Silverpoint (one of several types of metalpoint) is a traditional drawing technique first used by medieval scribes on manuscripts. A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer.

In the fourteenth century, Florentine artist Cennino Cennini wrote The Craftsman’s Handbook (Il Libro dell’ Arte) a fascinating and instructive handbook for aspiring artists of the period.

The Craftsman's Handbook

This is his advice on drawing in silverpoint:

  • Find a place to draw where the light is diffused, and have the sun fall on the opposite side to the hand with which you draw.
  • Prepare the paper with a coloured ground
  • Select a slender, smooth and handsome metal stylus with a silver tip
  • Begin by copying simple subjects
  • Make the first marks very lightly, so that they can barely be seen
  • Strengthen the strokes little by little, going back many times to produce the shadows
  • Touch in highlights with white lead on the tip of a pointed brush
  • Work a little each day, so that you don’t tire of it.
  • After about a year of drawing in metalpoint you may take up drawing with a pen and ink on paper, which will make you expert, skillful and capable of drawing from your imagination:
    • Cut your quill from a goose feather
    • Work up your lights, half lights, and darks gradually, going back to them many times
    • Shade with washes by adding two drops of ink to a nutshell of water and applying with a dry, blunt brush, made from miniver tails.

    His key advice: Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth-while, and will do you a world of good. (National Portrait Gallery)

silverpoint - Cennino.png

Woman Wearing a Hood by Domenico Ghirlandaio, c.1485-90. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017