Podcast 10: Long live paper!

I love paper. Thick, thin, smooth, chunky, and in this episode I share my passion for all its many wondrous forms.

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Complete transcript of episode: Continue reading “Podcast 10: Long live paper!”

Writing is a dirty business.

First on the list: Tea.
Then, water.
Fourth place, beer.

But right in between,  on the list of liquids I consume most, has to be… ink. It’s a messy relationship so let me complain a bit about it to you, in confidence.

When I was very little, ink was forbidden. We were only allowed to write and draw in pencils until third grade or so. By high school, ink was mandatory. Teachers would summarily reject smudgy homework done in lead.

I started typing when I was about eleven. And I taught myself the worst job in writing: changing typewriter ribbons. Festoons of inky cloth would cascade all over the room, marking every surface, turning my hands into ebony mitts.

I got my first fountain pen not long after — another source of misery and mess. God, how I dreaded that moment when my pen would run dry. After scribbling the nib frantically back and forth over the page, praying for a reprieve, I’d sigh and begin the chore of refilling: unscrewing the pen, dipping the barrel into an ink well, pumping the little bladder, black drops flying all over the desk.

Decades later, the carnage continues. I have been carrying around a lovely aluminum fountain pen from Muji. It uses cartridges which you’d think would make it less of a hassle. I carry it loaded, with a spare cartridge waiting in the back of the barrel. This week, I discovered that the pen has developed a tendency to unscrew in my pocket (I guess the motion of walking slowly untwists it). I reach my hand into my pocket and find two short tubular shapes where there should be one long one. The nib remains protected inside the cap but the back-end is open and the cartridge is disengaged, open-ended and oozing ink into my pocket. And onto my groping fingers.

Whatever the ink is, it’s not waterproof on the page, but it is on my fingers. Ordinary soap won’t do. I have to pull out the special bar of gritty Lava® soap I keep under the sink and flay my fingertips until the black marks are a faded grey. My nails will remain rimmed in black for days, as if I was an off-duty coal miner or a grease monkey fresh from changing a transmission.

I‘m used to being inky. I often chew the ends of ballpoints and invariably one will start to leak onto my face so I walk around unknowingly sporting black lips or a blue chin. Most of my jeans have indelible spots around the pockets from sitting on pens or having them uncap in the darkness.

The biggest culprit, of course, is my dip pen.The nib catapults ink when I press too hard. The shaft of the pen is always messy. And each time I prod the pen into the well, the cork bulb above the nib sucks up ink too, right where my fingers rest as I write.  And, because I am an inattentive slob, I invariably bump into parts of the page covered with still-wet ink, then smear it and daub my cuffs.

Failing the test.

Recently a manufacturer sent me some sketchbooks to test out (I won’t mention the brand by name). I liked the size, the binding and the weight of the paper and have filled up a twenty pages this week.

Then I discovered that, no matter how long I leave the ink to dry, it loses its water resistance. The ol’ reliable India ink that I have consumed by the barrelful over the years, is now completely untrustworthy, muddying my watercolors and smearing across the page. The manufacturer tells me it’s a function of the sizing on the paper. Whatever. It’s messed up a lot of pages now and, for once, it’s not my fault.


I guess I should stick to writing on my nice clean computer. Except my printer needs a new cartridge. Here we go.



Child’s Play

Sometimes I want a spoonful or two of sugar in my tea. I want to reread The Wind in the Willows. I want to watch Tom & Jerry. I want to eat Lucky Charms, or a meat pie with ketchup, peanut butter and jelly on white bread. I want to listen to Danny Kaye singing Hans Christian Andersen.

I want to spoil the kid in me.

My childhood was far from idyllic but things from my childhood can make me feel comfortable and free. And that freedom makes me feel creative in a visceral, fundamental way. The smell of paste, the feeling of scribbling with crayons, splattering poster paint with a big mushy brush, they loosen something in my head, the something that binds me to judgment and fear. School art supplies release me from rules and expectations and let me free to play.

I’ve been using materials like these more and more, since I started to explore in my California garage and then spent time with schoolkids in Beijing. I bought tempera and huge rolls of brown paper and Play-Do and sheets of cardboard and started to let loose.

