Tag: dip pen

Inking Advice

Recently, I’ve been going through the old Famous Artists Course handbooks. If you don’t know, this was an art course first devised in 1948 and it involved teachings by artists like Norman Rockwell, Austin Briggs, and Robert Fawcett. There was also a course designed specifically for cartoonists (you can get pdfs of that course here). I just recently started reading the lessons for this course, and the other day I got to part three, the section on inking, and I encountered the following picture:

It reminded me of my old post about how to hold a dip pen. As you can see, these cartoonists– Al Capp, Milton Caniff, and Rube Goldberg– all hold their pens at a comfortable distance from the nib.

Lesson 3 has a lot of other little pieces of advice about inking and I thought I’d share some of what the lesson says, along with my own insights. Much of what I have learned is from trial-and-error and hopefully I can save you some of the frustration.

One thing I have learned to do is to not ink my nibs too much. Lately, I barely dip the point of my nib into the ink well. I just get enough ink to make a good line or two. In the past what I’ve done, as you can see above, is to run the bottom of the nib against the ink well before I start drawing. This removes excess ink. Why do this? Well, too much ink and you will have ink drops on your paper. Also, an over-inked nib produces a heavier line. And lastly, less ink on the nib helps the longevity of your nibs.

As the Famous Artists Cartoon Course points out, you have to be careful about the surface you are drawing on. Even if your hands are clean, oils from your hands can get onto the page and resist the ink. This is one reason many animators wear gloves. Another idea, and one that I often use, is to have a piece of scratch paper beneath your drawing hand. You have to be careful when you lift up your hand though, or you can send the scratch paper skidding off through your wet ink lines.

As the course also mentions above, it is better to let the ink dry before you draw through it. If it is wet, the the crossing lines will drag some of the wet ink with them, making for dark spots where the lines intersect.

Along the same line (pun intended), you have to ink in a direction that doesn’t take your drawing hand through wet ink. So right-handed artists need to ink left to right. Left-handers, right to left. And if you have pencil lines that you want to erase, make sure the ink is completely dry before you do so. And I use a kneaded eraser when I erase, because, as the course says, it takes away the pencil and not the ink.

Last but not least, it is extremely important to clean your nibs when you are done. I find that water by itself isn’t effective and you always need to be careful with water and metal, since it can lead to rust. So I have a cloth that I use to wipe my nibs with.

Good habits make for a less frustrating drawing experience. If you have any frustration at all, it should come from not being able to make what you are imagining a reality and not from having to fight your tools. Also, good habits will make those tools perform better and last longer. And, as always, this is advice that is intended to help you create. Use what does that and disregard the rest.

Thoughts on Line: Edmund Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study

I didn’t read Edmund J. Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study all at once, but piece by piece over a few months. Besides just life getting in the way, I took this book slowly because it isn’t the kind of book you get lost in. It’s written in an older style and it references people and ideas that are not around anymore. That makes a lot of the book nonsensical. So you have to wade through that to find the parts that are still helpful. Sullivan also has the attitudes of a man of his time, including the casually racist ones (he has no trouble tossing around the word “nigger,” for example). For all that, Sullivan was an incredible pen-and-ink artist and his thoughtful observations about the craft come from years of experience.

So because of these two things- Sullivan’s insights and Sullivan’s attitudes- I feel the need to recontextualize what he says. Also, his insights are rooted in a pen-and-ink style that is not popular anymore and he of course wasn’t considering comics. So again, I feel the need to put his ideas into my own context. So here we go…

Line weight
One thing using a dip pen gives you is the ability to modulate line weight. Often, the rationale for this is that heavy lines are used to depict areas of shade. Sullivan makes an interesting observation about this; he calls it “doubly wrong” (74). He thinks that the heavier lines should be on the side of the object nearest the light source. This is for two reasons. One, if the heavier line is on the shaded side, then that side tends to come forward rather than recede. As in painting, darker shapes seem near, while lighter shapes seem distant. He shows a drawing of a head with the far side in shade outlined with a heavy line and it makes the head seem odd, because the dark side, which is supposed to be receding, actually comes forward. His second reason is for contrast. The light side will seem lighter if set off with a darker line. I can also think of a third reason: the thick line will get lost in the shading and so lose its power.

