Drawing in silver to gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns

Right up at the top of the British Museum there is currently a delightful exhibition on the Renaissance technique of metalpoint drawing. It draws on a huge selection from the British Museum (and Her Majesty’s) archives to demonstrate how the medium has evolved and adapted since it was first used by devotees Leonardo da Vinci and Hans Holbein the Elder. Some of the older pieces involved are clearly preparatory sketches for larger works and reference tools to show either prospective clients or to use within the studio. Metalpoint allowed for great detail, such as in Leonardo’s famous helmeted soldier, whilst also being portable and easily stored. However, as the technique becomes less well known and rarely taught it is treated as an individual method which is an end in itself, often resulting in intimate or personalised works. I was particularly interested to read about one recent commissioned silverpoint work which had been created by melting down a client’s gold watch to form the stylus to draw with.

The technique involves using a metal stylus, usually of silver or gold, which transfers onto a specially prepared abrasive paper to create the delicate lines. The paper itself requires great skill to prepare as it involves a mixture of animal bones, or other gritty substances, combined with an adhesive and a coloured wash before painting the paper itself. This initial preparation must be consistent as it is difficult to erase marks after the metal stylus is applied to the paper. Although the main colour used for the paper was a light reddish colour there was also a variety of blues and greys depending on the metal used in the stylus.

The exhibition provides an interesting overview of how metalpoint has been used and valued over the years and one of my favourite pieces demonstrating this was that of a metalpoint book. This was a small journal-type volume which was created using the specially prepared paper and had a metal stylus in its fastening. Its portability allowed its owner to sketch using metal point outside and draw landscapes or spontaneous scenes, and therefore these journals were often used by artists during the 17th and 18th centuries. This simple adaptation of the technique’s tools illustrated its move out of the studios and into the everyday, intimate life of an artist.

The exhibition continues until the 6th of December so there is still just over a month to visit this intriguing selection of pieces and enjoy the fruits of the British Museum’s archives as well as learning about this unusual artistic technique.

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