I’ve loved metalpoint ever since learning that my favorite drawings from Albrecht Durer were drawn with this medium. Still, pre-google, the details eluded me. I imagined pens forged of pure silver in the hands of da Vinci, Durer and others - how fine a tool for their art!
Years ago, a workshop on the topic gave me hands-on experience with silver, copper and bronze. Instead of wielding a pen of precious metal, I was given a common pencil with a bit of silver wire attached to it with duct tape. Same with both the copper and bronze - perhaps 3/4ths an inch of wire taped firmly to a new number 2 yellow pencil.
We drew first on prepared white gessoed panels. The workshop provided two models, both high school students from the school where the class was held by the art teacher. During our first break, we each tinted a portion of gesso and painted a rectangle of matt board for our second model. Gesso dries quickly and our boards were ready by the end of lunch.
Notice the variations in color in the drawings above and below. I drew the young woman's hair above and most of the youth below with silver. The rest was drawn primarily with copper.
Drawing with metalpoint is a delightful experience, perhaps primarily for those who love drawing - working with line, shading, and composition. There are a few challenges, however.
One challenge is that you can only draw on a "ground". This means you must prepare your drawing surfaces before setting metal to paper. Although gesso is a fantastic option, it can be expensive and the process of grounding paper requires space and time. However, it only takes a little for two coats of gesso on a square of paper and the space needed is really just a table top or a bit of floor.
Another challenge is that there is no erasing once a mark has been made. As the wire is pulled along the surface, tiny bits of the metal leave a mark. An artist working with metalpoint must have the confidence that their marks will be where and how they were envisioned, and if not - know that any misplaced line can usually be made into something interesting.
The good thing about unerasable lines is that they do not smear or smudge - although sweat or soil from your hands can still dirty the surface.
You can repaint any unwanted marks with gesso; however I have not tried this yet. Good to know it's a possible option!
Another cool thing about metalpoint is that because of oxidation, the lines age beautifully. As the metal in your drawing is exposed to air, the colors, tones shift. Silver becomes a warm brown. Copper becomes more greenish. Lead shifts into tones of blue.
Now that I’ve explored more with metalpoint, I’ve discovered a few things.
Tint gesso with gouache rather than other types of paint. Both gouache and gesso offer a good “ground” for drawing with metalpoint. A certain roughness is required for the metal to leave the microscopic bits that create the marks made by the artist. Back when metalpoint was first used by artists, surfaces were prepared with such things as rabbit glue, powdered bones and white titanium. Nowadays we can simply use gesso on paper, board or panel. I read that the paper should be thick, however I’ve gessoed pages in a regular sketchbook with great results. The paper may curl, but once dry, flattening paper with a stout book works fine.
When preparing surfaces, paint several pages, panels and boards at the same time. Put on some music (or your fav streaming shows) and go for it. In preparation of a metalpoint workshop I taught recently, I had newspapers spread out on every available flat surface ready to hold freshly gessoed paper, one right after another. Then I did a second coat for each. The next day I weighed those that dried with a curve beneath some books. It took me a few days, but after gessoing an assortment of papers and boards of different sizes, I had enough prepared surfaces not only for the workshop but also for myself to draw upon for the next several months.
While researching this topic, I saw a sketch which was drawn with a gold ring. Check it out here (I'm waiting for permission to post a photo of Jane's drawing): janeewardmetalpointart.wordpress.com/.
That really got me excited about the possibilities. I didn’t have any gold jewelry but did have a silver pendant, which worked beautifully. Didn’t have bronze wire, but did have a handful of bronze screws. The ridges indented my fingers but the sharp pointed bronze worked perfectly, making fine, clear lines. What else could I use?
I found some soldering wire, containing lead. It’s softness made holding the wire awkward, but the lines were smooth and thick. Belatedly, I noticed my fingers turned grey from holding the wire, but wrapping the base with duct tape easily solved that.
Then I wondered what could I use instead of my lovely silver Ohm pendant. What about silverware? There was a 50% off sale at a local thrift shop. Once there I searched through a small box of silver spoons, knives and forks until I found the perfect one - an old tarnished fork that seemed the most likely to be actual silver and not merely plated.
