Sunday 24 September 2017


A little while back I went to see the Raphael exhibition in the Ashmolean in Oxford. Next to it being a wonderful exhibition, it also reminded me of the ancient renaissance technique of silverpoint, that I used to enjoy experimenting with. It seems to be a bit of a forgotten technique nowadays, but for those of you who like experimenting with different materials, here a little tutorial on how to make your own silverpoint illustration / artwork.

I used a sketch for the picture book I'm currently working on, where Momo and Noush are sliding over an icy river, as the base for this step by step guide to silverpoint.

The materials you need are:

- a piece of silver (I use 0.5 mm jewellery making silver) 
- an empty mechanical pencil that holds 0.5 mm leads
- zinc white gouache and/or chinese white watercolour paint
- strong but smooth paper (I use Fabriano Classico 5) streched up on a board
- your sketch

You stretch up your paper, as you would normally stretch watercolour paper. Then you cover the whole paper with a thin layer of zinc white gouache or Chinese white watercolour paint diluted with water. Or a combination of the 2 paints with water. Let it dry and apply another layer, making sure that the whole surface is well covered with the gouache and/or watercolour.

This is important as the silver will create a chemical reaction with the zinc white and the Chinese white.

Guided by your sketch, you now paint in your background. You can use different types of paints, watercolour, gouaches, acrylics, as long as you blend in a bit of zinc white or Chinese white as you go along. Or, if you don’t want a coloured background, you can just work on the white.

Make sure your background is dry.

Once it is dry you can start drawing with your silver on the background. I tend to cut the paper off the board at this stage, as I find that works easier. 

One note though, once the silver has made a mark, you can’t erase it. It’s there as the chemical reaction between the silver and the zinc has taken place.

After you have drawn your characters or scene, you can paint in your artwork and hey presto! You have a silverpoint illustration.

A note for the painting. If you have used gouache in your background, it will start blending somewhat with any watercolour or other wet paints, as that is what gouache does. I like that effect. But it does mean you do have to plan your drawing well when you put the base together.

So why would you go through all this hassle, when you could just use a pencil?

I like how you can work really finely and delicately with the silver, apart from printing techniques like etching, I don’t know many materials that you can work so finely with.

The other advantage is that you can work on top of a background. With a pencil you cannot always draw easily on a painted background. However, the silver will just draw on the background, whether it is textured or not.

Interestingly the silver will continue to work with the zinc in the paint and grow darker over the years. The work is still "living". For me that makes it a meaningful medium, if that idea fits with a story.

And last, but not least, there is something nice about keeping an old technique alive.