Although I’ve been sketching with Bic ballpoints sporadically for a while, it wasn’t until I took France Van Stone’s crosshatching courses that I learned to fully appreciate them as an art material. During InkTober when I was crosshatching (mostly) human portraits, I tried a few other types of pens that France used in demos, just to see what they were like as a crosshatching tool, but I kept going back to Bics.
|1.6mm Xtra Bold tips|
Since my first formal experience with hatching and crosshatching was by copying masters using traditional pen and ink, a particularly elegant medium for those techniques (when done by masters), it seems ironic to say that ballpoint crosshatching, when done well, can be almost as beautiful (not to mention faster and with less potential for tragic ink spills). My Bic crosshatching will never be as elegant as France’s (or other ballpoint artists I admire, as seen in the fantastic book, The Art of Ballpoint, by Matt Rota), but I’m good with that. The messy, “dirty” methods I learned from France suit my style and patience level, and I’ve found that Bic mark-making can be expressive and textural, which appeals to me. Although its appearance is different, Bic ink is strangely similar to pencil in application – its pressure sensitivity and in the way it builds up gradually in layers. Bics are the pencils of pens – no wonder I love them!
I think of Bic ballpoints as the lowliest of all my sketch materials (indeed, among the lowliest of art supplies and stationery products in general). In fact, they could possibly be the ideal Gilligan’s Island art medium: If I found myself stranded with absolutely nothing at all to draw with, surely I could sneak into any hotel on the island and help myself to a Bic from the counter. (I have done as much under far less dire circumstances.)
|Xtra Bold and lots of drools.|
It’s also an egalitarian art medium: There’s no distinction between “student grade” and “artist quality”; the snob value is equally distributed among all types of Bics (that is, equally little for all). Well, there might be a few exceptions, like the limited-edition, jewel-studded, gold-plated 4-Color (priced at 390€).
Unlike some pencils, which may have been inexpensive and utilitarian initially but became overly inflated in price due to scarcity, the ubiquitous and probably nearly universal Bic doesn’t seem to have much collectible value. OK, there might be an exception to that, too. By the time I found out that Bic had come out with a limited-edition, “collectible” 50th anniversary 4-Color pen, the anniversary had long gone by, and the pen was only available at inflated eBay prices. Still, the inflated price was only 7 bucks – easy to spring for.
Caution: If you go hunting online for the 50th anniversary edition, beware that some stores show packaging for the commemorative edition, but if you read the fine print, the stock they are selling is the standard 4-Color you can get anywhere. The 50th anniversary edition has a dark blue barrel, and among the standard four ink colors, green has been replaced with purple. (See my photo below.)
The inexpensive price of Bics means that they are easy to acquire – maybe a little too easy. Taking France’s courses prompted me to take inventory of all my Bics, and let’s just say I have a few. The fact that they are easier and much cheaper to buy in bulk quantity rather than singles unfortunately makes over-acquisition a problem. All that disposable plastic is also an issue, although most are refillable.
Shown at the top of the page is my latest purchase – a pack of 1.6mm Xtra Bold point Cristals in 15 colors. Some colors are duplicates of those in another pack I bought a few years ago, but I bought this recent pack for colors that are rare among ballpoints, such as metallic gold, brown and neon colors. (I used some of those new colors at the end of France’s “critters” course on the golden retriever and pink cow.)
|From left: 50th anniversary Bic 4-Color, Velocity, 4-Color with stylus, 1.6mm Cristal|
The Bics I used most often in France’s courses are shown at left: the classic 4-Color with medium points; the retractable Velocity with Xtra Bold point (that is strangely even more blobby and drooly than Cristals of the same point size); my newest 4-Color Grip with a stylus on the end; and the 1.6mm Xtra Bold Cristal in various colors.
Each of these has pros and cons. I like the convenient, retractable Velocity, which has a more comfortable barrel than the classic skinny Cristal, but the drooly ink is frustrating. (I don’t understand how a change in the body results in more drooly ink!) The 4-Colors also have more comfortable barrels than the Cristals. I don’t need the stylus, but that one has the additional benefit of better color-selection levers that engage more easily. It costs a few bucks more than a standard 4-Colour, but it has become my favorite Bic body. (If only the 4-Colors came with an Xtra Bold point option, my life would be perfect.)
Despite drooly, blobby ink, France favors 1.6mm Cristals because she can really lay down a lot of dark values quickly when aggressively crosshatching with them. Instead of wiping off the tip constantly as she does, I eventually accepted the blobs as part of the medium. By the end of InkTober, I had decided that I preferred to use a medium point Bic for most of the crosshatching and then finish off the darkest values with a 1.6mm Cristal. As the pencils of pens, this combo is similar to the way I might use HB and 4B graphite pencils together in a drawing.
|A bouquet of Bics|
So after all these musings, it seems the Bic is not so lowly after all. Whether scribbling a shopping list or making gallery-worthy art, it is rivaled only by a pencil in versatility (and has the added benefit of never needing sharpening). All hail the modest, ubiquitous Bic!
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