Silverpoint Drawings in the 16th Century Italian Style

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452 – 1519), A Bust of a Warrior, c. 1475/1480 silverpoint on cream prepared paper, 11 5/16 × 8 5/16 (28.7 × 21.1), On loan from The British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum, Museum, London

“Leonardo da Vinci’s Bust of a Warrior executed in the late 1470’s in Florence, is one of the most widely admired drawings in the history of art. Drawn with a silver stylus on specially prepared paper, this study provides an unforgettable demonstration of the subtlety and precision offered by silverpoint; the most common type of metal-point.”

Sell and Chapman, Drawing in Silver and Gold, page 1

A Necessary and Fascinating Challenge

As an artist, and for my persona attempting art works, silverpoint was a necessary and fascinating challenge. Apprentices attempting to become master artists were taught to draw constantly, and study from life. Per Leonardo,

“A painter ought to study universal nature, and reason much with himself on all he sees, making use of the most excellent parts that compose the species of every object before him. His mind will by this method be like a mirror reflecting truly every object placed before it, and become as it were, a second nature.”

Leonardo da Vinci, A Treastise on Painting, p.154

In current time, we have access to photographs of almost anything, in period they would be out drawing people, animals, buildings, landscapes, indoors coping existing paintings and sculptures.

“The most important part of the painter’s work is the ‘historia’, in which there should be every abundance and beauty of things, we should take care to learn to paint well, as far as our talent allows, not only the human figure, but also the horse, the dog and other living creatures, and every other object worthy to be seen.”

Leon Battista Alberti; On Painting, p. 93

Michelangelo was said to have been challenged on his first day in Ghirlandaio’s studio to draw something of his choice; he chose to draw all the apprentices and journeymen working in the studio, and doing such a powerful drawing it caused Ghirlandaio to accuse him of having already been apprenticed to someone else.

Why Silverpoint?

For modern art projects, we simply reach for a pencil, obtainable in multiple hardness and colour. But graphite pencils were not in existence in the 15th and early 16th century. It wasn’t until 1564 when a large graphite deposit was discovered that something close to our pencil was available. Prior to that, drawing was done with pen and ink, chalks, charcoal or silverpoint.

What Exactly is Silverpoint?

“Silverpoint is the general category of metal point, which also includes lead, tin, gold and copper—in fact, any metal that will leave a mark on a ground with sufficient ‘tooth’ or surface abrasion, to remove small amounts of metal under normal pressure of the hand.”

Sell and Chapman, Drawing in Silver and Gold, page 1

Drawing in metal point, using a stylus has been done by European apprentices, journeymen and master artists to make drawings and studies since the Middle Ages. Used by scribes on manuscripts made of vellum and parchment, metal-point would leave faint lines. Once paper was introduced into Europe, between the 11th and 14th centuries, and likely from the Far East, paper became the common surface for metal-point, including silverpoint, although it also was used on prepared surfaces for under-drawings for frescoes or paintings. It is also called ‘metal-point’ drawing, as lead, tin, copper, brass or gold could be used for drawing, with each metal reacting to oxidation differently; silver to the rich brownish-black, copper to an almost greenish colouration, etc.

Preparations for Silverpoint

However, the surface, whether wood panel, fabric, parchment, or paper, had to be prepared with a ‘ground’ or a layer that would enable the marks made by the metal in the stylus to be seen on the surface. Layers of the ground would be applied; each layer dried between applications. This ground, commonly called ‘gesso’ which is Italian for gypsum, is a paste created by mixing whiting, gypsum or plaster and bone ash, with size or glue and then layered upon the surface for painting, or gilding. The mixtures for paintings to be done on wooden panels or fabric would have to be mixed of the ground gypsum, and a size, commonly rabbit skin ‘glue’.

Silverpoint on Paper

The preparations for silverpoint on paper, were a bit easier, as the rabbit skin glue was not necessary—it was the paint that would seep into the linen or  as the drawings were considered temporary, work-ups or rough drafts.  Silverpoint will not mark the surface of paper without that ground layer; it is the ‘tooth’ of the ground that takes some of the silver as the marks are made across the surface. These marks when first made appear greyish, but due to miniscule bits of metal left on the surface tarnishes due to oxidation over a period of time, tarnishing to a warm, brownish colour.

