It wasn’t until 1564 that pure graphite was discovered in a deposit from which pencils could be cut. It wasn’t until the 1790’s that pencil leads were made from a mixture of powdered graphite and clay cast into thin rods. And before the graphite pencil was invented, metalpoint was used. We still say “lead” pencils—even though there is no lead in them—because lead had been used to make drawings since antiquity. Since it is very soft, it will make a mark on ordinary drawing paper. (Every child who has gone fishing has probably drawn with lead sinkers.) Silver, gold, and copper rods can also be used to draw with, but they are harder, so the paper must be rendered slightly abrasive by applying a coating of Chinese white watercolor or gouache. In the case of silver and copper, the pale mark made by the rod will oxidize over time, the grey mark of the silver developing a rich brownish tone, the coppery mark becoming greenish. Gold, of course, does not tarnish.
Silverpoint was a popular method of drawing until it was supplanted by pen and ink. The pen is more flexible, capable of making both thick and thin marks, and the ink can be diluted and applied with a brush to make a pen and wash painting. In silverpoint, dark areas must be produced by cross-hatching, or even by scribbled masses. In Raphael’s time, pen and ink was on the ascendancy, and by the 18th century, very little silverpoint was being made.
The accompanying drawing is a silverpoint copy of a Raphael “Madonna and Child.” I made it to try out the parallel shading technique that Raphael was a master of. It is a freehand copy made by simply placing the drawing paper next to the Raphael image, and drawing the copy directly. As it is difficult to erase silverpoint—impossible if a finely sharpened point is used,which will cut into the Chinese-white coating . There are no erasures in this drawing. The drawing took me forty minutes or so, and it is far from perfect. For example, there are “tails” on some of the strokes made by carelessness in lifting up the stylus, and some of the darks are overworked. Nonetheless, I liked the result and gave it to a charity art auction because I didn’t have any other completed work on hand when they asked for a contribution. Now, I wish that I still had it.
(I would like to see Raphael’s original because I suspect that he used a little dark chalk to moderate the shadows . . . maybe.)
Note This essay should be looked at in connection with the one on “copies.” That is why I stressed that the “Raphael” is a freehand copy with no erasures. It shows that it is possible to draw with some precision without using a camera lucida or any other device. It also shows that copying can be a useful exercise. In this case, it was an excellent way to study the form and function of the parallel shading.