Lines and Colors art blog

Eye Candy for Today: Thomas Wilmer Dewing silverpoint portrait

Thomas Wilmer Dewing silverpoint portrait
Portrait of a Woman, Thomas Wilmer Dewing

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Use the zoom or download icons under the image. Original sheet is roughly 22 x 19 in. (57 x 48 cm).

The portrait is drawn in silverpoint, the most prevalent of the variations of metalpoint drawing. The artist draws with a thin wire of the soft metal — embedded in wooden rod or metal holder — usually on paper prepared with gesso or other coating. The initial gray metal lines gradually turn to a soft brown on exposure to air over a period of months.

The result is a uncannily delicate line, ghostly and etherial in the case of Dewing’s tonal approach.

Like ink drawing, there is no easy method of correction, and the lines as they are put down will remain.

From the placement of the head on the paper, it looks as though Dewing was allowing room to draw at least the head and shoulders, if not a half-length portrait. Perhaps he was unable to finish for one reason or another, or perhaps he decided to stop at the point of achieving the exquisite beauty of the drawing in its current state.


4 responses to “Eye Candy for Today: Thomas Wilmer Dewing silverpoint portrait”

  1. I never heard of that method before.. It ends up a very poetic result

    1. Thanks for the comment, Thomas. Metalpoint, and in particular silverpoint, was more prevalent in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

  2. I’ve always loved this one, especially for his tonal approach as you mention.
    On your comment of the medium being more prevalent in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
    You would think a medium that is a simple drawing method, meaning grab the tool and draw without a lot of extensive preparation, would have had some resurgence over the last few years as art in general went more towards traditional and academic yet I can’t think of a single contemporary artist who works in silverpoint.
    There probably are some but it certainly is not common if so.

    I don’t know a lot about silverpoint so I wonder if it is a delicate medium to display, like watercolor is prone to fading but even more so in some way and hence less saleable?

    1. Thanks, David.

      I think silverpoint is off-putting for many contemporary artists compared to other drawing media. It’s more expensive, usually requires a prepared ground, is not dramatic and doesn’t produce dark darks. Also, the final appearance of the oxidized metal doesn’t reveal itself for months. Another factor is that many potential art buyers may not be familiar with silverpoint as a medium.

      I have come across some contemporary artists who work in silverpoint, and prize it for its delicacy. I’ve written about a few: Koo Schadler, Stephen Scott Young, and Fred Wessel among them. Schadler and Wessel have a penchant for other painstaking Renaissance techniques, notably egg tempera.

      I think the more widespread availability of graphite pencils, in the 18th century had something to do with the diminished use of metalpoint. While it may lack some of the uncanny subtlety of silverpoint, graphite can produce fine lines and great delicacy more readily than chalks or crayons.