A Whispering Medium

Silverpoint is relatively rarely seen nowadays, but it remains a delicate medium for drawing. Putting a point of real silver onto gessoed paper allows the same kind of fine detail and fragility to be expressed that are characteristic of harder graphite pencils’ work. The effect is of pale and careful imagery, a wisp of smoke, a mist, a whisper.Drawing: Silverpoint Apples

There’s an appealing air of the arcane to a medium that’s old and seldom used nowadays, and silverpoint qualifies on both counts. It’s also effective, as I found in my little experiments, on a black background to create gently ghostly drawings, but as ghosts seem wont to do, has a tendency to disappear at the slightest whiff of air, since oxidation darkens silver and it becomes less and less visible against the dark ground. Of course, that very ephemeral quality might be a further attraction, an encouragement to see the medium as a passing fancy best appreciated ‘fresh’ and gone in the blink of an eye.

Drawing: Silverpoint Blueberries

This is, after all, an age in which change comes at an ever-increasing speed and in growing quantities, and we become accustomed to nearly everything having the shelf life of a mayfly at best. We adapt, we move on. Yet we crave the sense of permanence and connection, so here I am marking in graphite over the top of the silverpoint as it fades, or scanning the images to enhance the contrast while it can still be seen. And while I still love the sense of tactile attachment and involvement that writing longhand, pencil on paper, gives me even when I’m up to my elbows in graphite dust, not to mention hoping that the neural connections such physical action reinforces better than keyboard manipulations will stay with me longer somehow, what do I do with my writings? Transcribe the scribbles to the electronic medium by sitting at my keyboard afterward anyway.

So passes our world; we labor with new tools to speed things up, revisit and relish the old methodology and tools to slow down and remember, and then run back to catch up with the new again. We, too, are ephemeral as faint images, as ghosts, and we feel our mortality even as we strive to make our marks on the world while passing through it. Our tiny voices and messages may be lost in the ether forever, and that, almost at the instant of their making, but the urge to tell our tales remains. Our little silver trails will fade, but we will have moved on elsewhere as well.

9 thoughts on “A Whispering Medium

  1. Wonderful images and thoughts! I love how you link the old and the new, and connect your process with our efforts to navigate through the constant cycle of developments. And yes, I do want to beleive that we can take the best from the two worlds, always!
    I didn’t know about silverpoint as a technique, so I learned something new here!

    • Well, if you enjoyed the post, I’d bet you might enjoy a quick foray into trying the medium yourself, as it’s no more difficult than any other kind of drawing once you have the prepared drawing surface (gessoed paper works well) and the silverpoint. The latter can be made easily by sticking a short piece of silver wire into the end of a stick so that it becomes a pen or stylus, or even by drawing with the side of a silver coin or piece of jewelry, if you don’t mind taking a little of the surface off of those! 🙂

      • Thank you for all this information! I am not familiar with gesso, but did some research and understand you can buy it and prepare the medium yourself (or can you even buy black gesso paper in art supply stores?). I once did a print workshop and tried the mezzotint, which I so much loved because you have dark as starting point and add lighter tones to it. I don’t have equipment to do mezzotint at home, but silverpoint on black might trigger the same excitement in me. I also like the idea to draw with silver, it connects to my jewellery making.
        Thank you so much for introducing this medium, I may not have the time soon to try it, but now I know it exists, that’s the first step!

        • Since gesso is a coating that gives a finely textured surface to paper or other drawing substrates (kind of like fine sandpaper) to help it hold drawing media, I suspect there are a number of other treatments and surfaces that might do the same trick, though I’ve not tried most or done the research. I *did*, however, use flat black acrylic house paint in lieu of gesso for my white-on-black work in this instance since it was what I had around, and the ‘tooth’ of the black paint when it dried was sufficient to work.

          As for mezzotint, it’s a gorgeous medium! But also very labor-intensive! The alternative method (not entirely comparable, but enough so—) I enjoyed when I was doing printmaking years ago was a quick-fix process I’m told Degas employed, and it should be pretty easy to replicate even if you don’t have access to true printmaking equipment. What makes it similar to mezzotint is the subtractive approach to making the image, though it’s not inherently as rich as the velvety depths of mezzotinting. Essentially, the process is simply to cover a plate of some sort (I was using simple sheets of galvanized tin) evenly with a solid but fairly thin coating of ink, then remove the ink with hands and/or tools to create the negative drawing on the plate. Then paper’s laid on the inked/drawn plate and it’s all put under pressure to make the transfer. I had access to a press and the felts for padding the plate and paper stack under the rollers’ pressure at the time, but I’m quite sure a more rustic version could be accomplished by applying pressure to the paper against the inked plate in a number of simpler, handmade ways. In any event, the “erased” image is typically Impressionistic and painterly, as would indeed suit a nice Degas work, so I enjoyed it immensely.

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