Lately, I’ve been working on developing some basic skills, which when done well, can go unnoticed when looking at a work of art; but if not done well, can be a distraction. I’ve also been trying my hand at using household items.
Specifically, I’ve been practicing the art of preparing paper and using a ballpoint pen as the primary medium, as well as tea as a wash. I’ll start with the tea.
I’ve learned that not all tea is created equally. Below is a picture of Lipton Tea (left) and Best Tea, a Taiwan brand that is made from dried whole leaves.
Lipton Tea photographs very well, because it’s more saturated in color. It would certainly be a great “dupe,” if you like using tea as a wash (I know, so niche) but are on a tight budget.
However, when applying either one, the Best Tea — like the skills of a practiced hand — was not distracting, while Lipton tea was. First, looking at the tea again, we can see that Lipton is opaque, while Best Tea has some transparency.
Also, because Lipton is darker, it’s easier to leave streaks while applying it as a wash, while Best Tea goes on smooth, whether or not you are skilled at applying washes.
I admit, I need a little more practice, as I initially just slathered on the wash with multiple brushstrokes before moving further on down the paper, as opposed to applying one brushstroke and adding more wash, so that there was always a bit of liquid at the edge of the wash.
There’s a video of Shahzia Sikander applying a tea wash in this way in “Spirituality” on Art 21‘s website. I did this for the Best Tea (bottom right). Again, it’s very subtle, between washes, but you have a lot of more control.
Lipton Tea (top, applied 2-4 times), Best Tea (middle left, applied 5-6 times), Best Tea (bottom right, applied 2 times) and a sheet of printing paper (bottom left). There are ranges of 2-4 and 5-6, because when I used multiple brushstrokes, it was like I was applying multiple washes… ?
It doesn’t show up on camera, but when in person, you can see subtle bands of discoloration on the paper with Lipton Tea. Below is another side-by-side comparison but in different lighting. Best Tea is on the left and Lipton is on the right. Both were given the same number of washes, and Lipton of course takes fewer washes to show a difference.
I guess if you want to save time and money and aren’t adamant about having a uniformly applied wash, you should choose Lipton. But I like how subtle Best Tea can be. You have to apply it a few more times, but you have more control over the final outcome.
You could say this past week has been a lesson in the value of knowing my materials before committing to them. As you can see, the ink on the version on the left leaked out of the lines after I applied a wash (Lipton tea), so I redrew it.
This is Lenny, by the way. Between the two versions, above, the line work and where I applied the ink is a little different but… it’s still Lenny… or Lenny 2.
To the left is Lenny 3 or Lenny 2 with a wash. I applied the wash seven times, so I could see the difference between using the tea for George (seven washes of Best Tea, a Taiwanese brand) and Lipton. If not for this little experiment, I would’ve stopped at four or five washes, because at six, the lower left hand corner started getting splotchy; as in, the tea started to stain the inside fibers and made it darker than the rest of the surface.
On the far left is George and in the middle is Lenny 3. On the far right is a close up of the lower left-hand corner of Lenny 3. I guess I could just trim the edges, but… there’re also the tea streaks. I don’t know if you can see them. They’re finally beginning to fade after the seventh wash. This happened with Val and Don (below) as well, and all after the first wash. No additional streaks stained the paper after any additional washes were applied. I’m guessing that after the first wash, the fibers have been saturated… ?
Sigh. Knowing how to apply a smooth wash seems basic, but it’s proving more tricky than I thought it would be.
Well, moving on. To the left, we have Val. She is also a brand new tree. (Yay!) For the ink, I went back to a fine gel pen, which I also used on George. It does not leak, but applying it can wear down one’s hands because the ink doesn’t come out as readily as from the other pen. Time flies by once I get going, even when my hands are sore. I have to remind myself to take breaks and to not apply so much pressure. Moreover, lighter and more abundant lines will yield a smoother finish.
To the right is Don (who first appeared with other trees in the previous post). He and Val have similar proportions, but Don has bigger moves. He’s also bigger in size. He is 12 3/4″ x 13″ and Val is 9 3/4″ x 11.”
I knew the ink would leak before applying the wash, but I wanted to see how it would turn out. The verdict? Not as well as it did for Lenny. I can pass off the leaks in Lenny 3 as Lenny being in the rain or fog or being a willow tree, but I can’t make those excuses for Don, because (a) he doesn’t have as much detail and (b) he didn’t have as much of the water soluble ink (as I’d used a Sharpie to fill in the larger areas), so, as a result, the leaks occurred more sporadically and did not do enough to create patterns or develop into a language of its own.
Overall, I think the trees do pretty well as smaller drawings. Lenny is, by the way, 8 3/4″ x 10″ … give or take a couple millimeters.
Lenny 1 (with leaks): Bic fine gel pen (for outline), Pilot “Precise V5” rolling ball, extra fine (for larger areas), Lipton tea (applied as a wash x4).