It took work to let go, to undo the handcuffs and shake off the rust, but poster paints and fat cheap brushes helped a lot. There was nothing at stake. I could chuck paint around then toss the results in the trash. I didn’t care. And the kids in China didn’t either. We were just playing.

A couple of months ago, I started working on some projects using these childhood materials I’d rediscovered. I made some videos for an imaginary kid, someone six or eight or ten, to show him or her some cool things we could make together. I turned my thumbs into rubber-stamps, I melted crayons, I made masks out of grocery bags, I made stop-motion animations — and I had a lot of fun.

These videos were the foundation of a new set of lessons that I plan to take with me to Switzerland and Dubai these fall, to work with kids and show them some new ways to play. But they are also a new kourse we created for Sketchbook Skool because playing is something that’s not just for kids, it’s for the kids in all of us. I’ve seen time and again that when grow-ups are given permission to mess around with cheap art supplies, they reconnect with their original creative impulse, that impulse that fuels even the most sophisticated art and professional creative projects. Without that wild child, art becomes business, stiff and academic and overthought, and driven by fear and judgment. But unleashed it can produce anything.

I also liked the idea of creative projects that kids and grownups could take together and inspire each other. And that kids, out of school for the summer, could do on their own to keep their creative flames a flickering.

The monkey fought me a lot as I put these lessons together. What if adults resented being treated like children, felt patronized? What if I looked foolish? Unprofessional? Lost my ‘authority’?

Aw, screw it. I had fun and I think anyone watching the lessons will find some fun in them too — or might want to ask themselves why not. They gave me the same sort of comfort I find in childish things and my drawings and writing have been a lot looser since I started, more open to experimentation, less filled with consequence. I can’t wait to work with schoolkids again this fall. And to see what you make of our new kourses, Playing and More Playing at Sketchbook Skool. Here’s a little preview of the kourse if you’re interested:

Crank up the Chroma

I really enjoyed Ric Burns’ two-part PBS documentary on Andy Warhol. Andy’s color sense was superb and it had an immediate effect on my painting.

I love my new paints a lot and I am trying to use my colors as fresh onto the page as possible. Somehow paint dies on the palette a bit but, when I layer pure colors onto the page, they remain vibrant. Compare this painting of Joe with the one I did with my old paint set and pre-Andy.

This poor critter was waiting for me on the way to work; I have never seen such a bird, alive or otherwise, in the city before. It took me two goes to capture his lines; I also had to remember his color scheme as I only could paint him when I got home in the evening

A Fountain of Learning

As my Rapidograph was still empty, I continued drawing with my green fountain pen. I drew this funny old car against the curb, managing to overcome my usual disasters with angled wheels. The ink in my fountain pen is not waterproof, so I just hit the shadows a little bit with a blue Crayola.

I change the color of the ink cartridge in my fountain pen every time one is empty so the ink is always changing hue. Right now it’s going from black to blue; next up is a vermillion cartridge, so I’ll be entering a sort of purple phase pretty soon.

Ronald Searle is my idol, my spiritual guide, my ideal. Drawing with his tool of choice, the fountain pen, made me want to look at his work again so when I got home, I filled up my Rapidograph with fresh India, opened my copies of Back to the Slaughterhouse and U.S.A. for Beginners and copied some works of the master, Then I drew my slumbering mini-pup, Tim.

New color

For the past couple of years, I have used a fairly good set of Grumbacher “Deluxe” watercolors in a big plastic box. They have served me well all over the world,and I have grown quite used to their slightly chalky hues and know how to mix virtually any hue with the two dozen pans in the palette.
I would compare painting with these Grumbachers to a $10 bottle of Merlot. Certainly not bottom of the barrel, not embarrassing, but I know there’s something a lot tastier out there, probably at a much higher price point. Every time I browse an art supply store, I glance into the locked-up showcase at the gleaming sets of real professional artists paints. They tend to start at about $75 and crest a C-note pretty quickly. Dear, even for a New York gazillionaire like me, and I usually end up shrugging and scoring another familiar old set of Grumbachers for about twenty bucks.

