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)