Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Sort of—a Variation

May 2, 2011

See the post for complete details.

Above: Sketches of a seated dog. Red watercolor and Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Journal made with Nideggen paper.

Since the July 2011 conk on the head I have been working on ways to repair my drawing connections—hand, eye, brain. Mostly I just push myself and sketch whenever I can, even if I don't feel much like sketching (a very odd sensation for me). Initially pushing was a problem because of the severe headaches. Then I went through a phase of excruciating generalized pain which I still can't describe except as, "whole body rebellion." The rebellion has not been completely quashed.

I miss the dialog I had with my brain and my senses. Sometimes I can see it from here. Other times it's as if I'm watching my best friend walk away from me, and that friend is already out of earshot so all the hailing I try to do is for nought.

It no longer matters that I have drawing goals I won't reach. I have new goals now to just keep drawing as part of my life. In an odd way this is actually more healthy, or so it seems right now.

I've long advocated direct drawing with pen or brush pen. If you use the search engine in this blog and search for "direct drawing" you'll come up with posts on the topic beginning with "Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Just Jump into the Deep End of the Swimming Pool," and continuing with related posts through March 2011. These posts include a description of my process which might help you if you're new to sketching with pen, or sketching in public as in "Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Drawing People from Life."

I know that a lot of people are bothered by not getting the "right" line down in the first go. I'm as bothered by that as anyone, except that I have a life time of "living with it" and getting over it, and just drawing something else. And I've also learned a couple ways to fudge some things so that my finished drawing doesn't look as bad as the first "bad" line might lead one to believe it will look.

I wouldn't give up drawing directly with ink for anything!

But some days, these days, it seems that when I draw directly in ink I'm spinning my wheels. I really need to take a moment and refine a line. Or it seems that my brain isn't connected and I need to take some time to connect it.

I was looking at some sketches in the museum the other day and was reminded of the tradition of using two colors of ink (or two colors of pencil) to sketch. You start typically with a sepia ink or pencil and do a rough sketch to get your main shapes and orientation on the page. Then you go in with black ink or charcoal, and state the important lines, the found edges, even darken your shadows.

With this in mind I found myself up late one night watching a cooking show, wanting to sketch something before I went to bed. This dog came on the screen. There was a palette of watercolor nearby and instead of picking up my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen I picked up a brush loaded with red watercolor (quinn red) and started just finding the shape on the page, loosely, without any effort at accuracy or detail. (The dog lasted on the screen for only a moment. After I painted the red strokes I did rewind the program and pause it before I started my black lines. The DVR is a wonderful device.)

When I finished my red lines I picked up my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and drew in the ink lines I wanted to emphasize. I was still working loosely and I also wasn't getting caught up in accuracy or detail.

A funny thing happened when I was done. I realized I loved these drawings. They suck as far as detail goes, but I love the energy in them. And the potential. I love the fact that they were effortless. Not effortless in the old way, but in a new way, and that's OK. Because the joy of drawing is always what has attracted me as part of the observational habit. And if I can come at it this way instead of some other familiar way it really doesn't matter to me, as long as I get to come at it.

My analytical self was at first concerned. Maybe it's better to keep drawing directly with pen and ink and no red paint because it is forcing myself to try and reconnect with my old procedure. Maybe it was a way to get myself off the plateau I found myself on. I'm always looking for ways to push.

I thought about that for a long time and even asked a couple of friends who are artists. One simply said, "Drawing is drawing." OK, we'll go with that.

But if you can't go with that and you're torn about whether or not you might want to try this, here's another thought. I believe that the first rough drawing gets a lot of "noise" out of my system. It allows me to focus and correct placement of the black line based on the existence of the red lines.

You essentially do the same thing when you put an ink line directly onto a sheet of paper, except that you are holding the image and the widths and proportions and shapes in your mind.

For me, interjecting the first phase of the red line is both interesting and helpful because there are times since the conk on the head when I have wanted to correct a line, immediately without going to another sketch. It's a small quibbling difference in the way my brain works with itself, but for me it is an interesting way to get more practice, faster—correcting and refining immediately.

Or maybe it's just that I'm trying to find an easier way to sketch more without using more pages?

