WITH the introduction of process it was found, provided moderate care was taken in the etching, that it was possible to obtain the finest lines the sharpest pen was capable of making, and to print them too. Success depended more upon the rapidity of the press and the quality of the paper used than upon any extravagant demand on the skill of the block-maker.
At the same time, the more incompetent the block-maker the more inclined he was to take himself seriously, to make difficulties, and to endeavour to dictate to the artist as to what would ” come ” and what ” wouldn’t.”
The American ” process people,” with their greater receptivity of modern inventiveness pushed, not against the artist in order to make things easy for themselves, but laid themselves out to see how far it was possible to go with him in the direction of reproducing the most delicate task he could lay upon them. It was, and probably still is, the practice of American artists to make even their pen drawings for reproduction very large.
It is debatable whether there is any advantage to be gained by this, but it is well that every experiment should be tried. What they had in mind was doubtless the idea of exploiting reduction as a means to obtain an appearance of great delicacy and minuteness in the drawing, the pleasure in which is lost so soon as it is known that the skill displayed is mechanical, and has nothing to do with the artist. There is a curious pleasure not of a very high order to be found in minuteness for its own sake where it is an exhibition of skill in craftsmanship, such as the engraving of the Lord’s Prayer on a threepenny bit, and similar feats. But where the minuteness is mechanically arrived at, it does not give rise to the same character of enjoyment. The delight in the possibilities of the mechanical process carefully gone over by the wood engraver, which enabled Abbey to indulge as freely as he liked in the suggestion of colour and surface qualities and textures, as in the elaborate drawing of silks and brocades in his early costume drawings, which constituted so much of their charm, particularly while it was fresh, in the end threatened to run away with him. In his later work it appears as though he dare not put down a masculine line, but must build a figure, not from its bones outwards, but by the cloth in which it was clothed. The world of his art became a superfine surface, not a constructed solid.
Most pen draughtsmen are inclined to make their drawings too large ; when this is the case a certain thinness is the result ; even if much labour is spent in the enrichment of a thin drawing it is probable that this will detract from, rather than help, the underlying conception, the simple force of the thought being buried under a superfluous pile of technique ; the equivalent of a simple thought whose effect is lost in a cloud of verbiage.
Where the drawing is a simple one, and the size of the page adequate, the drawing can conveniently be made of the same size as, or not much larger, than the reproduction. It will be found easier to obtain a rich effect on a scale that requires precise, delicate, and fastidious workmanship rather than muscular exercise to be as like his work as possible, without a factitious minuteness.
Whistler, himself an American, inveighed against the huge etching, with some, but not entire justice, and as, to some extent, his remarks are applicable to pen drawing, some of them are here given :
” Propositions ”
1. That in Art it is criminal to go beyond the means used in its exercise.
2. That the space to be covered should always be in proper relation to the means used for covering it.
3. That in etching, the means used, or instrument employed, being the finest possible point, the space to be covered should be small in proportion.
4. That all attempts to overstep the limits insisted upon by such proportion are inartistic thoroughly, and tend to reveal the paucity of the means used, instead of concealing the same, as required by Art in its refinement.
5. That the huge plate, therefore, is an offence, its undertaking an unbecoming display of determination and ignorance, its accomplishment a triumph of unthinking earnestness and uncontrollable energy, endowments of the ” duffer.”
Whistler does appear to overlook here the essential point in an ” etching,” namely, the use of acid, and it is the use of acid, and not the use of the point, which decides the thickness of a line. The etching needle cannot be dissociated from the use of acid. Yet there are undoubtedly artistic limits to the size of an etching besides those imposed by the size of an etching press.
We realize them, but need not further analyse them, but see to what extent Whistler’s main contention is applicable to pen drawing.
Propositions x and 2 can be accepted without cavil, and, while in general practice it will be found that as Whistler’s further propositions, while not absolutely conclusive, do generally hold good so far as the large etching plate is concerned, they also serve with reservations as against the huge pen drawing.
The limiting factors in the matter of size may need re-stating for etching, but that is for an etcher to do. As a pen draughtsman, I may perhaps venture upon a few tentative conclusions, or at least put forward a few considerations towards such.
There is hardly a limit of size up to which a pen drawing cannot effectively be enlarged, if it is a finely proportioned drawing to begin with, as may be seen whenever pen drawings are exhibited upon the screen by means of lantern slides. Even the tiniest masterpiece becomes surprising, not, as might be expected, by its coarseness or enlargement, but by its delicacy ; without loss of strength it gains greatly in impressiveness. Yet in spite of this, pen drawing is naturally limited, not only by the thickness or fineness of the pen (which is a variable matter from the reed to Brandauer’s 518), as an etching is rather by the width of a line that will conveniently hold ink when the printer’s rag is passed over it, than by the fineness of the needle, as well as by this consideration for pen drawing that the length of the natural stroke of the pen-point as the hand rests upon the board should dictate the scale of the drawing. I find that without moving my wrist from the drawing board, and holding the pen in a normal manner as in writing, and maintaining full control of the pen with finger and thumb, I can describe a parabolic curve having a segment of about nine and a half inches more or less. This may be taken as deciding the scale inside which the hand and wrist will best control the pen. It should be an exceptional case that would require a single curve or stroke in excess of this limit, as this will call for the joining on of one or more strokes to complete the line, or the employment, not of the wrist and fingers, but that the stroke should be made from the elbow, or even the shoulder, when delicacy of control by the finger and thumb would be lost. It should not be forgotten that the characteristic of a pen is its precision ; and that if control by the finger and thumb is lost, this characteristic goes with it. Besides this consideration lies that of the thickness of the pen employed, and the amount of ink it will naturally carry without being a source of annoyance, (1) because the ink is exhausted before the stroke is complete, (2) from the constant danger of blots from an over-charged pen.
The thickness of the main lines of a composition when first put down should be such that they are plainly and clearly seen at the distance from the eye at which it is intended by the artist that his drawing shall be viewed as a whole, otherwise they will either be weak in effect or require strengthening. The finest lines need be no finer than that when the composition is viewed as a whole, they shall be fine enough to appear to lose their identity, and become parts of a group of lines, and not challenge the predominance of the lines of construction. The fineness or thickness of lines have no intrinsic artistic value, but only in relation to each other and the scale of the composition.
Any elaboration that detracts from the dignity and unity of effect of a composition should be avoided, and, where one line will do instead of two, it will be more than twice as valuable artistically.