History and Usage of Metalpoint Drawing:
One of the most distinct and unique Renaissance drawing techniques is drawing with a metallic stylus, also commonly called silverpoint. In practice, as technical examination of artworks show, a variety of metals were used for drawing except silver (gold, tin, lead etc.) and today we prefer a more inclusive term: metalpoint drawing.
Mtealpoint drawing gets widespread around both Northern and Southern Europe between 14th and 16th centuries. Mannerist and Baroque painters gradually switch to other easier mediums that allow more freedom of gesture and expression, such as chalk and graphite, but over the centuries artists will repeatedly turn back to Silverpoint technique, fascinated by its delicate tone and precision.
Metalpoint drawing originates as a sketching tool. Cennnino Cennini in the second half of 14th century describes the process of sketching with metalpoint on wooden panels that can be primed over and over again to start a new drawing. Paper was still quite expensive in Cennini’s times, so there was a need to exercise on a reusable surface.
CHAPTER V. HOW YOU BEGIN DRAWING ON A LITTLE PANEL; AND THE SYSTEM FOR IT.
As has been said, you begin with drawing. You ought to have the most elementary system, so as to be able to start drawing. First take a little boxwood panel, nine inches wide in each direction; all smooth and clean, that is, washed with clear water; rubbed and smoothed down with cuttle such as the goldsmiths use for casting. […] And when you need some for priming this little panel, take less than half a bean of this bone, or even less. And stir this bone up with saliva. Spread it all over the little panel with your fingers; and, before it gets dry, hold the little panel in your left hand, and tap over the panel with the finger tip of your right hand until you see that it is quite dry. And it will get coated with bone as evenly in one place as in another.The craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed
A sketchbook of 6 boxwood panels produced in Paris around 1400, presumably by the French illuminator Jacquemart de Hesdin and currently preserved at the Morgan Library & Museum provides us with an insight of silverpoint technique implementation that perfectly corresponds to Cennini’s description.
He continues describing the drawing process:
HOW YOU SHOULD START DRAWING WITH A STYLE, AND BY WHAT LIGHT. CHAPTER VIII
The thigh bone of a gelded lamb is good, too, and the shoulder, calcined in the way described. And then take a style of silver, or brass, or anything else, provided the ends be of silver, fairly slender, smooth, and handsome.
Then, using a model, start to copy the easiest possible subjects, to get your hand in; and run the style over the little panel so lightly that you can hardly make out what you first start to do; strengthening your strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows. And the darker you want to make the shadows in the accents, the more times you go back to them; and so, conversely, go back over the reliefs only a few times.
And let the helm and steersman of this power to see be the light of the sun, the light of your eye, and your own hand: for without these three things nothing can be done systematically. But arrange to have the light diffused when you are drawing; and have the sun fall on your left side. And with that system set yourself to practice drawing, drawing only a little each day, so that you may not come to lose your taste for it, or get tired of it.The craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed
Cennino describes the metalpoint as “a style of silver, or brass, or anything else, provided the ends be of silver, fairly slender, smooth, and handsome“. But how did the metallic stylus look like back in the Renaissance? We can learn a lot about it from a composition “St. Luke drawing the Virgin” that was quite popular among the early 16th century Netherlandish artists:
Silverpoint strokes can be very light and blended or can be more distinct and the dark tones will be achieved with intersecting hatched lines.
And this way of drawing has been the cause of making engravings with the bulino on copper, as can be seen today in so many prints that go around the world; among which the best made that have ever been seen, that is, the best engraved, were those of Alberto Duro [Albrecht Dürer] of Germany.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), I trattati dell’ oreficeria e della scultura di Benvenuto Cellini
In case the drawing surface is prepared with a middle-tone ground, the highlights can be executed with help of white color and a brush.
When paper became more readily available, durable metalpoint technique allowed artists to make sketchbooks that could be transported and used anywhere to make studies of nature, portraits, composition and design elements.
Notice the handy way in which silverpoint styluses were attached to the sketchbooks:
One of the most famous silverpoint sketchbooks is by Albrecht Durer. He filled it with drawings during his trip to the Netherlands in 1520-1521. The book was dismantled and the pages can now be found in multiple collections around the world. Printed reproductions of the pages were assembled and published over the years. Check out Heidelberg University Library where you can get an idea of sketchbook’s original contents.
Finally, extremely light but indelible silverpoint lines were also commonly used as an underdrawing by many 15th century artists: for ink drawings (by Leonardo da Vinci for example) and even for paintings on panel (Jan van Eyck). Sometimes, it worked the other way around: charchoal drawing was made prior to using silverpoint which is much harder to erase (see the above dog drawing by Albrecht Dürer).
Master Metalpoint Drawings:
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