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Art Masterclass - 66


March 2012


Marsh landscapeFrom The Artist, the monthly magazine for amateur and semi-professional painters, giving practical instruction in painting and drawing in watercolour, pastels and oils, as well as news of art events, exhibitions and competitions open to leisure artists;



Try Silverpoint - The Age-Old Method of Fine Line Drawing

By Linda Birch

  Cat, (8.5x8.5cm) was drawn with copper on a tinted emulsion ground


Silverpoint was a drawing method that was practiced mainly in the 15th century; Dürer (1471-1528) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) being the foremost exponents. However, when graphite was discovered in the Lake District in the 17th century (and also in Germany at about the same time), silverpoint, sometimes known as metalpoint, declined as a drawing tool.

The old method of working in silverpoint was to:


1.   Prepare a piece of vellum with a coating of gesso (gypsum or chalk suspended in size); and
2.  Use a ‘pencil’ made from silver wire mounted into a piece of wood.

When the mark was drawn on the slightly abrasive gesso, a little of the metal was rubbed off and, as it became exposed to the air, it oxidised and created a fine brownish grey line that darkened with age. The result was a fine delicate line rather like a very hard pencil would make but, unlike a hard pencil, the tone became deeper in tone as the drawing was exposed to the air.
In this article I want to recreate and update the method by using paper prepared with acrylic paint, and make delicate line drawings using silver objects and other metals.

Method used
Silverpoint is best suited to small works, because of the delicacy of the lines.


1. Tape the card or paper down flat and apply a thin, even coat of paint, making sure the whole surface is covered. Allow to dry and apply another coat in a different direction to ensure the surface is reasonably flat when dry.
2. Leave until completely dry (30 minutes to an hour).
3. Before starting, work out your outline on another piece of paper so you’ll know exactly where you will start drawing on the prepared surface. It’s not possible to erase a line once it is down.
4. Start drawing on your prepared surface with the piece of silver, building the drawing in exactly the same way that you would draw with a pencil.
5. Add shading by hatching and crosshatching.
6. Leave the drawing exposed to the surrounding air and it will darken slightly due to oxidisation.

You will need:

  • A small piece of white mountcard or stretched heavyweight cartridge (any paper with a smooth surface)
  • A large soft brush to apply the paint (a stiff brush tends to leave brushmarks). Aim to achieve a smooth surface when applying the paint
  • White or pale coloured emulsion paint (a small match pot* is ideal). Alternatively a tube of white acrylic or gesso
  • A silver object with which to draw. A silver earring hook works successfully, as do the edges of brooches or any piece of small silver that can be held comfortably in the hand
  • A motif: choose something that displays delicate detail to produce the best results, for example a bird, a detailed study of a building or a landscape with detail interest

* Match pots are small pots of paint with an integral brush which are made for decorators who want to try colours before buying a larger tin. The colour I used was from Dulux and called Potters Wheel.

Traditional method

Bird on a nest

Bird on a nest (12.5x18cm)
was drawn with a silver earring and thimble on a prepared surface of white acrylic.
Silverpoint creates a delicate drawing that darkens when exposed to the air.

For Bird on a Nest (above) I worked on a piece of white mountcard and applied three coats of white acrylic to a previously drawn rectangle. It is important to draw the parameters of the area you are working in or you won’t be able to see where the paint was applied.
When completely dry (in a warm atmosphere about half an hour) the bird was drawn lightly using the edge of a silver earring. This established the basic shape.
I then used the edge of a silver locket to draw the body of the bird more firmly and the pattern of markings and feathers.
The twigs and leaves were also drawn at the same time, achieving a broader line by turning the edge of the locket to create a broader line (this will not damage your jewellery).
To add broader areas of shadow and to create stronger darks, I used a silver thimble. The harder you press the stronger the line will be, but do not expect the same quality of dark tone as a pencil.
The piece darkens with exposure to air as it oxidises. The beauty of silverpoint is in its delicacy of line and tone.

Added colour

Marsh landscape

Marsh Landscape, (18.5x24cm)
was drawn in silver with light washes of watercolour added

In Marsh Landscape (above) I wanted to see what the addition of colour would add to a silverpoint drawing. Working again on mountcard, I prepared it with gesso, which is a commercially made white primer for oil painting. The drawing was made again using an earring, the edge of a locket and my thimble. When the drawing was complete I added delicate washes of watercolour, allowing the lines to still show through the paint.

On tinted ground


Horse’s Head, (18x12.5cm).

Horse’s Head, (18x12.5cm).
This was drawn using silver on a coloured ground and highlighted with white gouache

I wanted to work on a slightly darker surface than white so, for Horse's Head (above), I prepared my card with matt silk emulsion from a match pot bought in my local DIY shop. The head was drawn with the hook end of an earring. I then hatched the hair of the horse’s face, being careful to follow the direction of the hair’s growth, which is formed upwards and outwards from the nose. The edge of a brooch achieved the dark tone inside the ears, the eyes and the nostrils. I used a thimble to rub a coarser tone on the neck. Finally, I used white gouache to highlight the face and add a snip of white hair between the eyes.

Other metals

Grazing horse

Grazing Horse, (10x15cm)
was drawn using a gold earring and locket on a ground tinted with emulsion

Both gold and copper, see Grazing Horse (above) and Cat (top right) can also be used in the same way as silver. Copper lines tend to appear slightly green after exposure to air, as the copper develops the green verdigris characteristic of this metal.

This feature is taken from the March 2012 issue of Leisure Painter
Click on the cover below for more details of what can be found in this month's exciting learn-to-paint magazine!

Leisure painter


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