So here, the egg on the left has the weighted line on the shaded side and the egg on the right has the weighted line on the light side. Notice how for the egg on the left, all your attention sinks to the bottom right. The egg on the right has a fuller form. The line weight and the shading balance each other. And as a result, the center comes forward and the whole thing seems more three-dimensional.

Still, if one doesn’t use any shading, which is much more common in drawings these days, then putting the heavier line towards the light source looks odd. The egg on the right looks a bit like it’s floating, while the one on the left seems more grounded.

The other useful thing line weight is used for is the relative distance of objects in your drawing. As I said, darker objects come forward while lighter objects move backward. In the drawing below, the guy on the right seems farther away. This is partly due to him being overlapped by the person on the left, but it’s also due to his lighter line weight. The person on the left has a heavier line weight, so comes forward. There is also more line and tone variety in how she’s drawn. That also makes her command our attention more.

However, Sullivan doesn’t talk much about balancing line weight against itself. For him, it is always balanced based on some external rationale, like light source or relative distance. While he does say that varying line weights makes for a more visually interesting picture, he doesn’t abstract line from what it is supposed to represent. This is probably a result of his time period and tradition, but it limits his insights into line weight. Again, he only thinks of it representationally. Recently, I have been playing around with alternating line weight by putting a heavy line next to a thin one. So I change line weight not based on any claim on realism, but simply based on the lines themselves. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do things, but I present it as an option that Sullivan doesn’t consider.

Speaking of which, I of course think about this in relation to comics. Personally, I find really thick panel lines to be distracting. If the lines in the border are bolder than the lines in the drawing contained within, then the panel comes forward and takes attention away from the drawing you are supposed to be reading. Likewise, a panel composed on lines all of equal weight can be difficult to read. In my early comics, I didn’t vary line weight but used a lot of shading. That resulted in a lot of muddy panels.

Line harmony
I found this part of Sullivan’s book to be very interesting. Yet again, I wish he had gone even further with this topic. Basically, he says that you should have a rationale for how to do your shading. He offers three possibilities: the shading running across or perpendicular to the light rays (A), the shading running parallel to the light rays (B), and the shading being molded to the form of the subject (C).

While Sullivan seems to prefer the third, his point is not that one approach is better than the others, but that if you mix approaches then the drawing will become muddied. I realize now that I tended to use A before and now I am much more drawn to C, but honestly, before reading this book I didn’t consciously categorize these different methods. And when I first started with pen-and-ink, I didn’t consider my approach at all; I was just scribbling down lines. So Sullivan entreats us to stop a second and consider what we’re doing.

As before, Sullivan’s rationale is based on representing reality. Here, line harmony has to do with how one shades in relation to the light source. But of course, you could approach line harmony in other ways. You could gather your lines to a certain focal point or to convey a certain emotion. For instance, I once noticed that in a lot of his portraits, Van Gogh radiates his brush strokes away from the eyes. The result is that the eyes of his subjects have a particular intensity.

You could also arrange your lines to make your image more readable. This is something many cartoonists consider. In the example below, John Adkins Richardson shows how the lines in this George Price cartoon help draw the reader’s attention to the speaker (The Complete Book of Cartooning 128-9).

When you’re dealing with multiple panels, the lines from one panel can relate to the lines in another. Again, this can help readability. I did this in Carnivale on a few occasions. In these three panels from page seventy-two, I used the background shading lines to guide the reader’s eyes to the correct reading order. I was also hoping that the strong vertical lines of panel one would take the reader’s eyes down to panel two. And notice how the lines that compose the tree in the second panel swoop from the panel above to the panel on the right.

Sullivan says many more things in his book. He discusses perspective, anatomy, and beauty. But the ideas above are the ones specifically about line, not drawing in general. They are also the ones that stuck out to me the most and made me think. So while Line is an odd book in many ways, it still manages to teach after all these years.

