For nearly a decade, pen and ink has been the medium I’ve most enjoyed making art in. There’s something wonderful about a pen with a very fine point, about the precise marks I can make with it, the variety of textures, the level of detail I can create. And of course, there’s the ease with which pen and ink lends itself to two of my favorite elements of drawing, line and contrast. But like all media, pen and ink is ideal for rendering some subject matter, some effects, and less ideal for others. For example, my drawing 'Comes A Moment' (above; Ink, Graphite, Charcoal; 5 3/8” x 2 1/4”) consists of these elements: A rock outcropping, a path, a tree; and a misty sky and moonrise. The foreground elements- the outcropping, path and tree- were inked with a combination of stippling and linework, using black Sakura Pigma Micron .005 pens. The background elements though, presented a very different challenge. I wanted to establish a sense of depth and distance, to create a misty sky, a dramatic moonrise- And to achieve these kinds of effects in pen and ink would be very difficult, to say the least. Instead, as I usually do, I created the background elements with powdered charcoal and graphite pencils. In this demonstration, I’ll create a moonrise for another pen and ink landscape, and share some thoughts on the process as the drawing evolves.
My general goals for this drawing are the same: I want to add a dramatic moonrise, half-veiled by drifting mists. And, as always, I want to infuse the drawing with a sense of what I can best describe as quiet. I want my landscapes to be quiet places, inviting of solitary wanderings, of times of reflection, of exploration and discovery- And I want exploration and discovery to remain at the heart of my creative process as well. So without further ado, let’s get started. And as Bob Ross liked to say, “Let’s have some fun.”
1) First, with the drawing’s foreground elements inked, I darken the meadow’s highlights slightly with a Number 3 graphite pencil. Over the years, I’ve accumulated dozens of drawing pencils of various kinds, but I’ve come to depend almost exclusively on the same yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils many of us have used in one classroom or another. They’re very affordable, and commonly available; a box of a dozen costs $2-$3 in many office supply stores. But much more importantly, I have yet to attempt a graphite effect I couldn’t achieve with them. They’re available in grades 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4. All are useful.
For most penciling, including this kind, I hold the pencil so that it rests lightly on the paper’s surface, and press down very little, if at all. In this case, the resulting marks are very light, but still sufficient to reduce the contrast between the tops of the clumps of grass and the areas between them. This has the effect of blending, smoothing, and softening the overall texture of the meadow.
If I darken a highlight too much, it’s easily lightened or removed with a kneaded eraser. I buy Sanford’s Design kneaded rubber erasers in 2” squares, and cut them into about eight small pieces. I roll a piece between my thumb and forefingers, and shape it like a bowling pin with a sharp point that will lift a mark as small as a single dot. And by the time a passage is nearly finished, that’s often exactly what I’m doing: Adding and removing single dots.
Though I’ve brought the meadow and path to the highest level of finish I can, I don’t bother doing the same with the tree at this point. I’ll be applying powdered charcoal around the tree with a cotton ball and/or a Q-Tip, I’ll inevitably get some charcoal on the tree itself, have to clean it back off, etc- So I’ll leave the tree unfinished for now.
2) Here’s a close-up look at the strokes and stippling I’ve used to create the meadow’s close-cropped grasses and the path’s surface.
Usually, when I finish a foreground, I put the drawing away for at least a few hours, and often don’t begin the background until the next day. The Pigma Microns’ ink dries smear-free almost immediately on the Strathmore 300 Series smooth-surface Bristol Board I use, so the interval need not be nearly this long. But since the process I’ll be using to develop the sky is very different from the inking I’ve just finished, I often find it helpful to wait until my next working session to begin the next step.
I begin the next session by cleaning up the drawing’s remaining undeveloped areas with a fresh kneaded eraser. As I mentioned, I try to never press hard when I’m drawing, so most remaining graphite sketch lines are easily removed. More stubborn marks usually yield to a vigorous scrubbing with a hard rubber pencil eraser. If I need to remove an inked mark, I’ll try the hard rubber eraser first. They’re surprisingly effective. And often, an inked mark need not be removed completely, only lightened enough to blend into its surroundings. If a hard rubber eraser won’t work, I’m not above resorting to a fine grit sandpaper. Whenever possible, I try to avoid abrading the paper’s surface at all--but Strathmore’s Bristol Board is very forgiving of mistreatment. And I’ve taken full advantage of this many times.
With the drawing cleaned up, I brush away any eraser particles with a few light strokes of a lamb’s wool duster. These particles will have picked up either traces of graphite, ink, or both, and brushing them off as lightly as possible helps prevent them from smearing the drawing again. The surface of the paper should now be as clean as possible.
When I’m working on a drawing, I try to keep as many options open as I can, for as long as possible. My drawings sometimes change and evolve repeatedly, often in a direction I hadn’t envisioned. For me, this helps keep the work fresh and interesting. But by now, although I’m still maintaining room for change and growth, most elements of this composition have been pretty well established. The bottom and sides are apparent, and with the foreground and tree also in place, I can judge what the drawing’s height needs to be, so I cut a working mat from scrap cardboard.
I cut the sides from large cereal boxes, trim them to stock frame sizes, usually 9” by 12” or 8” x 10”, and keep a stack handy. The unfinished side of the cardboard is usually a medium-dark gray tone, and works well as the mat’s visible face. I make the mat’s window 1/8” or so wider than the finished drawing will be, so that if the presentation mat is cut a bit large, no unfinished edges of the drawing will be exposed. I hinge the working mat to the drawing paper with a strip of low-tack drafting tape positioned along one side of the mat. This tape peels easily, and won’t lift the surface of the Bristol Board like masking tape will. Now I can flip the mat out of the way and back into place as needed.
