FAQ Number One

A few days ago on twitter I mentioned I was going to put together a frequently asked questions page for this site, which prompted amongst others the questions below. I’ve answered them from my perspective and experience, so they are by no means definitive, but feel free to chip in (constructively) in the comments.

Where do I find the ‘perfect’ pen?

Speaking as someone who has been on the hunt for that elusive ‘perfect pen’ for many years now, I feel somewhat qualified to answer this question. The answer is ‘I don’t know’. I can explain from my perspective and see if that helps, but the short answer is ‘I don’t know’. This all depends on what your idea of perfect is. It took me a long time to work this out. When I started drawing with any sense of purpose, I was under the assumption that better tools would make me a better artist. I tried a huge variety of pens and other drawing tools without any real idea of what it was I was looking for. It was like walking into a shoe shop and trying on every pair of sports shoes, sandals and slippers without knowing what purpose I needed them for, but assuming that I’d know when I found it.

The key thing that you need to know when trying out different tool in this hunt is to know what you are looking for. The criteria I started with was waterproof ink, flexible line and comfortable to draw with. This meant I was looking for either a brush or a fountain pen with a flexible nib. This narrowed the range of possible pens I was looking for, and it became easier to rule certain pens out for not being flexible, being uncomfortable or uncomfortably expensive. Scouring pen forums, asking advice on twitter and reading reviews other people have written have all been informative and helpful, but only to the point of knowing someone else’s opinion. I found it particularly useful to spend some time talking to a pen dealer who exhibits at pen shows (yes, they exist) who was incredibly helpful.

To recap, I think it’s a very good idea to have an idea of what characteristics you want your line to have and how much you are willing to spend. It is also worth asking yourself why you want a new pen as well. Are you trying to achieve greater efficiency in your process? Trying to bring a particular characteristic of line into your work? Or. Are you looking for the kind of pen that can draw horses best? I’m afraid those pens don’t exist and what you really need to do is spend more time drawing horses.

If you are collecting small strips together into a book, how do you create a ‘flow’ / select the order?

A very good question. The answer to this one is also ‘I don’t know’. It all depends on the content of the strips. Can they be themed? Are they continuous or can you drop in anywhere? Are some longer than others or are they all one page strips?

My advice here would be to start by making the order logical – perhaps in date order. Then read it through (actually read it, don’t skim it) and then make edits from your impression of how it reads. Trust your gut. Remember that if you have ‘reveals’ or punchlines on pages that are visual or spanned across multiple pages, you want the impact to be on the left-hand page so that it is revealed on the page turn, rather than on the right hand page where it is revealed before you’ve read the setup. The hardest bit is making cuts. If you show your draft to someone and they don’t get it, the problem may not be with them, your strip just might not be that good. At this point, you need to be merciless and cut anything that isn’t working.

If you are left handed how do you prevent your big fat hand from smearing all your beautiful ink pictures to a blob?

There’s a short answer and a long answer to this question.

The short answer; by not rubbing your big fat hand all over it.

The long answer; You get taught when you are a kid that you start at the top left of the page and work to the right and down, which if you are left-handed means you are going to be resting your hand where you’ve just been drawing, resulting in that ghastly smudge. There’s no rule saying that you have to particularly start anywhere on a page, so my advice would be to plan your drawing out ahead of time and start from the top right hand corner instead. It may be worth exploring ink and paper combinations that dry more rapidly. I’ve found that Platinum Carbon ink and cold pressed watercolour paper dries fairly quickly, but it’d be worth trying out a few variations to see what works best for you. That or scheduling frequent and prolonged coffee-breaks between sections of drawing to allow it to dry.

Strategies for how to keep going if your life is a mess?

Again, I think that this all depends on context. How much of a mess are we talking here? If your situation is serious and the wellbeing of others is at stake, I’d say prioritise that over drawing. If it is one of those existential malaises, an eternal ennui that hangs over you like a cloud, then again, think about what you’d rather be doing. If the answer is ‘I’d rather be watching television’ then do that. If your answer is ‘I’d rather be drawing/writing/etc’ then do that instead. Plan your time ahead and figure out what you can achieve in the time that you have. I remember reading about the 1833 factories act and the idea of the 8 hour day, which meant that people had in every 24 hours 8 hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours sleep. That seems like a huge amount of time each day to me, so figuring out what time you have, what activities make you happiest and the best way to cram one into the other works for me.

How do you come up with your ideas?

The eternal question. I think it cuts to the core of the creative process without ceremony or blowing too much hot air around. The short answer is still quite a long answer, and it is a three-parter for me. I read somewhere a while ago about the idea that creativity has three prerequisites – the physical, the cognitive and the aspirational and this works for me.

The first prerequisite for creativity is the physical means for expressing it, the ‘ability to make lines on paper’ stuff. I often get ideas from the physical act of playing with art, with materials and with processes. The act of producing ‘stuff’ for me sparks off new ideas that bump into other things I’ve already done and make new ideas.

The second prerequisite is the cognitive problem solving aspect of creativity. This is the ability to think creatively around a problem, brief or topic. This is the stuff that only lives in your head until you put it on paper.

Now, you’d think that these two by themselves would be enough, but the without the third prerequisite, the motivation to put them both into practice, you don’t do anything.

Each of these three aspects of the creative process can live alone without the other two, but just drawing aimlessly, having grand plans that come to nothing or even just the ‘one day I’m gonna…’ impulse don’t really cut it for me. When the three come together, you not only have ideas but you also put them together.

The shorter answer is to say that a lot of coming up with ideas is recognising when I’ve actually had an idea. It is very easy to dismiss an idea before it has had a chance to flourish, and it is a skill to take the seed of an idea and recognise that it may need developing until it is good.

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