Interview with Susan Schwalb

A contemporary metalpoint artist

16 JUNE 2015,
Palimpsest LVII 2001, 24x24, silverpoint acrylic on paper on wood
Palimpsest LVII 2001, 24x24, silverpoint acrylic on paper on wood

Susan Schwalb is a contemporary metalpoint artist whose career is on a rise. Being featured as the only female artist in the exhibition Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns at the National Gallery in Washington DC, she is a key figure in contemporary metalpoint. A personal conversation with Schwalb reveals her ideas, ambitions and insight into her art practice.

Susan, metalpoint drawing is not a common art practice. How did you discover it? Did you always work with this technique?

Before metalpoint, I worked in very fine pen and ink lines, always searching for a finer and finer line. In 1973 I was staying with some artists in the Hamptons and one of them had a tool, a metalpoint stylus, that she used to mark a specially prepared surface. When I was back in the city, I immediately bought the same materials and started to draw.

Why are you interested in this unusual technique? Why don’t you use easier tools, like pencils, colored pencils or crayons?

As a stylistic choice, I am interested in the line, usually a very fine line, and silverpoint is perfect for this. I still use graphite and colored pencils to accentuate some of my drawings, but the metalpoint is the only tool that permits me to draw with great precision and exactitude.

Your work is quite minimalistic, in strong contrast to your earlier, more traditional metalpoint drawings that are in a realistic or romantic style. Can you tell me more about this stylistic choice?

My art has evolved over the time from works inspired by figuration – orchids, other flowers, and landscapes – to the work I am doing today. The fine line I use is in many ways a strong and minimalistic reduction of the realistic landscapes and objects I was drawing before. For me drawing with metalpoint has always been a sensual and deeply meditative experience.

You are the only woman artist included among Leonardo and Jasper Johns in the major metalpoint exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington DC. It is an honor, and also interesting to notice. Do you think women artists are underrepresented? And what about women metalpoint artists?

Several women artists were working in silverpoint beginning around 1900, and after 1950 women came to dominate the medium. The NGA exhibition offers a historic overview of metalpoint drawings, from 1300 to today. It is the first time that I have been the only woman in such a large exhibition. I’m not sure of the criteria for the selection, but also included are two well-known living artists, Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman. There are many living women artists whose silverpoint work is far more innovative, for example the work of Carol Prusa, Erika Winstone, Marietta Hoferer, and Linda Hutchins. Ron Janowich, a male artist, has also done innovative work in metalpoint.

To draw with metalpoint (or other metal objects) the ground must be prepared in a special manner. It must be a little bit rough for the metal to deliver its pigment. It is a process to prepare the base of the paper or the panel you want to draw on. Can you describe it a little bit more?

Most of the artists who work in metalpoint today use commercially prepared paper. Coating the paper takes a long time, but it is an important part of my creative process. Artists of the Renaissance took bones, often straight from under the dining table, and calcified them by placing the bones into a hot fire until they were a powdery white. The calcified bones were mixed with glue to produce gesso, which was then applied to a paper or wooden surface as a ground. Today, silverpoint artists draw on flat white acrylic paint, clay-coated paper, clay board, or primed panels. Tints can be added to the acrylic paint to achieve a colored ground. The surface must be slightly rough to pull material from the metal. I coat my own panels because I want a very smooth surface, and I usually sandpaper the surface before I start drawing.

Silver is the most frequently used of all metalpoints. It permits artists to draw very fine and precise lines, but the most interesting thing is that it tarnishes after a while when exposed to oxygen. Does that fact influence how and when you draw?

When drawing with a silverpoint, minute particles of silver are embedded in the surface leaving a grayish line. These lines tarnish with time giving the drawing a mature look. Silver tarnishes into a brownish line and copper turns a yellow-green line. Platinum and gold do not tarnish and are the most expensive of the metals. A winter drawing will tarnish much slower than a summer drawing, which seems to tarnish within a day. It is the humidity coupled with the heat that causes metals to tarnish rapidly. I draw all year long, and drawings tarnish faster in summer than winter. But in the end, the effect is the same.

Silverpoint is very old, and has been around since since the Renaissance. Do you think there could be a significant innovation in terms of tools, technique or style? Would you like to push the limits of silverpoint?

Many things have changed from the Renaissance until today. We use various colors and materials for the grounds, while traditional metalpoint was only done on white or very light tinted grounds. We use wool pads (copper, aluminum, brass and bronze) or other metal objects to archive new drawing effects. We also have a variety of different metal widths to choose from. I have pushed the limits of the medium very far but I am sure someone will push it further. There have also been a few artists who used it to draw on walls or other unexpected surfaces. In the early 1980’s I too made wall works and actually have a current proposal for small wall drawings.

Susan, is there any particular idea or work that you haven't been able to realize yet? What are your ambitions?

Besides being the President of the US? (Susan laughs) Oh art! Well I have wanted to do many more prints. I still hope to make a large artist book using etching. I used to dream of being on the cover of Art in America but that will have to wait until I am long dead.

Susan Schwalb is represented by Garvey Simon Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001 www.garveysimonartaccess.com