Branson, Missouri

2 April, 2016. Like many artists, I enjoy experimenting with different drawing instruments and papers. I firmly believe that artists should work with the best materials they can afford – clearly, there’s a dramatic difference between the pigments in student grade paint and professional level stuff. But too often my students fool themselves into believing that expensive tools somehow equal “better” artwork. I’m a frugal guy (translation: cheapskate.) I have a personal need to justify “upgrading” those tools of mine that otherwise work just fine. For instance, my lead holder. More expensive than a No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil (which I also keep ready to hand), but it’s lasted me thirty-five years and I see no reason to believe it won’t continue to work just fine at least that much longer. It’s a humble drawing tool.

Watercolor paints and brushes can be a source of frustration sometimes. Low quality stuff is simply bad: bad washes, bad contrast, bad color intensity, bad experience…that kind of bad. But after my recent rediscovery of Nicholson’s Peerless Transparent Watercolors – definitely a humble artist tool, if there every was one  – I was pleased to also discover that it’s not always necessary to carry my expensive watercolors and brushes with me all the time. Rather than in tubes or half pans, these fifteen intense pigments are on individual sheets of card stock within a small pamphlet. While there seems to be many approaches to creating a palette of these paints, I simply snipped off a half inch wide section of each and used double stick to apply them to a piece of folded card stock. The card fits neatly into my sketchbook. The paint is activated with a dot of water, so economical and easily transportable brush pens are a perfect companion. (And talk about compact: a couple pens fit into a breast pocket and the sketchbook into my hip pocket.)

I’ve taped a piece of Yupo to the right hand side of the card stock (not shown) so that the palette winds up being a tri-fold configuration. The Yupo is an easily washed mixing surface.

And best of all, this incredibly simple kit has rich, intense colors – it doesn’t take much more than a “dot” of pigment to use for sketching. The challenge and reward of drawing people is that they are dynamic and in motion. You normally only have a couple of seconds to capture a gesture or likeness, and then wind up working from memory best you can after that. This gentleman was kind enough to stand under an awning, battling a bag of donuts for about ten minutes, while I stood at a distance trying to be as discreet as possible as I sketched with speed and a certain degree of ferocity.

Last year one of my advanced drawing students began to experiment with ball point pens. Really, just a plain old Bic pen with black ink. I think they cost something like 59 cents…and the drawings were lovely, sensitive portraits! Plus, it turns out the ink is permanent. With a little practice one can produce nice tonal variations, and the ink likes to flow if one uses the medium point pen. I like Bic pens on nice, soft, white, cottony papers. (Be advised that not all pens are alike. I’ve had poor results with roller ball pens – and don’t get me started on “gel” pens! Bic seems to be the best option.)

Last week I found myself on designated driver detail for a shopping expedition to Branson, Missouri. We were visiting one of the outlet malls, those sprawling conglomerations of retail outlets that simply crawl with customers in search of a bargain. I couldn’t help but notice how many middle aged and older men were patiently waiting on benches and at outdoor tables and decided to make some sketches. I whipped out my sketchbook …and discovered I’d left my drawing pens in the car. For some reason I still had a Bic pen in my pocket. So there you have it: instant drawing tool redirect!

I recall working with Bic pens when I was a Freshman in high school in the early 70’s. This was not out of choice back then either, but because I didn’t have any real art supplies other than a dip pen. Art class was not offered in the little one horse town we were living in at the time. My aunt was an artist and took a personal interest in advocating for me to continue to draw; the dip pen came from her. Thus, my formative experiences were with cross hatching and the particular linear characteristics of a dip pen. The discovery of what a Bic pen could do when I was around fourteen turned out to be something of a revelation. Not only could I afford a Bic pen, but I always had it ready to hand (a black pen and No. 2 pencil were required for classes, a concept that tends to escape my students of 2016.) The difference between bold, black lines of a dip pen and the subtle potential of line and tonality yielded by the Bic pen were (and still are) profound. I distinctly recall being asked to create illustrations for a “book” of original poetry the Freshman English class was producing. This publication was produced using mimeograph, a reproduction system now lost to time and technology. As I recall, one typed onto a sheet of some sort of material that was much like carbon paper. As the typewriter keys struck the sheet, each letter was “knocked out,” creating a sort of frisket that allowed multiple copies to be generated from the original mask. It was not unlike silk screen, in a way. Anyhow, one could also draw on this material and by altering the pressure one could create some nice variations of tone and value. I used a Bic pen to create the illustrations on those crude pages. Somewhere I’ve still got a surprisingly sophisticated (for a fourteen year old farm boy, anyway!) rendering of a deer created this way. (Sketches made in Branson, Missouri)




  1. What a wonderful and informative post!! Great sketches! I’m going to have to try playing with a ballpoint pen! I just started sketching last summer! Also, I’m in Kansas City, and very familiar with Branson (and those men waiting at the outlet mall! Hehe…too funny) Cheers!

    • azorch · April 2, 2016

      I’m in the metropolitan Kansas City area too, Charlie. Oddly enough, you may find the ubiquitous black Bic pen a little elusive around town – at least in the medium point. I used to be able to buy them singly, but now they come in three and five packs. (The price of progress and modern marketing research, I suppose.) Gel pens and other nonsense writing instruments that fail to ever adequately dry abound these days, and the Bic pen pops up sporadically: in the school supply spot at one – but not both – grocers in our bedroom community, and not at Wal-Mart at all (thank goodness for that, since I will go to great lengths in avoiding any sort of visit to that place.) As an art teacher I find that at the end of every period, a quick sweep of the art room will yield a dozen .5mm mechanical pencils and an odd assortment of pens, the remnants of the last group of students. The end of each day will net me thirty or forty writing instruments, which I pass along to the other 50% of students who arrive without any sort of tool whatsoever. From the day’s haul I will always find a Bic or two, which gets liberated and saved for my Drawing students. (On a slightly divergent note, should you be interested in a good stock tip I would advise investment in pens. Apparently moms and dads are purchasing them by the gross week in and week out, 186 days each year. Looks like a growth industry to me.)

      • I’ve been more of a fountain pen guy, but have seen a lot of folks talking about using ballpoint pens lately in their sketches, so thanks for all the info!

  2. adventurepdx · April 2, 2016

    When I hear that you went to Branson, MO, all I want to know is if you went to see Yakov Smirnoff! 😉

  3. azorch · April 2, 2016

    The lake house is only about eleven miles from Branson – at least as the crow flies. We’ve been going down there a dozen or more times a year for decades, and in that time we’ve visited countless theaters, endured countless hillbilly comedians, and waded through countless “endless” buffet lines. Andy Williams Theatre and Dolly Parton and enormous, toothy Osmond smiles. Banjo strappin’ comics in overalls with only one side attached, carrying a prop jug emblazoned with “XXX” on the side. Silver Dollar City. Tours aboard amphibious vehicles called “ducks.” The Religious Right. “Shepherd of the Hills,” performed outdoors, under the stars for the ten millionth time. Bumper car racing. For some reason, friends have the odd idea that sort of thing is fun. (As opposed to fish fries on the dock, watching the sunset or stars reflected on the surface of Table Rock Lake, riding – or struggling to ride – up the steep back roads, and so on and so forth…) Bottom line is that in spite of these possible adventures, we have never, not one single time, had the urge to see Yakov perform.

  4. azorch · April 2, 2016

    Now, if Carrot Top were to open a theater…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s