For some of you it may seem no different than when you sketch first in pencil and then add ink. For me it is different because I sketch differently with a pencil, physically move my hand differently than what I do when I use a pen. And I don't like ink lines over pencil. But I also can't get into your brain and see what you are thinking and experiencing when you work in pencil and then ink. I only know what it feels like for me, and that I don't like erasing, and that the red watercolor followed by ink feels totally different to—well, maybe if I hadn't been conked on the head I could explain it better…

110406JapaneseWoman Left: In the same manner, at another time, I was watching the news after the horrible tsunami in Japan. This woman's face caught my attention. I actually was more careful with the red strokes I put down this time, I was intent on using the red for shading.

Who knows. What I do know is that I am still drawing directly with a pen 99.9 percent of the time. But I like having another way to approach drawing. Especially on days when I'm pushing because drawing might not seem as integrated into my life in the way it used to be.

If you want to see folks who are working with this technique in a masterful way, look for work by the old masters on line, particularly the Italian masters. For a contemporary approach look at the work of Nicolas Marlet who uses an orange or terra cotta pencil and then finishes his sketches with blue and black pencil and perhaps gouache (I've only see reproductions and it's hard to tell).

I hope you'll try sketching directly with pen and ink. But I also hope you'll just sketch, and sketch, and sketch—in whatever way works for you, and at the same time keeps pushing you to where you want to go, even if that destination changes over time.

    • Christina Trevino.
    • May 2, 2011

    July 2010.

    I admire your attitude in life. Your conk on the head was a bad trauma, but never give up the goals and practice of your art.

    • E-J
    • May 2, 2011

    Your posts frequently strike a chord with me, Roz. In the 4 years since I started developing a regular sketching habit, inspired by Danny Gregory, I have embraced the practice of using pen without preliminary pencil lines, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned in previous posts on direct drawing in ink. Lately, though, I have observed the way a friend of mine approaches graphite drawing, putting down many rough lines in order to find the basic shapes and proportions before making refinements, and last week I decided to take this approach with a journal sketch, afterwards adding pen and for the first time, actually leaving the mess of pencil lines there. Previously I’d have found this ugly, but this time it didn’t bother me, and I feel this is a step forward in not feeling so hung up about the finished sketch.

    I struggle daily with the question of “To sketch or not to sketch”, feeling the constant itch to do so wherever I am and yet nonetheless finding a thousand reasons not to make a mark. I haven’t quite got to the bottom of why that is, yet, but in the meantime, having one more approach to sketching cannot hurt. 🙂

  1. Reply

    Miss T, oh dear, more money I’m causing you to spend!!!! Just stick with three!

  2. Reply

    E-J, i’ll always be a direct pen sketcher because of taste and temperament, but I think we always have to be trying things, and we always need to be sketching—so whatever gets us to that point is a good thing.

    I think our interpretation of what is “ugly” also changes over time (as our skills improve) because sometimes as our skills improve we get looser in a way that might see “ugly” but is actually more beautiful than something tensely rendered in a photographically real way. (Of course there are those folks who render things in a photographically accurate way that is sumptious and beautiful and not at all tense, but we’ll leave those skillful folks out of the discussion for now.)

    I’m glad that your new efforts finding new favor with you!

    As for the sketching itch, I say scratch it. The only inappropriate time would be perhaps if the person you loved were trying to propose a major life change and you kept sketching—though I have to say from personal experience that hasn’t worked out that badly for me!

    There are a thousand reasons for everyone to not make a mark. Mostly it seems to come back to the grip the internal critic has on the individual. Everyone’s internal critic has a unique script that “gets you” just where you live: “You’re not worthy,” “You’re not talented,” “You’re not________” etc.

    The best thing you can do is not even address the i.c. That’s what an alpha dog would do—ignore the crazy pack member.

    Simply keep doing what you know you need to do (as long as it doesn’t hurt someone of course).

    If feel the itch and the i.c. says ignore it, say to yourself, “Nope, I’m not going to ignore it, I’m going to sketch.” And sketch. It will get easier and easier to do so at any time, all the time.

    Exploring different modes of sketching is also a great way to find your personal style! Have fun with it.

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