Panels have the advantage of being able to be scraped down and re-used, and paper was extremely costly in the 13th and 14th centuries. However as papermaking became more complex, the price of paper became more reasonable. Papers were made from cotton rag, as quality modern paper still is today.

Michelangelo was said to prefer paper from the papermakers Fabriano, located in the Marche inland region. Fabriano, the oldest paper-mill in Europe, was responsible for the use of the hammer mill in the 13th century Italy which allowed an increase in the yield of fibers from rags. Fabriano was founded in 1264 and is still making quality paper today.

A Technical Challenge

What is the fascination with silverpoint?

“Part of our awe stems from our understanding of the mediums limitations. Silverpoint, like all metal-points except lead-point, can be difficult or impossible to erase, depending on the type of ground and the heaviness of the line.”

Sell and Chapman, Drawing in Silver and Gold, p. 2

There is no second chance, no erasing – what you are seeing in silverpoint is the clearest expression of artistic drawing talent – one shot, no do- overs. That is why silverpoint is so highly regarded as an artistic expression and why it remains such a great challenge for artists through the centuries.

Silverpoint was a technical challenge. Since it was difficult to remove any lines from the paper surface, it helped artists develop their drawing skills. And since the preparation for application was so laborious, it was not used carelessly.

“Any drawing made on prepared paper is this likely to be thorough and highly detailed, whether it is an apprentice’s exercise or a master’s study.”

Fancis Ames-Lewis, Drawing in Early Renaissance Art, p.35.

Art in the Renaissance had taken a step towards realism; instead of drawing what could be recognized as a horse for example, the drawing and painting skills portrayed that specific horse, with all its beauty and or defects. Nature was the source for everything. Leonard stated,

“That painting is the most commendable which has the greatest conformity to what is meant to be imitated.”

Leonardo da Vinci, A Treastise on Painting, p.150

Silverpoint requires thinking out transitions from light to dark beforehand, similar to painting in fresco or tempera.

Silverpoint did start to become less popular in Italy in the mid 16th century, with several exceptions. In Florence where artists with strong drawing skills such as Lippi, Raphael and Leonardo continued to use it for some time; and in Northern Italy where again, two artists with strong drawing skills, Bellini and Pisanello used it quite often.

One actual advantage to silverpoint was ease. Drawing materials would be chalks, charcoal and pen and ink. Chalks and charcoal while more portable, are also more easily prone to smudging; pen and ink require carrying containers of ink around and what if you run out of ink while drawing? Prepared panels of wood work well if you are drawing something nearby. But artists in the Renaissance traveled extensively, and having a stack of paper with the ground already applied, and a stylus with wire meant an artist could make drawings pretty much anywhere. In the Netherlands and Northern Europe, pre-treated paper pages were glued together, making what is in effect, an early sketchpad.

In the Craftsman’s Handbook, Cennini informs that,

“As has been said, you begin with drawing. You ought to have the most elementary system, so as to be able to begin drawing.”

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, p. 4

He tells potential artists that they should start with taking a wooden panel, coating it with bone ground for 2 hours, and coat the panel to be drawn on, and then to take more bone and mix it with saliva and apply with your finger.

Cennini even tells what kind of bone to use,

“You must know what bone is good. Take bone from the second joints and wings of fowls, or of a capon; and the older they are the better. Just as you find them under the dining-table, put them into the fire; and when you see that they have turned whiter than the ashes, draw them out and grind them well on the porphyry; and us it as I say above.”

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, p. 5

Gathering My tools

The Stylus

For my projects, I wanted to create drawings in silverpoint as close to period as I could. Not having immediate access to a local gypsum mine, or chicken bones constantly under the dining table, I researched where to purchase gypsum and bone ash for making silverpoint ground. From Natural Pigments, I was able to purchase several items; a package of Siennese gypsum, bone ash, and an indication that silverpoint is making a come-back as it were in modern art; a pre-made combination of both based on Cennini’s recipe. I also obtained a set of metal point drawing wires and a stylus to hold the metals. Per Cennini,

“And then take a style of silver or brass, or anything else, provided the ends be silver, fairly slender, smooth and handsome.”