In addition to helping establish composition, scrap mats are also beneficial in other ways. In order to allow my drawings room to grow in any direction, I use the largest sheets of Bristol that’ll fit comfortably on my drawing table. But focusing on a small drawing in the middle of a large white sheet of paper can be tiring to the eyes. Working on a drawing that’s surrounded by a gray mat greatly reduces the contrast of my field of focus, helps me see more clearly, and so work better and longer.
Another benefit of using a working mat is that with the mat in place, the drawing can be laid face down on a scanner’s bed without the paper’s surface coming into contact with the glass. Usually, my drawing’s surfaces are very stable. But sometimes the final layers of graphite can be vulnerable to smudging. This way, the drawing’s surface is protected by the thickness of the mat.
3) With the height and width of the composition established, it’s time to lay out the moonrise. I’ve been doing a series of misty moonrises lately, and at this point, I’m assuming that when the drawing’s finished, this moon will likely be at least partially obscured by mist as well. But for now, I need to be able to see the moon’s outline in its entirety, or at least that portion which will appear above the horizon. To size and position the moon, I use a Rapiddesign Extra Large Circles template. This template has 13 openings, describing circles ranging in size from 1 ¼” to 3 ½”.
My criteria for sizing and positioning the moon include these thoughts: I want the moon to look big and full, so most of the moon should appear above the horizon. I want to frame the tree with the moon, with the tree’s top extending past the moon’s edge. The moon should appear to be behind the tree and the horizon, and hiding a bit of the moon with both these foreground elements help will help establish the sense of depth I want.
With these things in mind, a 2 ¼” circle seems appropriate. I move it around until I’m satisfied, then hinge the side of the circle template to the drawing paper with drafting tape. I bring a Number 3 pencil to a very sharp point by rubbing it on scrap paper, place the pencil’s point against the edge of the template, just below the drawing’s horizon line, and outline the circle. Keeping the pencil as nearly perpendicular to the paper as possible helps keep the circle true as I follow the template’s edge. Again, I avoid pressing down at all. This would create a much darker line than I want, as well as a slight depression in the paper--both of which would make finishing the moon’s edges more difficult.
Another of the reasons why I want to draw the moon’s outline as lightly as possible is simply that I may want to change it. Until I flip the template out of the way, I’m never sure if the result will be all I hoped. If not, I want to be able to erase it easily and completely. This will be the lightest passage of the drawing, and I won’t be able to cover up much here. Again, it’s about keeping my options open--and again, I’m happy I have, because when I flip the template back, I don’t like what I see. A little more to the right, I think… There. This works.
4) Now I’m ready to begin blocking in the sky with powdered charcoal. I powder charcoal by rubbing a soft or medium grade charcoal pencil on a clean piece of scrap paper. I hold the pencil at a shallow angle to the paper, and rub it back and forth as if I were sharpening the pencil--and actually, I am. By the time I’ve thoroughly blackened several square inches worth of paper, a scattering of loose particles of charcoal will have accumulated as well. Some are coarse, and will make marks I don’t want, so I pick up the paper by its edges, hold it over my wastebasket, and tilt the paper until any loose particles fall off. Working with this small an amount of charcoal produces little dust. But since I work close up, I usually wear a disposable dust mask while I’m powdering and applying charcoal, and refining a charcoal-covered surface.
I press a cotton ball into the charcoal rubbings, and rub the cotton ball back and forth to load it. Because I want to be able to apply the charcoal as lightly and uniformly as possible, coarse cotton doesn’t work well for me--the finer the cotton, the better. The first application of charcoal will be the darkest; each application that follows will be progressively lighter as more charcoal is transferred from the cotton to the paper. If I’m working on an evening or night sky, I’ll apply the charcoal full strength, beginning with the darkest area, which will often be at the top of the image. If I’m working on a lighter sky, or a light passage like the area near the the horizon, I’ll remove some of the charcoal first by rubbing the cotton ball lightly on scrap paper until the resulting smudges have lightened to the values I’m looking for. It’s a process not unlike drybrush--put a little on, take most of it back off, and begin.
I place the loaded cotton ball lightly against an area of the drawing that I want to darken, and brush the cotton ball lightly over the paper’s surface, using more or less circular, semi-random strokes that will blend easily. As when I’m penciling, I avoid pressing or rubbing hard. Smooth-surface paper is both ideal and necessary for the kind of look I want to achieve--but it has very little tooth, and I don’t want to burnish any away unnecessarily.
Because the moon’s edges will be its lightest areas, as well as the drawing’s brightest highlights, I want to keep the paper as clean as possible there, so I try to avoid getting charcoal inside the moon’s outline. Of course, this happens anyway, and because I’m applying it lightly, I’m not concerned--it’ll clean up with a kneaded eraser. In fact, much of the layer of charcoal I’ve applied may eventually be removed again, depending on how this sky evolves, and how satisfied I am with the results. I’ll lift out areas with a kneaded eraser to create clouds, mist, all the drawing’s highlights--so again, it’s essential that I apply the charcoal lightly enough so that it can be easily removed, or at least lightened considerably, as needed. But the less I have to clean up the lightest, and so most critical areas, the better.
If I need to work in a tighter area, like those where the moon’s edges meet the horizon, I’ll switch to a Q-Tip to apply the charcoal. But since I’m envisioning mist obscuring at least the lower portion of the moon, I don’t need to darken those areas of this drawing.
I consider this stage the equivalent of underpainting. My goal here is not to take this sky to any degree of finish, but simply to begin it, to establish a foundation to build on. If I’m feeling more painterly, I may choose to take a sky much farther with charcoal, adding layers with Q-Tips, refining them with kneaded erasers, before I pick up a pencil. But most often, I do most of the work in pencil. Admittedly, it’s not quick work. But usually, the result is worth the time and effort invested.