Gordon Hanley: Metalpoint artist who turned the clock back 500 years | PHOTOS

LIVING MASTER: Gordon Hanley, one of the hottest properties in the art world today. Picture Richard Briggs.
LIVING MASTER: Gordon Hanley, one of the hottest properties in the art world today. Picture Richard Briggs.

For you and me, it's a Christmas present that would sit right up there alongside socks and undies from Nan.

It certainly wasn't anything fancy... an old fashioned pencil with a metalpoint tip, and some formula.

But to Gordon Hanley, an Australian artist with a science background, that gift from his wife Shauna in 2006 meant endless possibilities.

Ten years on and it has led to him uncovering the secrets of a branch of art that had been lost to the world for more than 500 years - since the days of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

He is now unchallenged as the world's finest exponent of metalpoint art, officially recognised as a Living Master, crafting pieces that are in huge demand from collectors the world over, selling on the north side of $40,000 each. To say the world's galleries are clamouring to hang his works is no exaggeration.

 He's hot property.

"I’d been reading a book on Da Vinci and the metalpoint art they used at the time, and it intrigued me,” Hanley, 62, explains. His wife, as wives do, had noticed his interest.

So, what exactly is metalpoint?

Think of it as a pencil with a pure gold or silver tip. If you use it on specially coated paper, then it's like using a pencil - but far more painstaking, so much slower, and much less forgiving. But put it in the hands of a master and the results are incredibly detailed works, with levels of shading and light that even the finest cameras can't achieve.

And make no mistake, Hanley is a master.

Even today he still tinkers with the coating process. In his own words, the paper has to be “perfect” and the process can take five days before he’s ready to even draw a line.

Depending on size, his drawings fetch between $1950 and, say, $45,000 - about $10 per square centimetre.

He has done still life – he loves playing with the light and transparency of crystal glassware - wildlife images of such things as owls, parrots and possums, and in recent times he is doing more and more portrait work.

 “I think light is one of the consistent factors through all my works,” he says. He names three or four pieces that stand out in his own mind because of the way he has nailed the light and shade.

A drawing will usually take more than 100 hours to complete.

If in his desire to get the tone right, he presses too hard and breaks through the ground (the paper coating), he has no option but to start again.

“I reckon there has been half a dozen times when I’ve broken through the ground after I’ve done 60 or 70 hours on a drawing. I swear and carry on a bit … and then I start again. There’s no choice.

“You can’t correct with metalpoint. It’s virtually impossible.”

Also when the ground is right, and with the advancement in the quality of paper, his drawings can theoretically live forever.

“Think about it,” he said. “My coatings are far superior to what they used hundreds of years ago. So the people I’m drawing now are immortal in a way. In 500 years time we could have some person come up and point at one of my portraits and say that was my great great great great great grandmother.

“I find that really exciting.”

He also believes it’s one of the reasons he never has to advertise for a model.

“No, they contact me and ask if they could pose. I think it’s that sense that the image will live forever.”

And when he’s finished a piece, what does he do?

“Turn it around so I can’t see it and put it against the wall. I don’t look at them after I’ve finished. I’m thinking about the next image, and how I can make it the best I’ve ever done.

“I can’t start the next piece until I have every minute detail of it worked out in my mind about how it’s going to look, so I need to put the previous piece behind me and move on. No looking back.”

But if you think Gordon Hanley is at the top of his game right now, the man himself is not convinced.

The tweaking of paper … the combination of gold, silver and carbon tips … the fact he only started learning his new skill 10 years ago … he’s perfecting his art still. The best is yet to come.

Who needs socks and undies anyway?