Metalpoints of Old Masters

On Tuesday, June 5th, the prints and drawings department at the PMA had a guest speaker come to talk about the history of materials used in metalpoint drawings. Timothy David Mayhew, artist and scholar, gave a lecture entitled The Nature and Evolution of Metalpoint Grounds in Traditional 4th to 16th Century Old Master Drawings. The great thing about Timothy being an artist is that he came prepared with some beautiful samples of all of the materials he described throughout his lecture, along with drawings that he created using those media.

First, let me explain what a metalpoint drawing is: Commonly referred to as ‘silverpoint’ (though it’s not always silver), metalpoint is a traditional drawing technique whereby metal from a stylus leaves particles on a slightly abrasive surface to form a line. The height of metalpoint was during the Renaissance, with artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo and Durer, but you can still find more modern metalpoints made by artists like James Rosenquist.

From Timothy’s lecture, I learned what types of ground were used for metalpoint, originally, and up through the 16th century: mostly a type of white chalk on hide, but later calcined bone over burnished paper. It was amazing to see how many different types of metals were used to create the styli: from lead and tin, to copper, silver, and even gold. These materials were further illustrated in the paper lab when Timothy brought out his personal collection of styli, made with the previous materials, along with prepared supports made using a mixture of calcined bone and various natural pigments.

Timothy was very kind to let us look at the drawings under the microscope, sample the materials, and also leave us a couple gifts to put into our materials collection. Maybe we’ll see him again next year for his sequel: Metalpoint drawing materials from the 17th century to present!

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