Silverpoint was most commonly practiced during the Renaissance by such artists as Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael, and is the ancestor of the modern graphite pencil. Silverpoint is a drawing instrument composed of a small, pointed metal tip, usually of silver, encased in a holder.
Silverpoint can be used on various supports, including paper, parchment and wood, but the surface requires special preparation or a ground for the metal to leave a mark. Paper, which is most commonly used, is coated with an opaque white or tinted ground composed of powdered bone ash, chalk or lead white and gum-water. Several layers are usually applied. The natural tone of the ground is off-white, but it can be colored with any pigment. The ground is slightly abrasive so that metal from the stylus rubs off and has sufficient ‘tooth’ to retain the particles. The silver particles oxidize over time giving a final tone to the drawing.
The medium is also called “metalpoint” for drawing with copper, gold, platinum and brass. Each metal has its own “softness” and reaction to oxidation. Copper is soft and produces a greenish oxidized tone. Silver, another soft metal, creates brownish black oxidation. Gold and platinum are hard without oxidizing. Brass is very hard with a light black oxidation. The length of time and the degree to which oxidation occurs depends on local conditions, but copper usually oxidizes in 1–2 months. Silver oxidizes at a much slower rate—about 4–6 months. Sulfur can speed up the process of oxidization.
The two images below are works by Susan Schwalb, an artist working in the Boston whose abstract works with metal point clearly demonstrate the variety of color and texture possible with different metals.
To see more work by Susan Schwalb, please visit her web site.
Strata #227, 2004, 9” x 9”, silver/aluminum/copperpoint on clay coated paper
Moment #426, 2006, 6” x 6”, steel/copper/brass/silverpoint on clay coated paper
Dead soft designates metal tempered to its minimum hardness by annealing. Dead-soft sterling silver is softer than half-hard sterling silver.
Fine silver is 99.9% silver and is much softer than sterling silver.
Half-hard is metal that has been hardened but is still malleable.
Sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.