Metalpoint Art

An unexpected revival

2 JUNE 2015,
Leonardo da Vinci Studies of a Horse, c. 1490 Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on pale buff prepared paper, 19.9 × 28.5 cm Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Leonardo da Vinci Studies of a Horse, c. 1490 Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on pale buff prepared paper, 19.9 × 28.5 cm Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Various methods of metalpoint drawing were in use as early as the era of the Romans, who employed it primarily for sketching larger paintings as well as creating smaller pictures and documents. The art of metalpoint was forgotten for long time, but reemerged again with the vigorous Gothic society and the dawn of the early Renaissance, and evolved into autonomous drawing, which means that the drawing itself was a work of art and was no longer simply a craftman’s tool and precursor to the actual work.

Thanks to artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo Da Vinci, Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung, this technique reached a peak in the second half of the 15th century. Only when first entering the 20th century, metalpoint was rediscovered by a new generation of artists who devoted themselves to the difficult drawing technique. Metalpoint is far from the art of drawing with a pencil, even if it was the direct predecessor.

To better understand the art of Metalpoint drawing, we have to take a closer look at what the metalpoint instrument is. Physically it is a pen-shaped object, made of metal or wood, with a cylindrical tip of a sharpened metal point. Silver is certainly the most widely used material for metalpoint drawing, but gold, lead, copper, or a mixture of those elements are also used. The style, size, shape and softness of the metal can vary, and this affects the resulting drawing.

The technique of metalpoint allows you to draw simple, thin, delicate lines. The filling of a space in the material is only possible through cross-hatching. Once set, a fine gray line cannot be removed, as it could be with pencil and an eraser, which makes this technique extremely difficult and the artist must have an exceptionally steady hand. The practice is otherwise similar to that of using a pencil, except that the surface must be specific: a base made of paper or wood, prepared with a cementite product to create a slightly rough surface on which the metal pin can release its pigments. Different colors, shades, density and depth can only be achieved by varying shades and by drawing dense grids. One of the most interesting observations is that silver drawings especially tarnish over the time, turning slowly into a golden brown color, which is probably one of the reasons why silver was, and still is, the preferred material.

The invention of the pencil, colored pencils and other art supplies, and the difficulty with which the artist measures himself, were a few reasons this technique descended into oblivion. Today we see a reemergence yet again, and a revival of metalpoint has been observed at the very center of the arts: in New York and other US east coast metropolises.

The National Gallery in Washington has recently opened one of the largest exhibitions on the topic of metalpoint, called "Drawing in Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns", and which for the first time includes a comprehensive selection of metalpoint drawings from the past six centuries, including masterpieces by Da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Otto Dix and Jasper Johns. The same collection will be shown in London at the British Museum in autumn: September 10 to December 6, 2015.

The exhibition opens with a selection of the earliest and best-known works, such as "Portrait of a Young Woman" (1435/40), the only drawing that can be attributed to Rogier van der Wyden. Other remarkable works are those by Leonardo Da Vinci (“Bust of a warrior”, c. 1475/1480), and two pages of Raphael's world-famous "Pink Sketch Book". Dürer's "Sleeping Dog" (1520) is followed by drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries, which mark the downfall of this technique before it would be brought to light again by some contemporary artists like Joseph Stella, Jasper Johns, and Bruce Nauman, who are represented by interesting works that show how those artists have experimented with and pushed the medium to its limits. By creating new combinations of different media, they have inspired a younger generation of artists who are actively producing and exhibiting art today.

Simultaneously, two exhibitions of contemporary artists will open in June 2015 in New York. Musing Metallic (June 3 to July 11 2015), which is curated by Elizabeth Garvey at The Curator Gallery in Chelsea, will deal with the issue of metal in the arts and introduce artists who have used different kinds of metallic materials, including, of course metalpoint drawings. Metal Point Now! (June 11 - July 11 2015), , opening shortly after, is a group exhibition at Garvey Simon Gallery with works by eight contemporary artists and one artist’s collective which will continue where the National Gallery of Washington leaves off: in the present.

Robyn Ellenbogen, Jonathan Hammer, Marietta Hoferer, Michael Kukla, Cynthia Lin, Tom Mazzullo, Michael Nichols, Susan Schwalb, Scherer & Ouporov are all artists who are using metalpoint in their work today as a continuing part of their artistic practice, and not only as an experiment. All artists are working with the medium in a variety of unique and innovative ways; some incorporating a more traditional figurative approach, and others combining metalpoint with other media to produce eye-catching and unexpected results.

Susan Schwalb employs a variety of delicate horizontal lines using different metalpoints, creating the appearance of different colors. Mike Nichols' portraits appear as if created by a ghost’s hand, but instead they have been drawn with steel wool; Robyn Ellenbogen’s large rotundas, with an egg tempera priming, have been made by using various metal objects (e.g. coins, spoons, thimbles of silver). They not only represent an exceptional art practice but also speak about the artist’s inner emotional life.

These artists, to name a few, are part a new collection of artists working with metalpoint today, but there are numerous artists using the technique, practicing an ample range of methods, each vastly different from the other. The exhibitions allow for a deeper insight into an almost-forgotten art technique, and at the same time demonstrates how such a complicated method can be brought to its most unexpected limits in the present time.