A metal point drawing is made by dragging a metal stylus over the surface of a prepared paper, leaving a mark much like a graphite pencil. Many metals such as copper, brass, silver, gold and platinum can be used to create a metal point drawing, each having unique characteristics. For the paper to be receptive to the metal, it first must be coated with a primer, otherwise the metal will not transfer. Through the 16th century artists would use a labor intensive process to prime their paper usually with rabbit skin glue and finely ground bone ash. Today, artists can mix their own primers or purchase pre mixed commercial recipes. Some of the characteristics inherent to the metal point process include delicate tonal ranges, great detail and luminosity. Since many metals oxidize and shift in tone and color when exposed to oxygen, areas of a metal point drawing will actually shift in tone and color as the oxidization process occurs. For instance, silver typically turns warmer and brown over time while copper will turn greenish. Gold and platinum do not shift in color or tone. One of the great challenges of executing metal point drawings is that it is very difficult to remove the mark of the metal, making it a very unforgiving process. Thus, preparatory sketches are commonly done so that composition and design can be accomplished before the metal point drawing is initiated. Because of the innate delicacy of the process, metal point drawings are labor intensive and require great patience. One metal point drawing, especially if larger in scale, can take over 100 hours to complete.
Artists and craftsmen have used metal point since ancient times to create writings and drawings. In the early Renaissance era, metal point emerged as a fine line drawing technique. It became the favored drawing technique in Florentine and Flemish workshops, as artists sought to create drawings with delicate tone and great detail. Noted artists who frequently used the metal point technique with great mastery include Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and Raphael.
As drawing styles changed at the end of the 16th century, metal point fell out of favor. Artists began seeking more gestural qualities in their drawings, so they turned to chalk and ink washes that had the added advantage of the speed in which they could be completed. Dutch artists Hendrik Goltzius and Rembrandt van Rijn continued executing metal point drawings into the 17th century but as graphite became more available throughout Europe, the use of metal point continued to decline. For all practical purposes, metal point was rendered obsolete by the 18th century.
In the 20th century, the metal point technique experienced a revival led by the American artist, Joseph Stella. More recently metal point achieved greater contemporary recognition after a groundbreaking exhibit, “The Fine Line: Drawing with Silver in America” was curated for the Norton Museum of Art in 1985 by Bruce Weber. Since then, other major museum exhibitions featuring metal point drawings done by contemporary artists in many styles have occurred. In the early 1990’s Gerrit Verstraete used silverpoint and copperpoint in his renowned “Luminata” figurative series and more recently departed from a traditional approach into nonrepresentational and conceptual imagery using the metal point technique. Today, artists, collectors and the general public remain intrigued by this demanding ancient process and it’s unique properties.