Now on View: Silverpoint Drawings

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Print & Drawings

Currently, a number of silverpoint drawings are on view in the Print & Drawing Study Center on loan from the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science in Evansville, Indiana.  These drawings are recent donations to the Evansville Museum by contemporary artists who participated in a 2009 exhibition of metalpoint drawings co-curated by artists Koo Schadler and Jeannine Cook. 

Jeannine Cook, British-American, b. 1944. Creighton Bones (After Camille Pissarro). Silverpoint on paper, 2005. Collection of the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, Evansville, Indiana. Gift of the artist. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

But what is silverpoint?  The drawing medium metalpoint, primarily known as silverpoint, dates back to ancient times and was commonly used by scribes during the Middle Ages. It preceded the availability of graphite. Famous Old Masters such as Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Dürer created studies for paintings, sketches, and finished works in silverpoint.  The drawings are admired for their precise, delicate lines and subtlety.

Carol Pursa, American, b. 1956. Bud. Silverpoint, graphite, titanium white pigment with acrylic binder on elliptical wood panel, 2005. Collection of the Evansville Museum of Art, History & Science, Evansville, Indiana. Courtesy of Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Miami, Florida. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

In metalpoint, the artist uses an instrument, called a stylus, made up of soft metal to draw on a prepared, coated support. Today’s tool resembles a mechanical pencil that holds a fine metal rod. The metal is most commonly silver, hence the name silverpoint. Copper, gold, and bronze can also be used. The artist may choose to draw on paper, parchment, or wood panel. These surfaces are first primed, or coated, with a ground to prepare them to hold the marks made by the artist, similar to how you prime your wall before painting. Silverpoint will not mark ordinary paper, and, once marked, the gesture recorded is a permanent one.

Historically, the ground was made of bone ash. When the artist draws, the slightly abrasive ground catches and embeds metal from the stylus. The drawing appears gray in color. As it ages, some metals oxidize, for example, silver will tarnish to a sepia color; bronze will turn a yellow shade; and copper will change to green. Gold, however, will remain unchanged. Artist Susan Schwalb combines silver, gold, copper, and pewterpoint in her abstract drawing Strata #478, which creates a beautiful array of faintly different tones in the horizontal bands.  

Susan Schwalb, American, b. 1944. Strata #478. Silver, gold, brass, copper, and pewterpoint on white Plike paper, 2008. Collection of the Evansville Museum of Arts, Hisotyr & Science, Evansville, Indiana. Gift of the Artist. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Sometimes artists tint the ground and add highlights with white paint. Used together, these techniques can extend the tonal range of the drawing. The earliest tinted grounds were made up of minerals and organic colorants like red clay, yellow ochre, and indigo.  In Eliza, Koo Schadler draws a portrait of a young girl on a blue toned paper and heightens it with white egg tempera to show the light hitting the tip of the young girl’s nose and which also creates a sheen of moisture on her lips.

Koo Schadler, American, b. 1962. Eliza. Silverpoint and egg tempera on blue toned true gesso panel, 2006. Collection of the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, Evansville, Indiana. Gift of the Artist. Photo by Lauren Wolfer.

Silverpoint is resistant to smudging and is somewhat difficult to erase. It yields a clear, uniform line, unlike graphite or charcoal, which are responsive to changes in pressure to create lines of different darkness and thickness. To create tonalities, artists draw a series of parallel lines, called hatching. When you visit FWMoA, look closely at Progress, West Virginia by Constance McClure, and you will see that this formal family portrait is made up of a maze of lines.

Silverpoint has waned in popularity over the years, and today it is not generally included in university art programs.  It still resonates with a handful of contemporary artists, however, who explore the medium’s potential by experimenting with supports, grounds, and techniques.

Come explore silverpoint drawings for yourself in the FWMoA Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday 11am-3pm, or by appointment.

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