A note here - I read that silver plated tools do work, however at some point the silver layer will be worn off… something to watch for!
Once at home, I took some pliers and broke off each fork tine, leaving just one. After taping the broken edges, this became a wonderful silverpoint tool. The single tine drew thin lines and the wide, curved handle was perfect for thick lines and shading.
Next I found some old, dried up ballpoint pens. After removing the plastic tubes that hold the ink from the inside of the pens, I shoved one of the silver tines down into the opening. I noticed that after drawing with them for more than a moment, the tine would be pushed back into the pen so I cut the ink chamber so that it fit on top of the tine and held it in place. Perfect! Now I had four silver drawing tools for less than a dollar and a little bit of work.
*Note: Make sure the ink is used up before cutting the ink chamber or reservoir, which by the way, are the actual names for that tube-thing that holds the ink! (What did we do before Google? Guess that's why some old folks refer to so many items as "thing-a-ma-jigs"...)
I also experimented with using a piece of chopstick (too wide) and am thinking as I write this that a skewer stick cut to size would likely work wonderfully.
I used tape to wrap around the fork where the tines had been broken off to protect my hand from sharp edges.
I also purchased a "lead holder" (Look for these in the drafting section of most art supply stores). Much nicer than drawing with a wire taped to a pencil!
Of course, you can buy premade metalpoint drawing tools online and otherwise but for the artist who wishes to save a few bucks or just enjoys tinkering, homemade drawing utensils work great!
A friend showed me an alloy silver pen he had purchased online. My fork tine pen works and handles just as well plus using ingenuity and inspiration to create something useful from old ballpoint pens and forks satisfies my desire to honor our planet by recycling, reusing and rethinking instead of automatically searching Amazon for something to be packaged, boxed and driven to my door.
I drew this drawing below with my silver fork after transforming it into my very own silverpoint stylus. OH! And I discovered something!
White conte can cover a metalpoint error - and you can draw over it! Can't recover the tinted background (unless you have matching pastels perhaps) but it worked well for the few changes I made while sketching.
Another tip - not to promote one store over any other - but Michaels offers 40% off coupons which are great for purchasing gesso which can be expensive. Can’t find everything you need there, but coupons and sales sure can be a blessing for buying basic artist supplies.
Drawing with metalpoint on white gesso definitely is enough to create some beautiful pieces, especially if you enjoy working with line quality, detail and texture - however, I discovered I really appreciate drawing on tinted paper. Tints allow highlights to be accented with white conte or pastel resulting with some striking effects. I also experimented with white color pencil, which works, but I really like the blending potential of something softer.
Leonardo Da Vinci was said to also use white oil paint to highlight some of his drawings. Haven’t tried that yet, but definitely is on one of my lists of things to do!
Of course, you can add shading or anything - any color or medium to metalpoint on white or tinted ground. Something I may explore eventually. Meanwhile, I've just been into the daVinci thing - metal on tinted ground with white highlights.
At my metalpoint workshop I told the artists - and as many of you already know -
the best way to get started is to dive in.
Start with light strokes.
Strengthen lines that align with your intention.
Let the rest be.
When I taught kindergarten (oh so long ago) ,
I knew that before instructing the kinders about using any new math manipulative (Unifix Cubes, counting bears, geo shapes… even Base 10 Blocks) I had to give them time to simply play with them.
Hands-on exploration with a new material is so valuable!
Run throughout your home searching for what else might be used to create a line - a mark, shading, texture or whatever...
A paperclip? Nails? Coins? Jewelry? Knitting needles?
The zipper on your hoodie?
I'd love to see your creations, your discoveries. I'm new-ish at this blog-thing and not even sure if folks can respond. (May have to upgrade!) But whether I hear from you or not, my closing for today is:
Go forth and create - joyfully.
Deep into my career as an elementary school teacher, I started asking myself if I was still an artist. Can you be an artist if you're not doing any art? Am I a writer if I'm not writing? For me, ARTIST is a verb. Writer too. Do what you love and JOY will come. Maybe money too, but I've discovered without joy, everything else is meaningless.