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June 2011

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Making Silverpoint Paper

Bonnie and I have been making silverpoint papers, and I think we've finally got the process down.

Several years ago, I wanted to learn how to make silverpoint drawings, because this is one way preliminary drawings and studies were made during the Renaissance.  Easier said than done, though.  I had a book, "The Practice of Egg Tempera Painting," by Daniel Thompson, which purported to tell in detail how silverpoint drawings were done.  The author said to take drawing paper, tape it down, and paint it with a layer or several layers of glue size, powdered pigment, and something called bone ash.  When I first read this book many years ago, finding powdered pigment and glue size was quite an undertaking.  I remember how elated I was when I finally found Kremer Pigments in NYC, and then later, Sinopia in San Francisco!  But I was stymied by this bone ash stuff.

I thought surely it wasn't that important, and I tried making up some of the tinted papers detailed in the book without the bone ash.  Then I worked on figuring out how to make a silverpoint pen.  Again, not something you can buy at Hobby Lobby.  I finally stumbled on an article in the UTC newspaper about a new teacher in the art department -- David Young -- who actually drew in silverpoint!  Oh joy!  I trotted immediately over to his office and started asking many annoying questions which he was kind enough to answer -- how do I make a silverpoint pen?  And what is this bone ash stuff?  What does it do?  He explained that the bone ash roughens the surface of the paper enough to take a mark from the relatively hard silver pencil.  He said casually that it "wasn't hard to get" and that you could find it at places that sold supplies for ceramics.  OK, that's a start.  Except I found out later it's not true, but not to worry.

He explained that making a silverpoint pencil involved getting some mechanical drawing pens at the store and instead of using pencil leads, you get some thick silver wire and grind it to a point on one end, and round it off on the other end.  You stick this into the pencil holder instead.   Ok, that worked. 

Later, I also asked more questions on my Natural Sciences Illustration online list -- I noticed that someone there was doing silverpoint too.  I wanted to know if you used sterling or pure silver, for instance, and how thick the silver wire should be.  Eventually I got enough information to put together some pencils.  I bought the silver wire at a jeweler's supply shop right here in town (and already, I've forgotten if I got sterling or pure silver.  I think it was sterling.)  and took the wires to work at UTC where I have access to a dental drill with several dremel tool attachments which I used to grind them down to points.  Each one took about 5 minutes or so.  So now I had about a dozen silverpoint pencils, although not fancy handmade like Leonardo would have used -- that would have been an ivory stylus with the silver wire embedded in it somehow that I cannot figure out right now and don't want to bother.

So, on to making the paper.  I kept hemming and hawing about ordering the bone ash because it was in the Kremer catalog, but it cost $35 for a bag.  I kept thinking I could find some around Chattanooga for cheap, so I wasted a lot of time.  First, like I said, I made some tinted paper without the bone ash, just using the powdered pigments and glue size.  It looked quite pretty, but it didn't work.  The silverpoint pen wouldn't make a mark on it.

So then another artist friend told me that the bone ash at Ace Hardware was exactly the same thing, and it only cost $5 a bag instead of $35 plus shipping!  The bone ash from Ace was a beige color and rough.  I mixed some into my next batch of glue and pigment.  Nasty.  And it didn't work either.  Instead of adding a bit of "tooth" to the surface it just added gritty lumps.

I was going to have to order the bone ash from Kremer.  But disaster!!  Kremer sold out to Sinopia and their new catalog didn't even list bone ash!  I had dawdled too long.  The only evidence I had that they had ever stocked bone ash was my 2-year-old Kremer catalog.  In desperation, I called Kremer and asked if they still had the bone ash.  "I think we still have some around here somewhere," said the woman on the phone.  It sounded as if she were shoving around boxes in the background.  "How much do you want?"  The directions in the tempera book said "A Little."  How much is "a little" bone ash?  I ended up buying half a kilo bag.

