October 2015 was a busy month for seeing art and I didn’t mention it much at the time but the ‘Drawing in Silver and Gold’ exhibition I saw at The British Museum had probably one of the biggest effects on my artwork in a long while.
Generally speaking, I think there has been a shift in my 'taste in art', (if you can call it that) as I’ve gotten older; where I was once excited by Modernism (Futurism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism etc.) I now find myself either drawn to the incredibly new or polar opposite, incredibly old. Rembrandt’s etchings which I saw for the first time in Amsterdam two years ago and since, Frescos in Florence have been amongst the art which has genuinely sparked excitement or the desire to create my own work. Their influence not necessarily manifest in style or much in the way of technique in my own work but have maintained a sense of wonder and kept cynicism at bay. And there has of course been much new contemporary art that’s been exciting but does not very often generate the same sense of awe and lastingness as much pre-20th century art.
Perhaps in the same way that the Rembrandt etchings were exquisitely drawn; their appeal for me being their mark making and intensity of light/dark contrast (Rembrandt also worked in silverpoint); I was also interested in the variety of marks and precision involved in metalpoint in the drawings in the British Museum exhibition....
Metalpoint is a process of drawing with a metal point (initially lead or tin but during Renaissance silver or gold began to be used) onto a subtly abrasive prepared ground so that traces of the metal are left on the surface creating the image. Originating in the late 14th Century it was used by artists such as van Eyck, Durer, da Vinci, Raphael and so on. As part of the process glue hide was mixed with fine bone ash to make the surface to coat the paper, this labour intense process was one of the reasons its use declined along with the introduction of more gestural materials like graphite which were more forgiving to erasing/correcting. I thoroughly recommend viewing some early metalpoint drawings in person; they are amongst the finest methods of drawing I have ever seen. By fine, I literally mean a delicate fine and worked array of marks built-up and crossed to suggest tone. They achieve what, I think, is one of the most difficult things in drawing; to create tone as well as a sense of texture at the same time. Skin looks smooth as well as having the lights and darks of tone; a plume of feathers looks light and textured as well as adhering to darks/lights. The fact they are made of silver or gold also subconsciously adds to a sense of permanence and preciousness that cannot be overlooked in reading meaning into this drawing method. This discovery wasn’t, I’ll admit completely ‘new’, I had previously learnt about silverpoint’s existence from an artist working locally in Somerset. Like most things, regrettably, I became more interested in the process when just about everyone else did!
On first attempts at silverpoint I didn’t, like many, have the luxury of bone ash and glue based primer to work with so I experimented with the cheapest gesso I could find (as it needed a paint with a slight ‘tooth’ to it in order to work) and a silver earring (the hook of which I bent straight to create a point) taped to a chopstick. This will do. The type of line created is very light, very delicate and as mentioned before does not allow for mistakes but can be built upon in layers of fine lines/mark-making. I like the way it forces you to build areas up in line rather than flat shading. For my drawing style it allows for the intensity and closeness of looking which I'm interested in and have significantly and want to continue to improve upon since I started drawing regularly in 2013. My experience of etching is limited, but I feel that silverpoint is akin to the scratching and delicateness of producing marks that are created on an etching plate –fundamentally one of the differences being that you can see the line in silverpoint but not in etching obviously until you add the ink. I think the two relate to each other which is probably why artists like Rembrandt used both.
For me, however it is a satisfying process and one that I’ve only really begun to discover. I have since invested in a more manageable silverpoint tool to draw with (pictured above) that always alarmingly reminds me of some sort of dentist drill or implement, matched to the forensic-like precision spent scratching away. Creepy! To start with I’ve been interested in drawing things with lots of texture; hair/fur, scales, feathers etc (as pictured) without really questioning why/or what I’ve chosen to draw. Due to the faintness and sheen of silverpoint it doesn’t reproduce well in any of my photos/scans but hopefully you get the idea. I think next maybe I start looking at drawing things that either relate to the medium (silver) or respond to some idea in some way (like the dentist thing, maybe I draw some dentures!? Or something mundane, silverpoint socks, maybe?).
For the time being at least silverpoint remains my most exciting art medium of choice since I discovered acrylic artist ink in 2014!
Surely the next step is to try a combination of the two?!
More information on ‘Drawing in Silver and Gold’ sourced from here:
All text and images copyright of Natalie Parsley©