Silverpoint drawing

For many botanical artists, drawing with a graphite pencil is deeply gratifying. Eliminating the demands and distraction of color can free the artist to concentrate solely on form and detail to create a more intimate work. Think of it as putting aside the colorful, many-layered symphony to spend quality time with a string quartet. And if a graphite drawing is a string quartet, a drawing created in silverpoint is a string quartet with all the instruments muted.

Before graphite pencils came on the scene in the late 1600s, there was metalpoint—drawing or writing with sharpened tools made of soft metals. While used from Antiquity to the Middle Ages for mostly mundane purposes, metalpoint evolved to become a favored tool of Renaissance artists, including Leonardo daVinci and Albrecht Dürer, both of whom created highly detailed portraits in silverpoint. Various metals were used, but drawing with silver was preferred because it created a darker and warmer tone.

Despite the slow, meticulous process required for applying metal to a surface, silverpoint was superior to other mediums of the time that might fade (ink) or smudge (chalk or charcoal), and it could be used on any surface, as long as it was slightly abrasive. But as the graphite pencil became widely available, silverpoint drawing became less popular with artists.

Since the Renaissance, there have been periodic revivals in using metalpoint, such seen in works by Pablo Picasso and Joseph Stella in the 20th century. Contemporary silverpoint artists use have expanded the choice of supports, often work with tinted grounds that change the effect of the metal, and add colored mediums (pastel dust, Conte crayon, colored pencil, various paints) to intensify their final silverpoint drawing. Examples of Renaissance and contemporary silverpoint drawings can be seen in this gallery.

Silverpoint is considered a high key medium, one consisting primarily of light tonal values. At first glance, these works could be seen as too delicate or faint, and certainly they don’t have the wide tonal range of graphite works. But they are unusually beautiful and require unique skills that are difficult to master.

The silverpoint tool is simply a length of silver wire inserted into a holder, or stylus. A modern claw-type lead holder is ideal. One end of the silver wire can be sharped to a point for making thin lines with the opposite end rounded for creating tonal areas. Other metals or alloys (copper, lead, gold, zinc, platinum, brass, bronze, pewter) can be used as can various metal objects (coins, silverware, jewelry, thimbles), each of which will have a unique coloration on the paper.

Before drawing, the paper or other type of support (hardboard panels, wood, heavy watercolor paper) must be coated with an abrasive substance, such as casein paint or gesso. As the silver is drawn across this prepared “ground”, marks are produced by tiny bits of metal flaking off and adhering to the rough surface. The pressure applied to the stylus must be light enough to avoid puncturing the paper or scraping off the abrasive coating. Maintaining the delicate metal lines and abrasive ground make erasure a particularly difficult challenge.

Silverpoint drawings have a delicate shimmer that is enhanced when the metal begins to tarnish. Silver is initially a warm gray when first applied but changes to a sepia tone over time. The tarnishing is not always uniform and doesn’t occur predictably.

The drawing shown here of Abutilon palmeri is by artist Joan LaMoure and illustrates the delicate nature of working with silver and the ethereal feel of the finished work.

Joan was born in Michigan and raised in Southern California. In 1978, she and her husband moved to New River, Arizona where they built a house on 10 acres of land, raised two sons, and lived for 40 years. They currently live in Cave Creek, Arizona.

Joan is a life-long multimedia artist who finds inspiration for her work primarily from the natural world. She studied art and fashion design at Phoenix College, and later, transferred to Arizona State University where she majored in Fibers taking course work in art, surface design, and printed textiles as well as taking numerous workshops with professional surface design artists. She has worked with varied materials to create fine art pieces such as stained glass windows and lamps, beaded jewelry, clothing, mosaics, and large fiber art compositions for galleries and private commissions.

In 2010, Joan graduated from the Desert Botanical Garden’s Art and Illustration Program. Her illustrations were accepted in student shows, and she illustrated four rare plants for the Grand Canyon’s Rare and Endangered Plants Project. Joan’s Tusayan Flameflower, Phemerathus validulus watercolor became the signature piece for two exhibits of Grand Canyon’s Green Heart: The Unsung Legacy of Plants held at the Kolb Studio in the Grand Canyon National Park. In 2011 and 2012, Joan had three botanical illustrations exhibited at the Tempe Public Library in the Southwest Society of Botanical Artists’ exhibition Indigenous Plants of Arizona.

Joan continues to study art and design with many professional artists and is a Juried Member of the Sonoran Arts League, Society of American Mosaic Artists, Southwest Society of Botanical Artists, and the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Joan’s painting of the Tusayan Flameflower, Phemerathus validulus, can be seen here. — Cindy Hartwell


An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the April 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.