It arrived within 3 days, pearlescent and palest gray-white.  This was the real deal, and it looked to be enough to do me for quite a while, maybe forever.  At this point, Bonnie expressed an interest in making papers for silverpoint too, so we agreed to get together and mix a batch or two, and I could sell her some bone ash.

Our first efforts, back in the fall, were too thickly done, I realized after visiting the Leonardo exhibit in Birmingham in November.  His papers were tinted, but only lightly.  We'd been brushing on coat after coat in an attempt to make it look smooth, which wasn't necessary.

The new bone ash worked perfectly, though.  As soon as the pigment dried, we tested it with one of the silverpoint pens and it worked perfectly!  Success!  Since then, we've gotten together a couple of more times to make paper, experimenting with different weights of paper and colors of pigment.  Here's a picture of Bonnie stirring the pigment mixture on the stove.

Here's Bonnie painting the pigment mixture on paper.

This is some light blue paper we made in imitation of Leonardo's lovely light blue paper at the show.

Well, that's all for now.  Next step -- complete glorious silverpoint drawings!  Bonnie said she was going to make up some little handmade books of silverpoint paper and give them away, which is the sort of lovely thoughtful gesture I am too selfish to make.  But hey, Bonnie, you go girl!  :-)


recipe for silverpoint paper

I forgot to put in the recipe: 1 ounce of hide or rabbit-skin glue mixed with 18 ounces of cold water in a double boiler; warm slowly and stir until dissolved. You can let the glue soak overnight in the cold water if you want.

Then add about an ounce or less of whatever dry pigment you choose and about the same amount of the bone ash and stir until dissolved. You want a thinnish, creamy paint. Paint it on good quality drawing paper or even illustration board. Thin papers will curl too much.

Alternative methods: If you wish you could leave out the pigment and just have a translucent wash. The tinted paper is so you can use the tint as your middle ground, and add white highlights to your drawing.

You can also mix the bone ash and pigment with mat acrylic medium and use it the same way. I found this worked very well and was quicker. But of course it's not what Leonardo used.

Mr. Young told me that artists can use other metals besides silver -- even gold!

Re: recipe for silverpoint paper

check out:
for a bottled version Leonardo would have jumped at. I've also used casein, though the smell lingers. The gold point is nice but doesn't tarnish/darken.
I'd like to see your results. Here are three of mine:

Re: recipe for silverpoint paper

Stephen, OMG, love your blog and will be perusing it more deeply soon! Your silverpoint drawings are much nicer than any I've made, but I'll try to find one of mine that doesn't suck too much. I've had trouble making a line dark enough to suit me. Should I just wait for it for tarnish?

Thank you, too, for the link to the site that sells silverpoint supplies. Fantastic. Marked it on favorites.

Re: recipe for silverpoint paper

After reading the silverpoint supplies site, I'm wondering if I bought sterling silver and it's too hard. They describe their points as pure silver and "dead soft." Hmmm. Thinking.

Re: recipe for silverpoint paper

The tarnishing is subtle, a shift from cool grey to warm grey; you can't depend on it to 'self-achieve' your darkest tones. It seems you can only get those by laying a network of lines down, next to and on top of each other, building up the darks – rather slowly. So if your drawing wants a lot of true blacks silverpoint may not be the right medium. It's best at showing a broad range of silvery tones, like a platinum-palladium print in photography, working within a more limited tonal range.
That having been said, I have seen some get a decent near-black (http://www.sherryselavy.com/z_s_01.jpg).
AND I've noticed store-bought pre-prepared (clay-coated) silverpoint paper didn't give me the darks I could get on home prepared paper. So it depends on several things.

Re: recipe for silverpoint paper

Bought some pure silver and pure gold wire and today I took it to work and ground it with the dremel tools under the low power microscope to a not-too-sharp point on one end, and the other end blunt and round for a thicker line. Success finally. It makes a darker line without ruining the finish of the prepared paper. The sterling cut into the paper finish and made an almost invisible line. I have two small sheets of the light blue Leonardo papers to draw on (why did I only make that much? Why can I never remember what I was thinking?).