Early Use of Pencil

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Portrait Study of Dorothea Meyer, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1516. Silverpoint, red chalk, and traces of black pencil on white-coated paper, Kunstmuseum Basel.

Drawing with metalpoint, such as silverpoint, is an art form that was replaced by graphite pencil but is being rediscovered today.

Metalpoint, descended from the stylus of classical times, is a medieval drawing medium that predates modern graphite drawing and uses soft metals to make marks on specially prepared papers. A drawing done by metalpoint is created by dragging a small sharpened metal rod across a paper or vellum surface prepared with a layer of gesso or primer. Because they were soft and effective as drawing materials, the metals used most often were copper, lead, tin, gold, or silver. Metalpoint as a drawing form has changed little over the centuries.

Metalpoint Defined

As preparation for a painting, artists used the technique of metalpoint to draw their compositions on specially-coated paper or parchment. The artist would draw with a special metal stylus, perhaps a small fine rod of silver or wire inserted into a wooden rod.

Metalpoint drawing offers artists the ability to achieve lasting and detailed lines that won’t smudge. The rod or stylus leaves behind tiny particles of metal when dragged across the slightly abrasive ground. The minute particles of metal are embedded in the surface; with time these lines tarnish and impart various colors.

Silverpoint

Silverpoint emerged in the late-Gothic/early-Renaissance era as a fine line drawing technique. Silverpoint drawings tend to be subtle, even pale, and intimate. The technique is appropriate for careful draftsmanship rather than overt expressiveness. The silver marks cannot be erased without destroying the surface beneath the drawing. This tendency most likely led to its demise.

In silverpoint, the initial marks are gray, but will tarnish with exposure to the air to a warm brown. Silver takes considerable time to tarnish, perhaps years, where copper will tarnish in about a month. Gold does not tarnish. While silver tarnishes the lines into a brownish color, copper produces a yellow-green line. Gold is too expensive to be used frequently.

Preparation Time

Creating paper, vellum, or hide that can be used with metalpoint is labor intensive. It requires time for coating the surface with an abrasive material like gesso and fine ash and allowing time for drying.

Conversely, the introduction of chalks and charcoal at the end of the 16th century gave artists the advantage of immediate results on plain paper and required less effort.

By the 18th century, silverpoint was obsolete.

The silver stylus is now replaced by the graphite pencil, a simple object very aptly used by economist and philosopher Milton Friedman as the symbol for the efficacy of the free market, for which many people unknown to one another willingly collaborate to produce a useful and desirable item.

Today

Revered artists like Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt van Rijn used silverpoint. Rembrandt’s best-known metalpoint work is his portrait of his wife, Saskia (1633). Much later, American artist Joseph Stella made use of the silverpoint technique by applying it on paper prepared with zinc-white gouache, including his portrait of Michel Duchamp (1921).

Silverpoint is being rediscovered today. Art suppliers like Golden Artist Colors produce a new silverpoint / drawing ground that is popular with contemporary artists. Artists use just about anything as a support surface for the abrasive paint, such as paper, wood, mylar, canvas or parchment.

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