The Art of Silverpoint: A Precursor to the Pencil

Categories: Pencil

Silverpoint is a graphic medium which preceded the typical lead pencil. Rather of lead a point of silver wire is repaired in a wood holder. Because this will leave but the faintest trace on an ordinary paper surface area, a special ground should be prepared. A paste of powdered bone or chalk blended withwater and gum or starch is spread out with a stiff brush in thin coats, each coat being enabled to dry prior to another is used to form a completely smooth and even surface area.

The silverpoint is not so versatile a medium as pencil, and erasure is practically difficult. The pressure of the point on the ground demands careful control. The main attributes of silverpoint drawing are a great clearness and fragile gray tonality. In time the line turns brown through oxidation. European artists of the 15th and 16th centuries typically began their drawings in silverpoint, finishing them with pen and ink. Albrecht Dürer(1471-1528) made the most of its enduring character in using it for sketch books throughout his travels.

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Though popular throughout the Renaissance, especially in the north with the Van Eycks (active in the early 15th century) and Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399-1464), silverpoint fell under disuse in succeeding periods.

It was revived from time to time, notably by Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617), Rembrandt (1606-1669), and Alphonse Legros (1837-1911). In the 20th century it is being reinvestigated as a highly exacting but distinguished technique. (Colliers Encyclopedia CD-ROM 1996) The modern pencil dates from the middle of the sixteenth century, when a new mineral that made a dark but removable mark was discovered in England’s Lake District.

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The new mineral was called black lead, because it made a blacker line than metallic lead, which had been among the most common means of making a mark on paper without the mess and bother of ink and quill. Black lead also had military applications, especially in casting cannon balls, and so the English mine from which it came was closely guarded and its output regulated. This made the smallest sliver of black lead very costly. Thus the lead, as it had come to be called, was encased in wood not only to keep the fingers clean, but to protect the pricey substance from breaking. The assemblage of lead and wood was called a pencil, after the fine brush known as a penicillum that dated back to Roman times. With the growth of chemical knowledge, pencil lead was found in 1779 to be a form of carbon.

It was then given the name graphite, after the Greek word meaning “to write.” (The substance that was found so effective in rubbing out pencil marks was called rubber.) When at war with the English in the late eighteenth century, the French could not get pure graphite, and so an engineer named Nicolas-Jacques Conte was assigned the task of coming up with a way of making good pencils out of poor graphite. He found that if he recombined refined graphite with a clay binder, and if he baked the mixture into a ceramic, he could make pencils as good as the renowned English ones. He found, further, that by altering the proportions of graphite and clay, he could make pencils that made lighter and darker marks. Conte used the numbers one, two, etc., to designate different degrees of hardness in his pencils. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the English source of graphite had been exhausted. At about the same time an equally rich and pure source had been discovered in Asia, and the German firm a.w. Faber gained exclusive rights to it. Soon, Siberian graphite became the world standard for pencils, and other manufacturers began to color their pencils yellow and give them names like Mongol and Mikado to suggest that they too originated in Asia.

This influence remains today, with about three out of every four pencils finished in yellow. From the beginning of pencil-making, the quality of the wood has been as important as that of the graphite, and red cedar from the southeastern United States was long the wood of choice. By the early twentieth century, however, supplies of red cedar became so scarce that pencil-makers bought old barns and fence posts to stay in business. In time, incense cedar from the western United States was found to be a substitute wood, and that is what is most likely to be in a good No. 2 today. Of late, there has been some concern that jelutong, a tropical rain forest tree, is being used increasingly for less expensive pencils. To counter concerns that pencils are wasteful of resources, one company came out with the American EcoWriter pencil, which uses recycled cardboard and newspaper fiber. Perhaps it will be more readily accepted than the plastic variety of some years ago. (Petroski 1993) One famous artist who used pencil or silverpoint as it was called then was Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo’s first dated work (1473) is a small sketch of a river valley viewed through a gorge, with a castle to one side and a wooded hillside on the other (in the Uffizi Gallery). Done in quick pen strokes, the drawing is early evidence of Leonardo’s unremitting interest in atmospheric effects, something he writes about at length in his notebooks. At face value, the sketch is astonishing. No one earlier had done a pure landscape with such fidelity to appearances, let alone one that was apparently an end in itself. But how original was it? Landscape depicted from a high vantage point overlooking a river plain was a stock device of Florentine painting by the 1460’s (though it always served as a background in a painting). Did Leonardo actually draw out of doors, or was the drawing a vivified version of an artistic convention? The question is unanswerable, and is but a subset of the basic issue of tradition versus innovation in his art and thought. A silverpoint drawing of an antique warrior in profile (in the British Museum) of the mid-1470’s shows Leonardo at full maturity as a draftsman, the artful combination of languid and spring-taut lines and the attention to surfaces gradually modulated in light and shade creating a vibrant image.(Colliers Encyclopedia CD-ROM 1996) For some insight into the world of cartooning, here are excerpts from an interview with Gary Larson, author of “The Far Side.”