Dover publishes the book.

(written October 26, 2016)

How to Hold a Dip Pen

(Not like this.)

When I was learning to play trumpet as a kid, I was told to never let my cheeks puff out when I blew. But take a look at almost any picture of Dizzy Gillespie. What do you see? Huge, puffed-out cheeks. So watch out for being too precious with the “rules” that you hear. Yes, you should listen to the advice of those who came before you, but “rules” are just lessons that another artist learned to help them create. The goal of all these rules is to eliminate potential problems that might hinder you from doing the art you want to do. But if those very rules are getting in your way, then you have to break them. However, breaking rules won’t make you a great artist, just as obeying them won’t.

That being said, pen-and-ink can be an unforgiving medium at times. I remember plenty of moments of frustration over the years and most of those could have been avoided if I had known the correct way to do things. Most everything I learned was through trial-and-error, including how to hold my pen. But I’ve seen a few photos and videos recently that have shown me very different ways of doing this. So what is the correct way? (hint: the first paragraph is a spoiler)

In the classic pen and ink book, Rendering in Pen and Ink, Arthur Guptill says that you should “hold the pen naturally, much the same as for writing” (21). So basically, hold a dip pen the same way as you would hold any writing instrument. Yet he warns you to “keep your fingers far enough back from the point to prevent them from becoming daubed in ink, and above all, don’t cramp your fingers tightly onto the penholder.” George Carlson says basically the same thing:

This seems like sound advice to me, yet the manga artists showcased in How To Pen & Ink: The Manga Start-up Guide all hold their pens choked way up on the holder. Here’s Oh!great:

And look at Nightow Yasuhiro here. He’s choked up so far his finger is on the nib itself:

These are professional manga artists so obviously this way of holding a pen works for them. That being said, I would really not recommend holding a pen this way. I saw Jeff Smith talk at the TCAF a few years ago and he said that when he was done with Bone he had a slew of health problems, all of which stemmed from a rigid drawing posture. I want to be able to draw till I’m old, so I don’t want to develop cramped habits that may cause problems later. So take Guptill and Carlson’s advice and hold your pen in a relaxed, natural way.

For instance, I rest my pen on my ring finger with my index and middle fingers on top. Yet I’ve seen other artists rest the pen on their middle finger. I don’t think either is “right;” it’s just a matter of what feels comfortable to you.

The more important consideration is the nib’s orientation to the paper. In general, the pen should be angled at about 45 degrees. This will vary as you draw, but you should never hold the pen completely perpendicular to the page. Not only might the ink drip out, the tines of the nib are more likely to catch and send a spray of ink. Basically, if you rest your hand on the page, the angle from the height of your hand to the paper makes for a nice working position for the pen. I recommend having some kind of blotter or other piece of paper beneath your hand so that you don’t smudge your drawing or get your hand oils on the drawing paper.

Also, the pen needs to be in a position that you can draw with it. And I mean draw in the sense of pulling. The nib is made to be pulled down the page in the opposite direction of the tip. Never push. Not only will you get ink splatters, but you may also ruin your nib. Some nibs can be moved sideways, creating very thin lines. But the drawing motion unlocks the full potential of the nib, allowing lines to swell from hairlines to broad strokes. Catherine Slade shows this in her Encyclopedia of Illustration Techniques:

All kinds of how-to videos exist on YouTube and they vary widely in quality. In one video, the artist Dan Nelson holds his nib completely upside down. This seems to work for him and it does allow him to get very thin lines. Still, it goes against the very intent of a nib’s design. If a nib is upside down, you can’t use pressure to vary the line. Basically, it would be like drawing with a rapidograph, which means you are depriving yourself of the expressiveness in your chosen tool.

Overall, there is a lot of variation out there in how artists hold their pens. What we are all looking for is that sweet spot where things feel comfortable but where we are also accessing the full potential of our instrument. And in the process, not developing bad habits that keep us from creating or even harming us in the long run.

(written March 10, 2016)