The Art of Illustration – Flexibility Of The Pen Line

THE pen consisting of a pliable pair of points has this in common with the brush ; that it is capable of a line that can be thick or thin at will, with all degrees between its finest and its broadest capacity. This gives the pen draughtsman his one small advantage over the etcher, since the etcher’s line is not variable in like manner, having to be of the same thickness throughout its length.

Strict line drawing with the pen being even more severely restricted in its means of expression than those legitimately employed in etching, calls for an even greater selective effort upon the part of the artist.

In this connection a common misapprehension may be removed. There is no such thing as a ” pen etching.” The term ” etching ” refers generally and properly to the use of the acid employed to bite, eat, or etch away those parts of the metal the absence of which is required for the purpose of the printer.

This flexibility of the pen-points is capable of being used to good effect in rendering the line very supple; even a hardly perceptible accentuation or diminution of thickness in the length of the line adds to its nervous charm if judiciously used, but anything approaching the writing master’s mechanical thin up and thick down stroke, which made sorry our youth with pot hooks and hangers, should be avoided. These were imitated from the work of the scribes who had used their broad cut quill or reed pens in a natural way, obtaining different thicknesses of line by changing the angle at which the pen was presented to the paper without exerting pressure, but with the introduction of fine-pointed steel pens the style survived, although the pens were not adapted to carry it out except by the exercise of pressure. The steel nib recovers from pressure better than the quill, so that it was tempting to use it in this manner. An old-maidish style of writing once common may be remembered in which the thick down stroke only survived in the degenerate form of an accent made by a sudden little peck of the pen in the middle of the stroke. Such a use of the pen in drawing brings about an excess of jumpy accents higgledy-piggledy and here and there which distresses the eye and fritters away the large calm of the design without any compensating advantage. Yet nothing can be more exciting than to use the pen or see it used in this manner, where it expresses character and is otherwise appropriate to the subject, as it is a quite natural and proper exploitation of the possibilities of the instrument, yielding more the quality of the dry point where the burr has been taken full advantage of than an etched line. It is difficult to maintain unity of effect and strict draughtsmanship by this means throughout an elaborate composition, since it is necessarily a nervously explosive method of expression, and unless spontaneous throughfout, must become mechanical, and in consequence dull, except in those jolly but isolated patches where the explosion takes place.

‘It is wise, therefore, to reserve this technique for such drawings as can be carried through at a sitting, since a ,nervous draughtsman will find it difficult to ” recapture the first fine careless rapture ” that seemed so gloriously easy while it lasted, and the phlegmatic had perhaps better never begin it, even though he be tempted, since a skittish dulness is the mulish product.

Little was seen of this characteristic use of the pen in the days of the wood engravers, for in the early days quill and not steel pens were used, and in the ‘sixties the greater bulk of the work was drawn on the block in pencil. In the work of Bewick and his immediate followers a similar effect to that of the pen laboriously used in this manner is obtained by the natural use of the burin, which, being of a V shape, cuts a line of varying thickness according to the depth of the incision, a fact upon which Bewick and his followers largely based their style. It was not till photographic processes replaced the wood engraver that the pen was generally turned to by artists as giving the best results for direct process, and its possibilities more fully exploited than they had been in drawing for the wood engraver, and the style of the modern pen draughts-man is more usually based upon the steel nib and its flexibility under pressure than upon the quill or reed used without pressure.