Me and ballpoint pens go way back. I love them.
When I was younger, I carried a ballpoint pen and a sketchbook wherever I went. I liked ballpoint because I was too clumsy for pencil–I didn’t like that I could accidentally smear what I’d drawn in pencil with a single careless arm motion, because that’s how clumsy I am. I pressed too hard for pencil, and still didn’t like the coverage it gave. And I didn’t like the scratchy feeling of rough pencil or charcoal or pastel on paper.
So ballpoint it was. In college, it was implied that ballpoint pen was NOT an art medium. That it was a tool for writing, not drawing. So I tried my hardest to master other tools, only to retreat back into the comforts of my room after classes, with my trusty old ballpoint pen and sketchbook at the end of the day.
Over time, I learned to sketch pretty comfortably with pen–to ease up and add pressure where I needed it. I got more comfortable with accepting that pen was my very favorite tool, fine arts be damned. I drew in ballpoint pen so much, that after tons and tons of practice, I could get a fairly good and smooth sketch that people often mistook for pencil. Primarily, I sketched in black ballpoint–plain ol’ Bic or Papermate pen.
After awhile, I started adding color and shading and highlights in either watercolor or acrylics. I used the black ballpoint as a sort of underdrawing. I like the sketchy feel, seeing the structure underneath. Sometimes I paint on top pretty monochromatically…
And other times, I nearly completely covered the initial sketch with acrylic…
But it just doesn’t feel like me whenever I’ve tried leaving out the ballpoint pen.
Did you know there are different types of pens? There are inky smooth rollerballs and spotty ol’ gel pens… but it took me YEARS to realize that the ones I like to sketch with are “officially” called BALLPOINT pens. Easy enough, right?
Ages ago, I hadn’t heard of anyone using ballpoint as a fine art medium. I was a little uncomfortable with the fact that it was my medium of choice (but not enough to give it up). Ballpoint quality was so bad that the paper I used would yellow around my drawing, or the pen would turn purple or blue. These days, I’ve seen TONS of artists creating wonderful, beautiful things with pen. There’s the hyperrealistic work of Samuel Silva, the amazingly smooth work of James Mylne, and ballpoint pen art cheerleader Jerry Stith, who has EXTENSIVE resources on ballpoints and art. (Those are only a few–there are also a ton more, a few of them listed here).
But one of my VERY favorite ballpoint pen artists is Jim Rugg, whose work is both amazingly realistic at times, and also hilariously funny (like this Divine Wonder Woman, and this Playboy Barbie). He has a sense of humor about his work that I can appreciate. He enjoys drawing, and it shows…but he doesn’t seem to take himself so gosh-darn seriously.
I used to think it would be awesome if ballpoints came in tons of other colors…but when my mom sent me a set of Ink Joy colored pens a few years back, I thought they were awesome, but I wasn’t sure how to make them work for me. My work wasn’t as detailed and realistic as those other artists who had mastered the ballpoint pen.
Until a few months ago, inspired again by Jim Rugg’s work, I realized I could still do my own wonky style while using the colored ballpoints…and I gave it a try.
The first one was Napoleon Dynamite (which I realize I’ve posted before)…
I moved on to other fun faces I enjoy….Like the drag artist, Divine:
This scene with Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction:
And this character from the movie Delicatessen (Myla helped me with the hands):
Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun, really playing with building color.
The process (for me) starts with laying a basic foundation, usually in orange, and building up the reds for color in the cheeks, nose, lips and eyes. (I still think my technique is a little soft–I’m hoping to get a little more bold with the color and text)
Then I build up with the brown for darker areas.
And it isn’t just a one-shot kinda thing–I keep those three or four pens handy, and switch around between them all, building up colors, adding colors in another area. I like this whole process, because there is PLENTY of wiggle room to get the shapes right. If something’s off, and you’ve started lightly enough, you can adjust it by the time you start really building up the darks.
And the final doodle: Leeloo (Milla Jovovitch) from the movie the Fifth Element:
Funny thing about ballpoints, though, is that they glurp. Those blobs of ink on her face and in the background? Those are glurps. I don’t mind them all THAT much, but they’re a little tough to work around sometimes (I don’t even know HOW those other guys keep the glurps away). To avoid the glurp as best I can, I am constantly wiping the ballpoint pen (which I SHOULD do on a napkin, but I don’t, so if you were to look very closely, most of my clothes contain a cluster of small dots, usually on my right shoulder or pants, from twisting the glurp off of the pen before drawing). Still, glurps happen…and that’s okay. They’ve kind of grown on me, even. Gives them a bit of gritty character.
“Goodbye Sweetie” (In-progress, from Dr. Who):
Professor McGonagall, in progress, from Harry Potter:
With darker skin, the process is pretty much the same, except that you can use even more of a variety of colors to really build up the skin tones. (Again, I still think I’m too soft in this area. I’m working on filling out more of the white space)
RubyRhod from Fifth Element:
Recently, because of a long-standing back problem that has been misdiagnosed for SEVERAL years, I have begun a series of injections to help with what they’re now calling “spondyloarthritis.” (Which, from what I understand, just means “chronic localized sacroiliatic pain that we can’t figure out and don’t really know how to treat.”) This means I need to sit at their offices for at least THREE hours, attached to a IV tube full of mutant medications and such.
…Except, wait? Three HOURS? In a lounge chair by myself? While Myla’s happily occupied at school or daycare? And I can bring my sketchbook and headphones?? Wait. Wait a minute. This might not be so bad after all…
Jack Black in Nacho Libre:
Nicholas Cage as “H.I.” from Raising Arizona:
Awhile back, PaperMate InkJoy was the only colored ballpoint pen set I knew of. Then I learned that my favorite ballpoints, Bic, came out with the Cristal color pack. Woohoo! But the other day, while looking for some replacements should something tragic potentially happen to my newly beloved pens (as I often fear, once I begin to love a medium), I came across the PaperMate Profile.…and I was SUPER excited to find out that the 12-pack has a sort of GRAYISH MIDNIGHT BLUE…which allowed me to simulate one of my favorite colors of all time: Payne’s Gray!!! (it’s a sort of midnight-bluish gray) Not such a big deal for many people, I’m sure, but very VERY exciting for me!
So I’ve become quite fond of my colored ballpoint pens! And I’m having a WHOLE lot of fun building up shapes. It definitely requires a different sort of thought process than just drawing in straight black ballpoint pen. Still, I think I could cover more of the white area. It just takes getting over the timidity of a new medium. But I love it.
So whatever you enjoy, no matter how timid you may be about it, just rock it. Own it. Make it yours. Because the things that make us different are the EXACT same things that make us special.
I once met a very well-known artist who asked me what medium I worked in, and when I quietly said, “ballpoint pen,” he asked (with honest curiosity), after a long pause, “Um…is that even archival?” I was sort of hesitant to respond, washed over instantly in self-doubt–until I realized with full confidence that I don’t CARE. I enjoy it, I am comfortable with it. And the important thing is this: I AM STILL LEARNING.