Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interpreting in Pen and Ink

How would you translate this photograph into a pen and ink drawing? 

Here's the way Charles Maginnis, a writer from 1903, analyzed the problem. 
"First of all, then, does the subject, from the point of view at which the photograph is taken, compose well? It cannot be said that it does. The vertical lines made by the two towers are unpleasantly emphasized by the trees behind them. The tree on the left would be much better reduced in height and placed somewhat to the right, so that the top should fill out the awkward angles of the roof formed by the junction of the tower and the main building. The trees on the right might be lowered also, but otherwise permitted to retain their present relation.The growth of ivy on the tower takes an ugly outline, and might be made more interestingly irregular in form."

"The next consideration is the disposition of the values. In the photograph the whites are confined to the roadway of the bridge and the bottom of the tower. This is evidently due, however, to local color rather than to the direction of the light, which strikes the nearer tower from the right, the rest of the walls being in shadow. While the black areas of the picture are large enough to carry a mass of gray without sacrificing the sunny look, such a scheme would be likely to produce a labored effect. 

"Two alternative schemes readily suggest themselves: First, to make the archway the principal dark, the walls light, with a light half-tone for the roof, and a darker effect for the trees on the right. Or, second, to make these trees themselves the principal dark, as suggested by the photograph, allowing them to count against the gray of the roof and the ivy of the tower. This latter scheme is that which has been adopted in the sketch. It will be noticed that the trees are not nearly so dark as in the photograph. If they were, they would be overpowering in so large an area of white. It was thought better, also, to change the direction of the light, so that the dark ivy, instead of acting contradictorily to the effect, might lend character to the shaded side. 

"The lower portion of the nearer tower was toned in, partly to qualify the vertical line of the tower, which would have been unpleasant if the shading were uniform, and partly to carry the gray around to the entrance. It was thought advisable, also, to cut from the foreground, raising the upper limit of the picture correspondingly." 

A few observations:
• The drawings use short strokes and open, airy darks, rather than long lines and black areas. 
• A lot of his thinking has to do with the organization of tone. 

Other pen-and-ink artists who used a similar impressionist approach are Daniel Vierge, Joseph Pennell, and Ernest Peixotto.

The new app: Living Sketchbook, Vol. 1: Boyhood Home takes you deep into moments like this. It's available for iOS on Apple phones and tablets at the App Store and for Android devices at Google Play.
"When I found out about his app, I thought to myself: “Why didn’t I think of that?” It embraces technology and allows users an opportunity to get closer to an artist’s sketchbook. There are buttons that brings out the voice narrations with occasional videos of how he has painted on-site. Imagine a talking sketchbook with videos.”
—Erwin Lian, The Perfect Sketchbook


Susan Krzywicki said...

I love his use of a neutral voice in his writing: "It was thought..."

I think his treatment of the ivy on the right kinda flattens out the tower - it doesn't read as round to me. And in real life, he should have marched right over and pulled that ivy off! It gets between the bricks and tears buildings apart! bad ivy! giggle.

His eye for organizing the space and composition is wonderful - rarely can someone articulate what they are really doing when they draw. I learned from this - and will think more clearly about composing a thoughtful work having read this piece.

DamianJ said...

I'm reminded of the wood engraver Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) who demonstrated an extraordinary facility for tonal decisions using only black and white. The small scale of his work (typically around 4 inches ) combined with having to cut away the white areas makes the readability of his tiny scenes even more astonishing.
A link: The Bewick Society

timothy bollenbaugh said...


Good observation concerning developing the ability to articulate. Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, and of course a great many others, were aided by their ability to do so. And, exercising both intuitive and executive functions only compounds creativity (not "confounds", though it could). Sometimes being articulate in, say, mathematics, music, chess, results in a necessary diversion from art enough to return with a fresh perspective and improved articulation in general.

gumper said...

Really enjoyed this one, points up the need to go beyond just rendering the reference photo.

rock995 said...

Bear in mind that the Kindle version of "Pen Drawing, an Illustrated Treatise" has had problems with the illustrations coming through--if you download this version make sure the file is about 50MB to make sure you get the one with the pictures. Also the book is in the public domain so you can read it for free here:

Having been reproduced so many times--at least the copies I've seen--some of the drawings can be kind of splotchy and not the best resolution. Still, great book about pen drawing.

rock995 said...

oops...meant to say 5MB not 50MB.

nuum said...

"Rendering in pen and ink"
Instruction paper
by David A. Gregg
1903 or 1906.;view=1up;seq=23

There are High Definition copies around the web.

It´s a Masterpiece.

James Gurney said...

Nuum and Rock, thanks for the links! I've got a copy of the Watson Guptill version of Rendering in Pen and Ink.

Susan, I'm so glad you picked up on his way of articulating his thought process, which was as interesting to me as the actual decisions he made. That's what interests me so much about the how-to books written during that era of picture-making. I love seeing into their minds.

Some were better than others at explaining why they did what they did. I suppose an artist doesn't have to be able to verbalize their choices. The essence of art is often beyond the reach of explanation. But when someone can give us an insight into what drives them to make their choices, it's a gift to the rest of us as we struggle to make our own.

rock995 said...

Thank you Nuum for the link. There are a lot of other choice pen and ink downloads here also like Pennell's "Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsman". Most could be viewed in the best resolution possible by downloading them as a JP2 file and you can open those types of files with FSviewer available from which is a pretty safe site. You may want to scan the compressed files w/Microsoft Security Essentials or some other free program like Malwarebytes but probability of bundled malware is very low from the developer site. Once opened, it's easy to scroll right or left to look at any page you want.