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, p. 5

Although you can make your own metal-points using wire, and creating a stylus to hold them, the set I purchased had various metal points, including copper, brass and silver, and a dual ended stylus. This stylus, although of modern make, is similar to one featured in a painting from a mid-15th century painting attributed to Rogier van der Weyden of the Netherlands, “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin.”

Left: Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin; oil and tempera
Right: Close up view of hands holding stylus on wood
1435-1440, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

The close-up of St. Luke’s hands show him holding a piece of paper what looks like a thin wooden panel, and drawing with a metal stylus with points at both ends. Very similar to the modern stylus I used. Modern artists drawing in silverpoint who are not trying to recreate period materials can use mechanical pencil holders, and more modern styli that are available.

The close-up of St. Luke’s hands show him holding a piece of paper what looks like a thin wooden panel, and drawing with a metal stylus with points at both ends. Very similar to the modern stylus I used.

Modern artists drawing in silverpoint who are not trying to recreate period materials can use mechanical pencil holders, and more modern styli that are available.

The Paper

For my paper, I have sheets left over from my special purchase of Fabriano paper several years ago. This paper is incredible; good weight, 100% rag bond, and a wonderful finish that I felt would help give the ‘tooth’ for the metal to adhere to. Instead of cutting it, I laid a metal ruler along the edges and tore the paper against the ruler. This gave me a nice deckle edge that looked period to my eyes.

Preparing the Paper

I mixed my ground, equal parts dry ground mixture and water, in a bowl I purchased to be used for gesso only. I then let it sit for 2 hours. At that time, I placed the bowl of gesso, which looked like bad meringue, onto a pan of very hot water. Then using a stiff brush, I started a layer of gesso ground on a piece of paper, running all the strokes in the same direction.

By the time I was finished with the 3 pieces I had torn, I was able to go back and do the next layers. I chose to change direction with each layer; horizontal, then vertical, alternating each layer. I was surprised and happy that the paper didn’t curl up much after being coated with the ground, but I am sure that was due to the quality and weight of the Fabriano paper I started with.

In addition to the ground, stylus and points, I was gifted a set of ground pigments, all natural materials without being the dangerous pigments such as the cadmiums or lead white. I hope to try a coloured ground using the lapis or the red ochre.

My Silverpoint Drawings

Lions

Although I could have copied the various artist’s works, I chose to draw in my own manner, but using the techniques from the Renaissance. Albrecht Durer had done may silverpoint drawings, traveling throughout Europe and making drawing of a wide range of subjects. One of the drawings he did that caught my eye was of 2 male lions.

So, for my first attempt at silverpoint on paper, I would base a drawing on that of Durer. I had remembered that on a trip to the zoo, I had made quick sketches of animals. I located my little sketchbook and based my drawing on a tiny rough sketch I made with an ink pen during that visit. Again, as silverpoint doesn’t let you erase, it was a leap of faith to make that first mark.

Some of the modern articles and books mentioned like you should lightly draw out a grid with a pencil and make markings where to start, unless you are confident in your drawing skills. I don’t know about ‘confidence’, but I just did what I normally do with a blank piece of paper, I started drawing.

The stylus was surprisingly smooth to handle. I chose to use the wide silver wire first, but switched to see what kind of results I could obtain from the finer wire. I did notice that the metal wire on the page did occasionally ‘squeak’, but all in all, I was pleased with my first attempt, and actually was excited to do additional silverpoint drawings.

A Self Portrait

After seeing a photo of a ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ by Previtali, that was done very near to my persona’s time period, I decided to try a portrait. I found that the silverpoint gave wonderfully subtle shading on the face, and I was content with the likeness. As I was pleased with my results, and not just because I ended up with somewhat of a likeness, but with subtlety of the silverpoint, I chose not to copy Previali’s drawing with adding chalk enhancements, but left it a purely silverpoint piece.  As a true artist and in keeping with the period esthetic, I did however, flatter the sitter.

Horses

Finding the extensive silverpoint drawings that have survived from the 16th century, and realizing the artists of the time made drawings of a wide range of subjects, I felt I had a wide choice for inspiration. But as someone who loves horses, I was of course attracted to the silverpoint drawings of horses done by Pisanello, and of course, Leonard da Vinci.

This was on a larger piece of the Fabriano paper, and with the ornate native barding, gave me the opportunity to try and capture the movement and feel of the Pisanello drawing.