FInally, I caved and bought myself a teeny lovely set of Winsor-Newtons in a leather case for about $75 (they’re cheaper, I now see, on the web). There are only a dozen colors but they are revolutionizing how I paint. I have been using them to paint my #600 series of portraits and they are bright and bold like nothing I’ve used before, pushing me to wilder and wilder color combinations. They are so intense and creamy.
Just a wee dab on the end of my sable is like handling a freshly honed scalpel. A teeny touch and everything changes. I am mixing more and more on the page and forsaking my palette; I find this makes my colors crisper and stronger than anything Grumbacher could conceive.
I am not urging anyone else to use these paints. I know that Roz loves a man named Daniel Smith and that for many beginners a box of Crayola poster paints will get them on the road. But for me, right now, these are the perfect companions. It’s a new chapter, a new virulent sunset to rid off into.

I am now also firmly committed to my .35 Rapidograph. It hasn’t balked or clogged on me much and I’ve only had one brief leaking issue. The line is clean, consistent and yet somehow more liquidy and velvety and creamy than anything a disposable pen can give me. So far, it’s just conked out on me once far from home; I pulled out my trusty green fountain pen with its cheap water-soluble refill and polished off the drawing.

Pens of the Moment

These days, I have quite a nice little arsenal of pens (here each presents a self-portrait), and they are influencing how and what I draw more and more.
First off is (1) my trusty nib holder. It’s a General’s #204B with a cork finger grip area, now deeply dyed with a couple of years of various inks. Despite my collection of nibs, this one is permanently in my holder: aHunt Ex-Fine Ball Pointed (my sight is beginning to go and Jack had to read the tiny letters off the nib) with a nice big reservoir hole. It’s a squishy nib that can draw very fine lines or big fat ones.
(2) came from Venice with my Friend, Tom. The holder is champagne colored Murano glass with steel hardware and it’s a lot more solid and weighty than everyday pen. I like the weight but am nervous to carry it away from my desk. It came with this nib that looks like a steak knife which lays down sharp lines, a little less flexible that the Hunt. In my current journal I am only drawing in browns, blacks and yellows � my main inks are Doc Martins’ radiant concentrated Sepia and Golden Brown and Daler-Rowney’s FW Acrylic Artist Ink. The former is a little more transparent that I always want, the latter is thicker, almost like paint and takes a while to dry.
(3) I’ve mentioned my bamboo pen before. I use it with any ink but most often Sum-i ink in a heavy stone inkwell. It draws all sorts of line depending on how hard I press and feels lovely and organic.
(4) is a Faber Castell PITT pen, brown ink, preferably, S or F, and usually in my pocket. The ink is permanent so I can watercolor over it right away and depending on the age of the pen it can be smooth and creamy or scratchy and textured. I can draw very little broken lines with it or bear down and make dark ones. It’s less alive than dip pens but the best marker I’ve found.
(5) After years of searching, I found a fountain pen I really like. I got it in Italy: a Columbus Maxima and it’s very heavy and silver and cost about 80 Euros. I use disposable cartridges with non-waterproof ink which I can smear with a wet fingertip. At first, I thought the tip was too stiff but I carry it with me everywhere and it had become a good friend.
These pens tell me quite a lot about my drawing at this stage. I like dip pens because they slow me down — I take my time with open bottles of ink and the small load of ink they can sustain. It also makes me feel connected to centuries of artists who worked in just this way. My love of technical pens like the Rapidoliner has ben replaced by a desire for variable lines that give drawings more interest and life.
It’s also interesting to see how my pen choices have changed. Here’s the inventory I did a year and a half ago. The entire original cast has changed.

