I’ve always hoped to see an exhibition of metalpoint drawings across time and geography, from Van Eyck to Raphael and Durer, and from Rembrandt to Picasso. It’s unlikely to happen. Exhibitions center around individual artists or schools and this makes good scholarly sense. If there were an exhibition it would be intensely beautiful and we’d see a full range of subjects: portraits, figure studies, landscapes, drawings of animals and flowers, and compositional drawings from the greatest masters. Even though it’s considered an unforgiving medium because mistakes can’t be erased, the artists who’ve used it haven’t used it in a strained and precise way. Or, at least, the best ones haven’t.
A wire of lead, silver, gold, copper, zinc, or alloys of these metals inserted in a holder, usually of wood, is known as a metal stylus. Lead by itself will grip and draw on paper or parchment without a ground. The other metals require grounds and these are made from ground bone or chalk and glue or gum arabic. When the metals scratch the surface, trace amounts of the metals are left and form the limpid lines of metalpoints.
Cennino Cennini gives instructions in his early 15th century work the Libro dell’Arte in how to draw with a metalpoint. The work is conveniently posted in English on the internet here: The Craftsman’s Handbook. He describes different carriers, from box and fig woods to parchment and paper and gives recipes for grounds. His recipes call for bones baked white (chicken or lamb) that are then pulverized and mixed with spittle or glue. He gives a few recipes for tinted papers, where he sets out that the color should be applied in four or five coats, letting each coat dry before applying the next. The colors of the grounds, sometimes with the paintbrush marks visible, are another huge attraction. While the preparation is lengthy, once the paper or vellum is ready it can be used without the encumbrance of brushes and ink pots, making it a suitable medium for out of doors and journeys.
Just below are some metalpoints it would be wonderful to see in a comprehensive metalpoint exhibition.