Copper in the Arts

April 2018

The Precision and Magic of Copperpoint Drawing: A Visit with Artist Susan Schwalb

By Erica David

The copper artwork of metalpoint has an illustrious history. Medieval scribes used it for manuscripts, it was embraced by Renaissance artists, and it has been practiced ever since by artists who love to draw the finest of fine lines.

susan.jpgIllusion, 1978, 12 x 9 inch copperpoint on clay coated paper by Susan Schwalb.
Photo courtesy of Susan Schwalb.

Artist Susan Schwalb is a contemporary master of metalpoint drawing who is currently writing a book on the technique (along with fellow artist Tom Mazullo).  Her retrospective show, A Luminous Line, is currently on view at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, 40 years of her work in this distinctive medium.

Schwalb said she discovered metalpoint by chance, describing it in the terms of love at first sight, the way some people talk about the day they met their future husband.

“I fell on it by accident,” says Schwalb. “Another artist I was sharing a house with was fooling around with it. I said, ‘What is that?’ She gave me a tool and I made a mark. I came home, and I bought paper and tools. More than 40 years later, I’m still working in this medium.

Schwalb was especially drawn to the quality of the lines you can create through this process.

“I was using watercolor, making somewhat illustrative drawings, dreamlike drawings, and I just kept looking for finer and finer lines,” she recalls. “I fell in love with the fine line you could get from metalpoint.”

Schwalb believes that it’s also the metal itself that draws people.

“The metals have an incredible sheen on the surface,” she says. It’s a very sensuous line.”

Schwalb frequently refers to the wider community of metalpoint artists, noting the role the internet has played, both in bringing artists together and feeding the revival of a traditional artform.

“I think one of the facebook groups has over 700 members!,” she says. “Because this technique is still underknown and underused, relative to everything else, there’s still this need to connect. It was much harder to find each other when I first started out. You want to see what other people are doing.”

The tightness of the metalpoint community also stems from the fact that the technique is clearly not for everybody. It requires patience, precision and time. It’s not surprising that its popularity has waxed and waned over the years. Schwalb said that even Michelangelo ditched the method in favor of the faster, more flexible medium of red chalk.

According to Schwalb, we are in the midst of a metalpoint revival of sorts. Not only are a lot more artists working in the medium, the kind of work being produced is of a wider variety. A big change, she says, is that more and more artists are using metalpoint for abstraction:

“There’s a real breadth of work being done,” she says. “There is one artist, Robyn Ellenbogen, who does really fine abstractions using metallic wool pads. Copper wool pads . . . Her works are very free, very wavy free lines.

Schwalb’s own work has moved, over the years, from the figurative to the abstract. In her recent work, she juxtaposes different metals in the form of a bold grid, highlighting their different effects.

When asked whether she can predict how a finished image will look, she says that although there are a number of factors in play--the metal as well as the color and makeup of the ground--she usually can, but not always.

“What happens with copper specifically is that it tarnishes over time,” she says. “Especially in the summer. For example I’ll make a drawing using copper and by the next day, if it’s one of these hot humid days in New York, the drawing will tarnish. Copper becomes either a greenish yellow, yellow or it retains its reddish quality.

When Schwalb does a drawing on a black ground, it’s very red initially. Then, it will sometimes fade, and sometimes remain.

“As much as I’ve learned,” she said  “I still can’t totally be sure what I will get. It’s a mystical medium.”


Susan Schwalb, Marfa, TX, and New York, NY

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