Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pen Drawing Challenge

"A Page of Little Ari"
9" x 12"
Pitt Artist Pen - black brush tip (regular size not Big Brush)
Lanaquarelle 100% rag watercolor paper.
From life.

This page of life sketches of my cat, Ari, looks so simple. I've drawn this cat hundreds, maybe thousands of times, most of them while he's sleeping so I can get him to hold a pose for at least two minutes rather than two seconds or less in transition to a new pose.

Why this is a serious challenge is that I did it as an art trade with a professional artist, my teacher, Charlotte Herczfeld. Along with several of my pastel paintings, I answered her request for "A page of little Ari's, just the pen drawings you do in your sketchbook." She likes them. I post them constantly. I still suggest you choose something you really love, or someone you love, and sketch that beloved subject hundreds of times in your sketchbook.

Try to get used to drawing in pen without penciling or correcting pencil sketching first. It teaches boldness. Don't worry about mistakes. Don't plan it. Just start in your sketchbook page, draw what you see, keep it less than five minutes per drawing and do lots of them. If it's a pet or a person, let them move every two minutes so you get used to sketching a moving target.

Once in a while for fun, try drawing that subject from memory and compare to your life drawings.

The challenge of composing an entire page of life sketches in pen without corrections, preliminary penciling or using photo references is harder than it looks. The first few go on easily by habit. But laying out the space well so that the drawings create something like a visual path, so there's something of a focus in the whole and the page as a whole looks good - that's the big challenge.

I was inspired by pages of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci's drawings all my life. Somehow these great artists filled the space perfectly. Sometimes the drawings overlapped but not in a way that obscured any of them. Leonardo combined subjects regardless of what they were - a human foot, a plant, a bit of machine, a pretty girl's face could all be on the same page and somehow make sense. A bit of a statue and a bird's wing would overlap and still make sense.

That's not what this page is. I just placed them carefully and varied the size within a range. The farther I got, the tougher it was to keep going with my original discipline of no pencil, no erasing, no corrections, no layout lines. I wanted the Page of Little Ari to have the genuine spontaneity of the many pages in my sketchbook that accumulated one or two or several Little Ari sketches.

Unless you've drawn your main subject hundreds of times, don't expect your page to be perfect. Just try it once in a while. It doesn't all have to be the same subject either - you can try to combine subjects the way Da Vinci did and it's fine to vignette just portions of a subject or overlap them in interesting ways. That'll be my next challenge. This wasn't my first page of small sketches on a large page that laid out well. I did dozens of line drawings of random fruit and flowers so that I could paint them with samples of Daniel Smith watercolor in a large Moleskine watercolor journal. I think it was close to 9" x 12" and some pages of it were on various watercolor pads that size.

I still haven't tried overlapping, but I will in future. Use any sort of pen you want unless you're going to sell or trade the page to someone you respect. The archival materials were because Charlie's going to frame and hang this Page of Little Ari - but yours doesn't have to be as permanent unless you want to frame it or it's for someone else. Just keep trying in your sketchbook for "a beautiful page."

Please feel free to post links to your pages and page layouts in the comments to this entry. A good place to post them is the Art Journals forum at WetCanvas, an art community where a number of my friends do absolutely gorgeous multi-image journal pages that inspire me. If you're new to the community, you need to join, be approved by admins in a day or two (it's big and they're busy) and then post three text posts before posting any images. Comments on other people's art are a good way to get reciprocated attention and support when you're a new member, so is an introduction post.

I'm very proud of the Page of Little Ari. I have a beautiful model whose soft foot rested on my shoulder a moment ago while he was grooming his luxuriant fluffy hair, and I have lots of practice drawing him. When you draw what you love, that's when you'll improve the most and be able to accomplish great things!


  1. These are cool little pens. Much easier than Speedballs. The only thing I hate about the brush tip Pitt pen is it's tendency to lose its sharpness. But, luckily, it's easy to reverse the tip & use the other side before you have to throw it away.

    Nice cat!

  2. Yeah, that gets frustrating for me too. But it's got such a perfectly expressive tip before it loses its sharpness that I'm tempted to just get extra ones and mark the worn down ones with tape to use for filling large areas.

    This piece was done entirely with the same pen, but I did some other sketching with it in between. So the very last drawings have coarser lines than the first ones. In my experience all brush pens seem to lose sharpness as they wear down. I guess it's the nature of the material on their tips. Thanks for mentioning the tip can be reversed! I'll have to try that now!

  3. No problem. I could have kicked myself when I found out that could be done - I had been throwing them away before, and you know they're about $4 apiece. I would like them to make one that's more like a rigger, as well as one that behaves more like a synthetic watercolor brush, but I guess I'd have to go ahead and go back to the India ink bottle if I'm going to request all that! haha

    1. Oh that wold be awesome. I like the Big Brush ones for behaving more like a larger watercolor round - very expressive. They might listen if you suggest a rigger though.

      Instead of throwing out the mashed ones I still used them till the ink was gone. Just didn't try to get the point back. That is so good to know!