Metalpoint is a traditional drawing technique in which a thin metal stylus, usually of silver, is used with paper that has been prepared with an abrasive coating traditionally made from powdered bone and gum-water. As the point is drawn along the surface, tiny traces of metal are left behind creating a delicate and very precise line.
How does it work?
Metalpoint drawings are made on a prepared textural board or paper, coated in a thick, gesso-like substance with an abrasive texture containing calcium carbonate, traditionally made from burnt and ground animal bones, sometimes combined with a coloured tint. During the Renaissance artists would paint this substance onto a ground before working, although it is now possible to buy ready-made grounds to work on. Artists draw onto this ground with a metal stylus, made from a thin, sharp metal rod inserted into a holder – the types of metals vary from gold compounds, tin, antimony, bronze and lead, although silver has proved the most popular in art history. This metal stylus leaves behind particles of silvery or brown marks onto the surface, with a characteristic subtle, delicate precision.
Hugo Chapman, keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum compares the process to his childhood days, commenting, 'In my wicked schoolboy days you used to be able to draw on a newly painted wall with an old 10-pence piece. It’s the slight roughness of the wall and metal … it just drags off a little bit of the metal onto the surface.' Because of the shimmering, metallic hue the metalpoint technique produces, it was also known historically as ‘silverpoint’ until the twentieth century.
Metalpoint in the Italian Renaissance
Origins of the metalpoint technique remain unclear, but the technique truly came into its own during the European Renaissance. Artists were aware of the strict limitations on an essentially linear technique, as Chapman explains, 'It is predominantly a linear technique in which tonal modeling is rendered through changes in the density of the hatching; altering the pressure exerted on the stylus tip does not, unlike pen and chalk, significantly darken or lighten the line.' Because of these restrictions, it was common practice for artists to paint a mid-toned ground on which to draw with a metal stylus, before adding elements of lighter and darker tones in other drawing mediums such as chalk and gouache, as demonstrated in Filipino Lippi’s Studies of a Seated and a Kneeling Youth, which were made on a yellowish backdrop and accented with highlights of white to add a tonal sense of form.
Metalpoint was primarily adopted by Italian artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a means of creating figurative studio studies, such as Antonio Pisanello's sensitively rendered Study of a Young Man with his Hands tied behind his back, 1434 – 1438. Leonardo da Vinci broke with this tradition, recognising the medium’s great portability and adopting metalpoint to produce drawings on location of animals and plants such as his intricately observed Studies of a Dog's Paw, made between 1490-1495. Metalpoint was largely abandoned by artists towards the later Italian Renaissance as artists moved into freer and more expressive ways of working, particularly as tonal drawing mediums such as pencil and charcoal offered greater flexibility.
The Northern Renaissance
In contrast with Italy, metalpoint remained a popular medium throughout the Northern Renaissance and beyond, with Northern European artists of Germany and the Netherlands taking more inventive and experimental risks than their Italian contemporaries; leading practitioners include Hans Holbein the Elder, Albrecht Dürer and Rogier van der Weyden. Dürer is widely recognised today as the leading master of metalpoint in the Northern Renaissance, exploring a range of expressive linear marks such as cross-hatching and layering to create a variety of textures ranging from animal fur to the softness of human skin.
Modern and Contemporary Examples
Metalpoint faded in popularity throughout the eighteenth century, but it was revived by artists in England during the second half of the nineteenth century. Artists who sought to revive the naturalism and realism of the Renaissance period included William Holman Hunt, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Alphons Legros and William Strang, who all adopted a refined, highly realist style of working.
In the twentieth century, Otto Dix revived metalpoint for new audiences, reviving the great German tradition of the past as a way of celebrating his nationality. Since then, artists with wildly divergent practices continue to be attracted to the shimmering, metallic tones of this mysterious process, including Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and Susan Schwalb.