I decided to do another attempt at silverpoint, to be based on one of my favourite artists, Leonardo da Vinci. There are so many of his works including drawings that have survived, and since he spent so much time on the giant horse sculpture known as the Gran Cavallo, commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan (which was never created) there are numerous drawings of horses. The horses portrayed were massive stallions, and very muscular.

Finding the extensive silverpoint drawings that have survived from the 16th century, and realizing the artists of the time made drawings of a wide range of subjects, I felt I had a wide choice for inspiration. But as someone who loves horses, I was of course attracted to the silverpoint drawings of horses done by Pisanello, and of course, Leonard da Vinci.

In da Vinci’s “A Treatise on Painting” Leonard says,

“All the parts of any animal whatever must be corresponded with the whole. So that, if the body be short and thick, all the members belonging to it must be the same.”

Leonardo da Vinci, A Treastise on Painting, p 5

His horse drawings are definitely of specific animals.

An additional attempt for me was to try a tined gesso ground, similar to the pink or blue that da Vinci  occasionally used on his silverpoint drawings. Although I do not own horses, or have immediate access to horses, I have been drawing them from life every chance I get, but chose to use a photo for inspiration.

Gabriella Rucellai, An Arabian in Native Barding, silverpoint on paper

Conclusion

Silverpoint is a wonderful drawing medium. The challenges of, no mistakes is offset by the subtle shading techniques that are used. The gradual shadings, the looseness of the line, and the smoothness of the metal on the treated paper is fascinating.

“For all these reasons it served perfect6ly as preliminary training-ground of the workshop apprentice.”

Francis Ames-Lewis, Drawing in Early Renaissance Art, p.36

It is not an instant drawing medium, unless you have prepared multiple surfaces in advance, but it is something I believe I will continue to explore.

Bibliography

A Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci, translated by John Francis Rigaud Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, NY 2005 (unabridged republication of the work originally published by George Bell and Sons, London, England 1877)

Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy, Francis Ames Lewis, Yale University Press, New Haven CT 1982

Drawing in Silver and Gold; Leonardo to Jasper Johns, Stacey Sell and Hugo Chapman, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, The British Museum, London, Princeton University Press, Princeton CT, London 2015

Draw Like Da Vinci, Susan Dorothea White, Cassell Ilustrated, Octopus Publishing Group, Ltd., London 2006

Horses: History, Myth, Art, Catherine Johns, The British Museum Press, London 2006

Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings of Horses and Other Animals from the Royal Library at Windsor, Castle Paperback– Leonardo Da Vinci (Illustrator), Jane Roberts; H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh and Carlo Pedretti Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984

On Painting; Leon Battista Alberti, translated by Cecil Grayson Penguin Books, London, England 1972

Silver Linings, intro to Silverpoint Drawings, Banjie Getsinger Nicholas, published by Banjie Getsinger Nicholas, San Bernadino, CA 2012

 The Craftsman’s Handbook “Il Libro dell’ Arte”, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY 1933

The Horse in Art, John Baskett, Yale University Press, New Haven CT 2006

The Horseman as a Work of Art; The Construction of Elite Identities in Modern Europe 1550-1700, Patricia Franz, UMI; NY, NY 2006

Websites: http://www.silverpointweb.com/ http//fabriano.com

6 Replies to “Silverpoint Drawings in the 16th Century Italian Style”

  1. I have long been fascinated with silverpoint. Your article is an excellent starting place. Tons of information, all aspects covered, excellent use of sources. Thank you for a very enjoyable and inspiring presentation!

  2. I had never heard of this drawing style before though I am familiar with the works. Thanks for sharing your journey and experience

    I loved the quotes and details you added to show the directions you followed.

    I do wonder what has been your favorite metal to work with So far?

  3. This has long been an ambition of mine, and I really enjoyed seeing your project. Also, your write-up and use of quotations are excellent!

  4. I adored this display! I have a 2D art background that I rarely use in the SCA (for some reason I do a ton of costuming but little 2D art). That being said- I love seeing how period art was produced. You gave an amazing overview of silverpoint- both the process and the WHY (which is really fascinating to me). Thank you for sharing! Do you think there is an easier way to prep the paper for use? (In other words, would commercial gesso work to prep on paper if I just wanted to experiment with the technique?) Thank you! -HL Lantani de Forez

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