Lenny 2 (without leaks): Bic fine gel pen. No wash.
Lenny 3 (without leaks): Same as Lenny 2 plus Lipton tea (x7)
Don (with leaks): Same as Lenny 1 (but Lipton tea was applied five times) plus a black Sharpie.
This is continued from Study of a Mourning Woman (Part 1). In that post, I made comparisons between my experiences with drawing Durer’s L’Annonciation and this drawing, by Michelangelo. I also made notes on why I think it’s a good picture, which in a word is its presence and which is achieved by creating the illusion of the flow of volume. I liked Durer’s L’Annonciation for how beautifully the lines flowed; likewise, I like this drawing for how beautifully the volume seems to flow. There is a lot going on in Durer’s picture (EG, the angel is in mid-flight), while this drawing is of a woman standing still; and yet, her sheer presence seems to be greater than the whole scene of Durer’s. I can’t add much more, except to continue with the process of finally finishing the drawing.
Step 3 (cont): Continue drawing in the lines, piece by piece.
Note on using “guidelines”
When I say “guidelines,” I am referring to where the illusion of the flow of volume can be seen, which I made a carbon copy of in Step 1. Sometimes there’re hard lines accompanying these illusory lines. Often, however, the illusion of the “lines” you see are created by many minor lines stopping just where the illusory line would intersect. Sometimes the ends of these lines stay straight, so the abrupt end of the black of these lines depict the edge between light and shadow; EG, the lighted areas of the figure’s left sleeve. Often, the ends seem to curve around some bend in the fabric, so that many lines ending or changing one’s flow in such a way depict a space or surface of the fabric which is curving away from view or changing course in some way. EG, the fabric underneath the arm.
There was no use in trying to make a carbon copy of all the fine lines, because I often couldn’t see all of them through the tracing paper. It was also confusing to go by, because I could see many lines but some were darker than others and seemed to connect to lines which they didn’t connect to, etc. It feels like cheating anyway, and so, I relented and had to eyeball the minor lines. Near the end of a day’s work, I would feel lazy and do some guesswork or very close to making things up. This is when I knew I should call it a day. Fortunately, the mistakes I made in these moments of laziness (or exhaustion) could be edited later on.
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I used two different erasers. The first, I believe, was a white, hi-polymer eraser, and it could lighten the darker areas of ink. When this ran out, I began using a pink, paper-mate, which could erase the ink entirely, if I really went at it and the ink hadn’t been absorbed too deeply.
I wouldn’t recommend the pink, paper-mate, because it can tear apart the surface of the paper more easily than the white, hi-polymer. OTOH, I was desperate. I had clocked in so many hours already, and I wanted to like the end result.
With the new eraser, I was able to clean up the face and the knee and random places of her clothing. When you focus on the lines too closely, you can lose a sense for the quality of the depiction of the flow of volume. I did a lot of work in pencil before applying ink, but near the end, I skipping the use of a pencil. Sometimes, this was a mistake, because when you make a mistake in the flow of volume, you make a mistake which involved many minor lines. Fortunately, these mistakes were usually not where the ends of these lines end abruptly, but instead curve and continue on in another direction, so that what the eraser could not erase could be hidden by newer lines. It’s a bit of a blur where the fabric falls underneath the arm.
I had said, in my last post, that I couldn’t enjoy this drawing piece-meal. I’ve changed my mind, and it’s because I can appreciate his use of visual rhythm. EG, where the knee protrudes from underneath the clothing, the lines seem to follow suit, and bend just where the knee bends. We see how the lines follow the shape underneath while maintaining some rhythm as lines.
There’s something hypnotic about repetitive motions/sounds/visual elements. Just listen to the rhythm of music or poetry or look at random fencing that lines a yard or public garden. You feel like there’s something there that can take care of itself so you stop listening or looking so carefully and allow yourself to get carried away.
When you see it in this drawing, it’s the repetition of one nice flowing line after another, so even when you look at it closely, at one line, you can enjoy how nicely that whole space seems to flow.
Step 5: Add “sepia”
I wanted to make the whole drawing the same color as the original. I didn’t have a writing tool which could make the fine lines in that color, so I used a black ball point pen. I then thought I could go over the ball point pen with a gel pen in “sepia” where the lines were thicker. It looked weird.
It looked a little psychedelic, as though the shadows (which were supposed to recede from view) now popped into view. I didn’t panic, though, because maybe if I gave it a wash of tea, the lighter lines would change to the color of the tea.
Step 6: Give it a wash.
Well, they didn’t. The tea didn’t do much at all, so after daubing the drawing dry, I immediately applied a wash of coffee. The color was really nice, but it didn’t make the black ink brown; instead, it enhanced the black and the psychedelic look of the drawing.
