November 03, 2015

"Drawing in Silver and Gold"

Visitors come from far and wide to The British Museum to view its magnificent treasures like the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, but for a limited time, those who venture up to the top floor will be rewarded with a small but exquisite exhibition devoted to the art of metalpoint drawing.  A collaboration with The National Gallery in Washington DC, "Drawing in Silver and Gold" explores the little known artistic technique of drawing with a metal stylus rather than a pencil or chalk.  And if you're wondering what's so special about this method, a quick glance at the hundred or so magnificent examples on display will make it all clear!

Surprisingly, metalpoint drawing is almost more about the surface than it is about the metal drawing instrument.  A short video presentation shows how a sheet of paper or parchment is treated with a concoction of bone ash (a gritty powder made of roasted and ground animal bones) mixed with a dye agent like powdered clay or indigo, and a little water to form a fine paste.  This paste is combined with a binding agent, like animal glue, and carefully applied to the paper with a brush.  Once dry, the paper becomes a colored ground with a slightly abrasive surface and is ready to be drawn upon.

The metal stylus can be a nib of silver, gold or other metal, or an object like a spring or a comb to make a different kind of line.  All metal drawings appear grey on the ground and a darker effect is achieved by repeated strokes or cross-hatching, not harder rubbing.  Some metals, like silver, will eventually tarnish turning the lines from grey to brown and sometimes the drawings are highlighted with a white gouache paint to add depth.  The most challenging aspect to metalpoint drawing is that it is very difficult to erase, therefore each line must be carefully considered before the stylus meets the surface of the paper.

Metalpoint drawing became popular during the late 14th century when it was used for preparatory studies for paintings, rapid sketches and fully finished drawings.  It was practiced with equal popularity in Italy, by such masters as Leonardo Da Vinci (see above "Bust of a Warrier", 1495, silver point on cream prepared paper) Boticcelli and Raphael, and in Northern Europe by Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and Rogier van der Weyden (see left "Head of the Virgin", mid 15th Century).  The arrival of cheaper and easier to use graphite saw a decline in the use of metalpoint for drawing and by the 17th century it was virtually forgotten.  The late 19th century saw a re-emergence in the technique's popularity as artists like Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Holroyd recognized the unique properties of this method.  By the 20th century such avant garde artists as Otto Dix and Jasper Johns regularly used metalpoint as a drawing medium.

Although "Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns" is not a headliner exhibition, it was one of the most fascinating and informative shows I've seen in a long time.  The assembly of such a distinguished group of these rare works of art, including four loans from the collection of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, made a compelling case for the revival of this largely unfamiliar technique.  An outstanding installation allowed viewers to truly appreciate the fine lines and extraordinary detail that can be only be achieved by metalpoint drawing and we left with a tremendous admiration for this under-appreciated medium.

Albrecht Dürer  "A Dog Resting", c. 1520
Silver point and traces of charcoal over pale pink prepared paper

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