Laurentian Library

Carol Prusa's silverpoints by Jeannine Cook

A fellow silverpoint artist, Carol Prusa, Professor at Florida Atlantic University, currently has an exhibition, Silver Linings: Delicate Drawings, at the Polk Museum in Lakeland, Florida. She has been in two exhibitions with me at museums and I have been more and more fascinated and impressed with her work.

Silverpoint is a drawing medium which basically had its beginnings in the 12th century with the monks in monasteries working on illuminated manuscripts, but Carol has achieved the most perfect update of this medium for the 21st century. Using the same marks made with a silver stylus, she has evolved from the flat surface of vellum, parchment, paper or board to spherical acrylic surfaces on which she draws. She also shows herself to be fully of our technological times, sometimes combining the domed drawings with fiber optics or video.

Carol Prusa in her Studio

Carol Prusa in her Studio

The drawings she conceives are the most hypnotically compelling amalgam of delicate patterning and abstract intellectual concepts, alluding to biology, philosophy, theology or physics. Yet as you are drawn into their delicacy and beauty, the underpinnings of this deep and informed thinking that led to their creation become the background music. Knowing how slow the medium of silverpoint can be to develop, I cannot but marvel at the amount of detail, and thus time, that characterise Carol's work. Layer upon layer, pattern after pattern, the drawings are built up to an incredibly satisfying and sensuous harmony. As Daniel Stetson, Executive Director of the Polk Museum wrote in the elegant catalogue for the exhibition, "... it is through countless tiny details working in unison that beauty of both form and function are created. "

Permeable, Carol Prusa, silverpoint sphere

Permeable, Carol Prusa, silverpoint sphere

Silverpoint is a medium that lends itself to the clear rendering of such "tiny details". Historically, silverpoint has been the medium of choice for scientific drawings, such as botanical studies, with even such artists as Judith Leyster, using it. ( Incidentally, it is the 400th anniversary of Leyster's birthday, celebrated with a wonderful exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.) Leyster did a study of a tulip in silverpoint and watercolour in 1643; she was one of the last to use silverpoint for many a long year after that, because everyone forgot about the medium until the early 19th century. When silverpoint was "rediscovered" - because Cennini Cennini's manuscript of his 1390 how-to art book, Il Libro dell'arte, was found in the Laurentian Library in Italy and artists began to learn about this drawing medium - most of the artists promptly used it for drawings requiring fine lines and delicate details. Carol is the most perfect heir to this heritage. Her drawings provide insights into the world in an elegantly rigorous fashion that bridges science, art and pure visual pleasure.

Rush off and see this exhibition if you are in the Lakeland area of Florida. You will be rewarded.

New Horizons beyond Shimmering Silverpoint I by Jeannine Cook

Silverpoint is a drawing medium which uses silver for mark-making, as I have frequently explained in this blog. It has been known since the 1200s for its subtle, lustrous tonalities and indelible fine lines.

Silverpoint has been undergoing a second renaissance since its rescue from oblivion in the early 19th century. Its latest versions, some of which I have been talking about in the current Evansville Museum of Arts Luster of Silver exhibition, show that it still has a lot of vigour and zest. It was largely forgotten after the discovery of graphite supplanted silver during the late high Renaissance.

Silverpoint was rediscovered in the early 1800s when Cennino Cennini's 1390 manuscript of Il Libro dell'Arte was found in the Laurentian Library in Italy. Readers of the first printed edition learned of this drawing medium in 1821. Many artists tried their hand at silverpoint, but the advent of abstract and non-figurative art in the mid-20th century virtually banished the medium.

In recent years, silverpoint is slowly regaining its luster, thanks in large part to Dr. Bruce Weber, presently Director of the National Academy Museum. In 1985, he curated a ground-breaking silverpoint exhibit, The Fine Line. Drawing with Silver in America , at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida. (The catalogue of that exhibit has since acquired a cult following amongst silverpoint aficionados!) with silverpoint back on the map, artists took note. Today, the number of silverpoint artists is increasing. The medium is now being taught and covered by the art print media and Internet, with the important becoming a clearing house for information on the medium.

The first Luster of Silver 2006 survey of contemporary silverpoint, curated by Holly Koons McCullough at the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, was testimony to the medium'srenewed vigour. While most full-time silverpoint artists often follow the centuries -old techniques (which include using gold, copper, platinum and other metals in addition to silver), they are nonetheless pushing the medium out to new boundaries. Combining different media with silverpoint is technically difficult. But it is happening, and it demonstrates the medium's ability to reflection and respond to today's complex and challenging world.

I frequently combine silverpoint with touches of watercolour, a balancing one-chance act when working on an acrylic ground. But it fun to try these combinations for new effects. The watercolour can be applied traditionally in liquid form (difficultand not always stable on the acrylic ground). In the example below, Marianna's Gift, the silverpoint drawing is on a tinted ground. The highlights are placed in with white gouache, an opaque form of watercolour. Adding the darkened touches of red watercolour straddled the old and the new forms of silverpoint.

Marianna's Gift, silverpoint.watercolour on tinted ground, Jeannine Cook artist

Marianna's Gift, silverpoint.watercolour on tinted ground, Jeannine Cook artist

Many Renaissance drawings were on tinted grounds.

(I will continue this discussion about New Horizons for Silverpoint tomorrow....)