end of the pencil. I also tried using the gold wire from a broken earring. This gives a slightly different colour to the silver wire. If you use copper this will change to a slightly greenish colour with time. Silver wire will oxidise with time and give a brown cast to the drawing. I have not had my drawings long enough for this to happen.
To create a silverpoint drawing, you just draw as you would with a graphite pencil, shading with lines or dots. However you must remember that you will not be able to erase mistakes very easily as you would graphite. You also need to be aware that you will not achieve the dark shadows you would with a soft graphite pencil, but you can deepen the shadows by gently adding more silver.
The drawing below is my first attempt at silverpoint, so my technique requires some refining, but I will be definitely doing some more.
The finished drawing will have a soft appearance with a silver sheen to it. I recommend you try it.
'Silver Linings: Introduction to Silverpoint Drawing' by Banjie Getsinger Nicholas, 2012.
'Silverpoint and Metalpoint Drawing - A Complete Guide to the Medium' by Susan Schwalb and Tom Mazzullo, 2019
'The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini: A Contemporary Practical Treatise on Quattrocento Painting', 1899, https://resources.warburg.sas.ac.uk/pdf/cnh925b2209242.pdf.
Sheila Liddle is a primarily self-taught botanical artist whose interest in botanical art began with a course at Dillington House, Illminster, UK, in 2016. She completed the Society for Botanical Artists Distance Learning Diploma Course in 2021 and is a member of Botanical Painters at Brackenwood, Bristol, UK, and the Association of Botanical Artists.
Sheila works mainly in watercolour although she plans to do more work in silverpoint. Her artwork has been included in ABA exhibitions. Sheila also creates botanical jewellery in silver; her jewellery was shown at the SBA Plantae exhibition at Mall Galleries, London, UK, in 2023.