An artist working in metalpoint uses a sharp, pointed instrument (a stylus) with a metal tip to draw on paper, parchment, or wood that has been specially coated. As the stylus travels across this slightly abrasive ground, a small amount of metal is scraped off and remains behind, creating a line. Almost any metal can be used, though only lead, which is softer than others, can be used without a ground. When first drawn, all metalpoint lines, including those made by gold, appear gray, an optical effect that stems in part from the breaking down of the metal into tiny particles. Some metals oxidize, or tarnish, to different colors over time: silver, for example, generally turns golden brown. Others, such as gold, never tarnish and remain gray. Goldpoint appeals to some artists for this reason, although it was rarely used before the nineteenth century. Most of the drawings in this exhibition are silverpoints, by far the most common form of metalpoint through history.
Silverpoint is often considered a challenging medium. The lines can be difficult or even impossible to erase depending on such factors as the type of ground. Unlike pen or chalk, which can produce strokes of varying thickness or darkness depending on how hard artists bear down on the instrument, silver leaves a nearly uniform line. Nonetheless, the medium offers practical and aesthetic advantages: Its portability and convenience make it particularly suited for use in sketchbooks, as artists do not have to carry an inkwell or wait for ink to dry. Silverpoint is especially resistant to smearing and therefore has the added benefit of durability. Also, the precision and subtlety of its delicate lines render it ideal for capturing fine detail. Above all, it is the shimmering beauty of silverpoint that has attracted artists across the centuries.