Thursday, June 16, 2011

Excerpt from "The Dying Penman"

From the instant that a line or mark is inscribed on a blank surface, it becomes a work-in-progress. Whether it’s doomed from the start to wind up in oblivion or destined to become a work of art depends chiefly on three factors: inspiration, clarity of intention, and technique (or execution). In practice, these pillars of the creative process are inseparable and they will continually be discussed.
Most literature about pen and ink is concerned primarily with technique. In Zen parlance, that is “pointing the finger at the moon.” One’s true technique evolves from personal search and experimentation, not adulation of another artist’s style. I still browse any and all books on the subject, even if they seem overly technical, and I’ve never encountered one that didn’t have some unique pointers or morsels of wisdom. I strongly advise the beginner to start a library on the subject. It will never decrease in value; and you’ll find yourself returning to the volumes over the years if you persevere in the craft. Even if you’re honest enough to admit that not one has ever been read from cover-to-cover, you’ll still be rewarded with insights that you can immediately put to use. Decades may clarify the meaning of some passages, even as they reveal others to express only relative truths that can be improved upon by direct experience. But even at the risk of missing the mark, one who has spent a life in ink doesn’t shy from leaving words behind in that most indelible of fluids.

The great French artist Theodore Gericault said that a true artist should be able to draw a body hurtling from a burning building before it hits the ground. If the word “doodle” can be substituted for drawing, I agree. Even within the field of pen and ink, there are so many types of drawing that the term is almost meaningless. When reading this book, please note the context of the advice that I offer. What may be true for one kind of imagery or style is not necessarily true for another. There are always exceptions to every rule, and no relative truth about art is universal.
What is a virtue in a successful work may also be perceived as a limitation. An artist who excels at bold studies of athletes in motion may lack the light hand or tender empathy so necessary for drawing children. And speaking of sports— please disregard the idea that art is a competitive enterprise which should or will be acknowledged with trophies and public merit. Regardless of the auction value of any artist’s work, living or dead, there is no ultimate winner or “best artist.” People who keep the records, historians and critics, bring cultural and personal bias to bear. Forget consensus opinion, too. Art is not a democratic enterprise. If you get to make a living at something you love to do, you win, and that may be as good as it gets.
With all due respect to my publisher, the profit motive isn’t the primary force behind the production of this book. He and I bring this work to print at a critical time in history for the conscious penman (and even for books themselves). I am seeing what I regarded as a slowly evolving and time honored craft suddenly become eclipsed, corrupted—then, finally, subsumed by the new computer technology. This revolution has occurred in a mere generation, side-swiping every purview of hand craftsmanship, from medical illustration to architectural rendering. Even Helvetica tombstones are now popping up everywhere!
I have already lived through this debacle in another field—as a traditional sign painter. It took less than five years for the field to implode after the new vinyl letters were introduced in the mid ‘80s. I stubbornly clung to the craft, chasing jobs that involved pictorials and complicated logos; yet even this niche became dominated by the new dot matrix/digital printers by the early ‘90s. Though “sign writing,” a subcategory within the general field of sign painting, has been rendered obsolete, the training and discipline needed to become an adept greatly improved my pen work. Any time spent with letterforms immediately amplifies vision and co-ordination.
I returned by necessity to the pen for a livelihood in the early‘90s, never dreaming that its existence would be seriously threatened so soon afterwards. Basic and refined principles of pen drawing are being relegated to historical footnotes. I feel driven to describe the dynamic nature of this art form I’ve pursued all my life in the hope that those who would try to take seductive shortcuts will realize what they are overlooking. With the stark realization that I’m running out of seasons, comes another grim thought: if I don’t set down these thoughts at this critical time, an artist of lesser skill might undertake the work; or worse, an inker of greater skill who might use a technical manual primarily as a showcase for finished work, with text content as only a secondary concern. I have made an earnest attempt to combine the two, as I know by heart the many pitfalls and misconceptions that a beginner might encounter along the way. Before I had any professional training, I entered the field by stealth as an auto-didactic. This book is a gift of love being sent back to myself, over half a century ago…