The next morning, I could only hope I could edit of of what I’d done, and to my delight, the pink, paper-mate eraser could erase the black lines underneath the brown. The brown lines didn’t budge, but at least they didn’t look so heavy, so the line-work became more subtle again. I did some more editing and trimmed the edges (because I’d applied two coats of coffee wash after the initial coat of tea wash in the span of 15-20 minutes and it was ruining the paper; IE, the wash had seeped underneath the surface and made parts of it blotchy).
I scanned the last picture and, noticing that part of the clothing underneath the arm didn’t flow very well, did some more editing.
The final version is the scan above.
For fun, I also saved a copy of a version that I tweaked using a photo editor.
Hard to find ink that is a true sepia color and not merely brown and harder still to find writing tools in color as fine as the ball point pen I was using. If I did have such a writing tool, my drawing could’ve looked like the image above.
Note on time
It’s been two weeks and two days since my last post, and I can say that I took a small break (life), but even so, I spent three to five hours at a time between photos, and there are 12 photos between the first photo and the one taken after I finished applying the ink. So this itty, bitty drawing (about the size of a sheet of paper) took me 36-60 hours, not including the time I took to give it a wash and do more editing, as well as the time between photo 7 and photo 8 when I lost the use of the camera for two to three days of work.
There was a lot of thinking and staring at the original, and trying to figure out just what I was looking at and how the lines work to create the illusion of the flow of volume. I want to say here, that while editing, I focused on how the flow of volume supports the illusion of some presence of a figure, but I only focused on the flow of volume. I think having the right proportions lends itself to the presence of the figure, for which I used a carbon copy.
Finally, you could say the last bit of work occurs when the picture is actually viewed, when the viewer sees the illusion.
Ball point pen, black
Gel pen, sepia
Do you ever browse through art books and think, Wow, I wish I had that. Well, I do… and often. Obviously, drawings you may find in a book by a renowned artist is likely out of anyone’s reach, and obviously anything by Da Vinci is in a museum by now. But damn, I still want one… of this drawing… and that drawing…
So I got to thinking… I have a very limited budget — and I want to be happy — and if money can’t buy what I want anyway, how about some good ol’ fashion elbow grease? I then had an ah-hah moment. I could use this desire for stuff as motivation to develop some skills for my own work.
It includes a biography and treats Da Vinci’s work by categories as well as offers notes on individuals pieces, so you can spend a nice afternoon with it or simply pick it up to look for a specific work and read a little at a time. It is the perfect coffee table book for people who love coffee table books.
I’d also bought Christopher Nichols’ Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind, and in it there’s a small picture of Study of a Lily, which immediately caught my eye… and using both books, I set out to make a copy of my own.
Step 1: I used tracing paper to copy directly out of the book. I know I should be using this step to develop an eye for proportions, but… I’m lazy and am limited in time (I see my life dwindling away before my eyes… always), and this is what takes the longest to perfect in a drawing.
Da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings
As you can see, the drawing is clipped at the bottom, so I used Christopher Nichols’ book, which has a smaller but full picture, as a reference for the bottom of the stem, as well as for seeing how the lily was framed by the paper.
Step 2: I flipped the tracing paper over and traced over the lines with a pencil, making a “carbon copy.” I then used the dull edge of my lead pencil’s eraser cap to rub the image onto water color paper.
Step 3: Using a “carbon copy” produced a blurry image, so I had to smooth out the lines; IE, I had to consider the “gesture” or flow of the lines. (See Nicolaides and Me.)
From far away, you can see a lily, but up close, the lines didn’t make sense, and I had to continually ask myself, What am I looking at? What does this line do for the overall drawing and does this line connect to that line or that line?
I then went over it with a fine pen in sepia.
Step 4: Color. I began with a light wash of tea. Yes, red tea. I shameslessly used the good kind too. I mean, there’s good tea and there’s bad tea… and I used the good tea. (This is my idea of seizing the day.)
Step 5: Volume. So far, I have two browns: the bold lines of the sepia pen and the wash, which makes the background the same color as the lily. If I kept the background white, the lily would’ve stood out more like a cartoony graphic, especially with the bold outline. By sharing the same color range, the lily looks more like it’s in its natural setting.
I then used coffee to add shadows or, by deliberately leaving certain areas clean of coffee, I created the illusion of highlights.
I also added actual highlights, but only to mimic the original drawing, with a white pastel pencil.
Here is the final drawing in detail…
Not a perfect copy. After applying ink, I realized I’d gotten a few places wrong. I also overdid the ink, so the outline is much more bold and makes the lily look more cartoony and less natural than in the original drawing. (I have a tendency to obsess over making perfect lines.)
I mean, there is definitely a lot of “me” in this drawing; however, I think it has its own charm and I was able to produce the same “gesture” as the original.
Strathmore Water Color Paper, Series 300
Gel pen, sepia (small)