Friday, February 5, 2016

The Lowly Bic

Example of hatching with a ballpoint from
Matt Rota's book.
I’m reading The Art of Ballpoint - Experimentation, Exploration, and Techniques in Ink, by Matt Rota. My initial interest in the book was for its descriptions and examples of hatching techniques, which can be applied to any medium. Although I’m not much of a fan of writing with ballpoint pens, let alone sketching with them, the more I read the book, the more intrigued I am becoming. In addition to techniques, the book includes short profiles of artists who use ballpoint pen as a primary fine art medium as well as a few examples of their art. Who knew that the inexpensive, ubiquitous Bic (all the ones we own came from hotel rooms) is a favorite among many artists who are using the ballpoint in both their sketchbook and their gallery work!

Always interested in process, I found it fascinating to read about how these artists became interested in ballpoint in the first place. While most trained formally using traditional drawing media such as graphite and dip pens, they were attracted to ballpoint pens because they are so cheap and easy to find anywhere, and the pens never have to be redipped, refilled, sharpened or maintained. Several artists mentioned that they grew up doodling with ballpoints in their school notebooks to entertain themselves during boring classes, so going back to that familiar, comfortable medium felt very natural.

Most interesting of all was seeing the art itself – intricately detailed works that could be mistaken for paintings, all done with the lowly ballpoint.

2/4/16 ballpoint pen
Skeptical that I could ever be happy sketching with a Bic, nonetheless I knew I had to try it myself. I grabbed one (this one came from a Holiday Inn Express) from the kitchen counter on my way to the Whole Foods’ cafĂ©.

My first try was the young man in the baseball cap (at left). Drawing the contour line was similar enough to fountain pen, pencil or other media I’m familiar with – so far, so good. But then I realized where I fall short with ballpoint: I’m used to making a quick swipe of a waterbrush to add shading. With the Bic, I’d have to do some hatching, and quickly (as I’ve come to learn that people tend not to linger much at Whole Foods). While I can probably hatch a flat surface well enough, I haven’t practiced enough to know how to capture subtle facial contours (see example from Rota’s book, above).

2/4/16 fountain pen, colored pencil
The dude in the baseball cap stayed longer – and stayed still longer! – than I had expected, so I sketched him again (at left), this time with my familiar fountain pen and washed-line shading. (By then he had taken off his jacket and turned his cap around, causing his IQ to drop by at least 50, I might add.)

As new victims cycled through at the same table, I tried a couple more times with the Bic. On the woman, I went for a hybrid technique: I made the contour line in ballpoint, then shaded lightly with a water-soluble colored pencil, which washes as easily as fountain pen ink. On the little girl I decided to forego shading completely.

Despite the shading and hatching challenges, I enjoy sketching with ballpoint more than I expected. It’s easy to build up value by layering more and more strokes, similar to graphite, but it has the indelible permanence of ink that I’m used to. I really need to work on my hatching technique, though, if I’m going to keep using ballpoint on location. Heck, I need to work on my hatching technique under any circumstance, but sketching unsuspecting people at Whole Foods is probably the most challenging circumstance of all.
2/4/16 ballpoint pen, water-soluble
colored pencil

The main reason I keep going back to water-soluble fountain pen ink with a washed line when I’m sketching people is that the combo is so fast and efficient; the ballpoint can’t compete. Maybe I chose the wrong subject matter for my first try at ballpoint (all the examples of people in Rota’s book were sketched from photo references, not life). Stay tuned.

2/4/16 ballpoint pen

2/4/16 Zebra brush pen, colored pencils

6 comments:

  1. I keep stumbling over references to Matt Rota's drawings on-line lately, and you finally pushed me to action. I popped over to Seattle Public Library's website and borrowed a copy. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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    1. The book I have is from SPL, too. I'll look forward to hearing what you think about it!

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  2. Great sketches, Tina. Glad you had fun with a ballpoint. It's very much under-utilized as a sketching tool.

    I keep trying washable inks and always return to a permanent line. I prefer having the permanent line and then a waterbrush filled with dilute ink for the shading, as you've done here. --- Larry

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    1. Thanks, Larry, and also for your encouragement with ballpoint. I'm going to keep it up for a little while and see where it goes. Actually, the non-ballpoint sketches shown here were all done with water-soluble fountain pen ink and water-soluble brush pen, not a separate ink for shading. It's still the fastest way to shade that I've tried yet.

      - Tina

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  3. You did a good job with the ballpoint pen!!! As convenient as they are, I agree that it is much easier to sketch most figures on the go with something that bleeds and shades. My ballpoints are usually from hotels and banks. I don't think I've bought one in eons. lol

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Joan! I just bought a ballpoint for the first time maybe ever! ;-) We'll see if I keep this up!

      - Tina

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