The Art of Illustration – Some Limitations And Possibilities In Black And White Convention

THERE is always interest and excitement to be got from exploring the limits imposed by the use of any given medium, and nothing is more instructive than experiments conducted with this view, or even, and probably this is more general, without any idea that a judicious use of the medium does impose limitations. Full tone effects, with faces elaborately drawn and strictly modelled in shadow or half tone against the light, will strain the medium of pen drawing further than it is in general wise to carry it, and disappointment is almost inevitable. A suggestive method rather than a strict one is more likely to be successful ; but it is wise to realize that minor differences of tone or local colour should be disregarded if tone is attempted, and only the main oppositions of light and dark established, with no more minor tones than are necessary to keep things in place or to sweeten the passage of shade on a rounded form. To put it graphically, the world to a pen draughtsman might consist of black and white men and women, it being not properly his concern to discriminate the subtle complexion of objects, his business being primarily with form. He may introduce light and shade, but he will be wise to confine his attempts to such light and shade as reveal and emphasize rather than conceal or veil the essential form. The mysteries of night and twilight are better left to other media than to the unaided pen, not because these are absolutely beyond the limits of penmanship to suggest, but because the expression of such mysteriousness is by way of being a tour de force, and is not in the natural genius of the medium. That such a method is laborious does not, or would not, matter if the results were not frequently tedious and dull. If a subject is incapable of clear, dignified statement, or of direct and witty summary, which are the natural aims of pen drawing—if surface rather than form, space rather than limit, atmosphere or obscurity rather than definition, qualification rather than simplicity, vagueness rather than lucidity, are aimed at—then other means will more conveniently yield what is wanted.

Submission to the limitations imposed by space and medium is the mark of the artist and master of his craft, as rebellion and experiment are the marks of the healthy apprentice, The desire for fulness of representation, however, yields to the selective sense in the end, and the limitations imposed by media are more willingly observed the more experience and experiment have pointed them out. The wise critic will applaud economy of means rather than extravagance, though a certain extravagance is to be looked for and condoned when youth is feeling its way to its kingdom.

A most effective convention, more natural it might be thought to the wood-cutter even than that of leaving a line in relief, is that of drawing by masses of light, leaving out any attempt at half tone ; all lights above a certain pitch being cut out, and all shades below being left black, with the exception that line or minor shapes of dark are left where necessary to delimit essential forms. Such, roughly, was the method adopted by Nicholson for his ” Alphabet.” Somewhat reminiscent of the wood engravings or wood cuts of the old Broad sheets, Ballad headings, and the work of the elder Crawhall as it was, in the hands of so expert an artist and craftsman it proved capable of yielding extraordinarily rich effects, as the natural balance of light and dark is arrived at by the excess of each mutually cancelling out. Of course, while a jolly decorative effect is readily obtainable by this means, these are obtainable only where the subject is simple enough to lend itself to such treatment, otherwise these effects may be obtainable only at the sacrifice of subtleties of form or detail which are readily obtainable by other means. A considerable amount of black and white drawing in pen and brush has been founded upon this system, and an effective combination is possible between line and solid black, as may be seen frequently in the work of Phil May, notably in his sketch of Mickiewiez in the ” Parson and the Painter.”

At the present time the public is more accustomed to a variety of artistic conventions and their many combinations and modifications than was the case twenty and thirty years ago, when a more or less photographic ideal still obtained, and when wash drawing was looked upon by art editors and the public as a method superior to and ” more finished ” than the ” pen sketch,” and to that extent the young artist is better off than his immediate predecessors, who had to invent new or adapt and force through old methods that, familiar as they are now to the public, were generally at the time resented as revolutionary.