Monday, October 27, 2014

Learning Art from Dead People (and no, I’m not talking zombies…)

After Robinson, “There he saw lizards” from The Water Babies
by Sara Light-Waller, 2014 (Note: 99 years after the original)
William Heath Robinson from The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley (1915)
The debate over copying masterworks is an old one. At one time there was no question about it, copying was considered part of every fine artist’s education. However, this is no longer the case. Today, replicating artwork is often shunned as “cheating” or seen as detrimental to the development of a personal artistic style.

I was on the fence about copying masterworks for quite a while. Fortunately, age has taught me wisdom and I now understand that copying a master’s works is sometimes the ONLY way to learn certain techniques, especially ones that are no longer in fashion.

Take, for example, pen & ink, one of my favorite media. Over the years I’ve used it for many purposes — scientific illustration, children’s book and magazine illustration, comic book art (both Western and manga style), caricature, fine art landscapes, and portraits.

But just because I’ve been doing pen & ink for a long time, doesn’t mean that I’m not always seeking improvement. Sadly, there is a dearth of competent pen & ink instructors out there today. And although instructional books can be helpful, in all honesty, there aren’t too many in print that are worth reading. The most notable ones in my library are: “Drawing with Pen & Ink” by Arthur L. Guptill (1961), “Pen & Ink Techniques” by Frank Lohan (1978) and “Sketching Your Favorite Subjects in Pen & Ink” by Claudia Nice (1993).

Without these resources, how does one continue to learn? This brings us to the dead people, the masters of pen &ink from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Illustrators like Howard Pyle (1853-1911), Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), H. J. Ford (1860-1941), John Batten (1860-1932), William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Florence Susan Harrison (1877-?), and Willy Pogany (1882-1955). They have become my new teachers and every now and again I study them, seeking further clarity on their techniques long out of style.

After several weeks of painting in watercolor, I could tell that my drawing hand was getting dull. I sharpened it up by copying one of William Heath Robinson’s illustrations from “The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby” by Charles Kingsley (1915 edition). My copy, which is not traced but drawn freehand, is done on vellum with a Noodler’s Konrad Flex pen, Micron .01, and several different brush pens.

It’s not a perfect copy, but it’s close enough to help me regain my drawing rhythm, which is critical for pen & ink.  

Having used this piece as a warm-up, I’ll proceed on to a few new compositions of my own before returning to watercolor.

Cover of The Water-Babies, by Charles Kingsley
You can see more examples of my pen & ink work on my Flickr page.

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