Millions of comics fans mourned the departure of “The Far Side” from their newspapers on Jan. 2, 1995. Its creator, Gary Larson, had decided to retire from syndication. But “The Far Side” continues to thrive in book form. Larson’s latest, “Last Chapter and Worse,” released Sunday by Andrews and McMeel, includes 13 new cartoons. Recently, Larson agreed to sit down and talk with Jake Morrissey, his editor. The following is a look at one of the country’s most private cartoonists. Question: I’m often asked, “What’s Gary Larson doing in his retirement?” What have you been doing with yourself? Answer: My retirement has backfired on me in some ways because I feel like I’m actually more involved with cartooning now than when I was doing the syndication. There are always ongoing projects that haven’t stopped, and there are still a couple of years of books and calendars remaining. Then also there’s my involvement with our second animation project [a new “Far Side” TV film]. The only thing that I’m not doing is the daily panels.

Question: Do you still sit down at your drawing board every day? Answer: I was just there this morning working on some layouts for the animation project. But it’s a different kind of work than it was when I was drawing “The Far Side.” I’m just looking at other cartoonists’ work who are drawing in my style and making changes. Question: Do you adjust your cartoon ideas accordingly? Do you ask yourself: “Yeah, that’s a great idea. But I can’t draw that.” Answer: Usually I was foolish enough to try it anyway. You know, there were some things that were just physically impossible, technically impossible, but you would try. I did plenty of mob scenes running through the streets, things like that. And those are things that are challenging for someone like me to do. But you just do it; you do the best you can. But someone else, who’s trained or just very talented, can make it into an epic. Question: Your art style has evolved over the life of “The Far Side,” and profoundly in the sense that you look at the older cartoons and they have a rougher, heavier style. Answer: It would be hard to get worse. I had only one direction to go.

Question: Are you comfortable with the way “The Far Side’s” artwork looks now? Answer: Yeah, I am. It is difficult for me to talk about my drawing or my technique because I never drew that well. And I was always struggling. I used to work harder at some cartoons than probably people would ever expect that I did. But I do have a place I’m going in my mind, and I’ll work at it and work at it until I finally get it. It might be just a silly face I’m drawing. Without being that great an artist, in my gut I knew where I wanted to go with something. And I would try to get it there. Question: I’ve talked to cartoonists who felt that they were so close to something really good, but something about it didn’t gel as well as it should have for a variety of reasons: Their limitations as an illustrator, for example. Answer: Those were the battles. For me, perspective was always important.

There are some cartoonists who can stand at the foot of a building looking straight up and they’ll capture it perfectly. And then there are those of us who do the same drawing and it’s the goofiest-looking thing in the world. But after a while I guess you just learn what you’re capable of and what you can and can’t do. Question: What do you think your greatest strength as a cartoonist is? Answer: I’m not sure how to answer that. I could answer it in a very general way and say,oh, I was just in tune to myself, in tune to my sense of humor. I feel I always had a really direct link with that part of me–pretty unfiltered in that sense. (Los Angeles Times 1996)

Works Cited

Turner A., Richard. “Leonardo Da Vinci.” Colliers Encyclopedia CD-ROM., 02-28- 1996. Petroski, Henry. “Rub-out?.”, Vol. 209, New Republic, 12-06-1993, pp 11. Morrissey, Jake. “Home Edition.”, Los Angeles Times, 10-07-1996, pp E-1.

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The Art of Silverpoint: A Precursor to the Pencil. (2016, Jun 18). Retrieved from

The Art of Silverpoint: A Precursor to the Pencil

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