Technologica Artistica di Roma

So there have been various technical questions from readers who wonder what sort of mountain of gear I have brought with me here to the Holy City to get shit* onto paper and onto this site. It’s an important and pressing issue so I will explore it here in full.
Here’re the highlights: I carry an aluminum alloy Soltek Pro Easel in a calfskin and spandex torsal harness and a Herman Miller folding titanium stool with translucent Cygnus mesh; a 22×30″ Roma Luss Journal re-bound with 300 lb. Fabriano Artistico Cold Press; a full set of Series 44-14 Dan Smith Autograph Series Watercolor Round brushes in Russian winter male Kolinsky sable fur; my trusty 18 Kt rose gold finished Mother of Pearl 85th Anniversary Aurora fountain pen and three different sets of Daniel Smith watercolor pans, each customized for optimal performance under varying heat and humidity conditions.
Oh, and my personal assistant, Franellika, carries a 72″ linen parasol; two Art Bin Ultimate Solutions tote full of miscellaneous markers, pencils, paints, brushes, scalpels, quills, sandwiches, and iced martini fixins; a fully loaded iPod plus backup; a portable library of travel guides, art monographs and r.crumb sketchbooks; and a yellowing skull for contemplation
Back at the hotel, I have two Power Mac G5s (2.7GHz dual-processors) each rigged up to 30-inch Cinema HD Displays and 2-terrabyte external drives; I digitize my drawings with my Aztek Premier drum scanner and run off prints of each page on my HP Color LaserJet 3700dtn Printer. The gear takes up most of the extra hotel room I set up as EDM production HQ but it’s worth it to bring you my high quality art work in the sort of breath taking verisimilitude you have come to expect from this site.
Any further questions on techniques? Please post a comment and/or refer to this profile of my usual gear inventory and inventory of art supplies. Rome-21.jpg

—— *My language may be a little questionable today as I have discovered my new favorite filthy thing: The Dawn and Drew Show, the fucking funniest thing I have heard at least since coming to Italy if not before, and am listening to it on iTunes while I write this)

Art Supply Porn


I didn’t even know I had a great aunt Greta (twice removed). But I was happy to take the call from her lawyer, the executor of her estate. Now I am the lucky owner of a 5,000 square foot studio loft not far from our home.
It is a quiet space but when I open the floor to ceiling French doors, the birds’ twittering can be heard from Central Park below. The ceilings are high, about 18 feet and, but for a few graceful, sculpted columns, the space is open and expansive with freshly painted white walls and well varnished, wide plank floors. The most notable feature is the enormous skylight overhead that floods the room with sunshine on even the gloomiest days.
Greta, who apparently enjoyed my drawings when I was six, also left me an open ended, unrestricted trust fund for art supplies and furniture, so I have been busily organizing and shopping for the past few days.
First, I had my friend Dean help me plan out the space. We covered the eastern wall with cork for pinning up drawings and things torn out of books and magazines. Next to it, we erected twelve foot high bookshelves with one of those sliding ladders. In the corner by the door, I have a seating area with a Mies leather couch (for afternoon naps) and three Eames chairs and walnut stools. There’s a large kitchen and we just had to have some of the counters redone (I love to draw at the kitchen table) and a new fridge with an ice maker installed.
There’s another wall for storage with oak flat files and cabinets for storing supplies. I have two different drawing tables, one of which is a BF23 from Italy and can be angled, and raised with a foot pedal. I have a wooden print rack and several taborets that roll around on the floor and hold pens and stuff. They’re delivering the G5 Mac tomorrow afternoon and the server, which will hold my MP3 collection. Then the guys from Harvey Electronics just need to hook the system up to the Niles Audio AT8700 speakers they installed in all the walls and we’ll have Miles playing in ever corner.

So, off to the store.
Let’s start with watercolors. I want all the colors that Daniel Smith makes, every series, big fat 15 ml. tubes. Then I’m also going to try out a few other brands, so I’ll get all three of the Maimeri sets that Catherine Anderson advertises. I’ve had fun with the Dr Ph Martin’s transparent liquid watercolors I own but I want to move up a notch to their Hydrus colors so I’ll pick up all24 colors they make. I see Schmicke makes powdered metallic watercolors – they could be fun to use in my journal so I’ll take those: rich gold, pale gold, copper, silver and aluminum. Here’s something called Ox gall Liquid; no idea what its for but I like the sound of it. In the basket.
Next, I want the best brushes money can buy. Really great watercolor brushes always spring back to a natural, razor sharp point and I think male Kolinsky red sable is considered the best (they’re made from the tips of animal tails which is mildly disturbing but maybe they just trim off the tip and it grows back like a lizard’s. In any case, I’ll ask the lawyer if the trust fund can make a contribution to PETA or something). Here’s a #14 brush for $311.95. I’ll take three. It’s by Isabey and they’re nickel plated. But the #14 is pretty chunky; for safety’s sake, I should get the whole line, 00 though 12. And, for fooling around with, maybe those Squirrel quills. And a 2″ squirrel wash or two. Oh and some fun brushes: a few of those filberts and fans, a set of lettering brushes and those weird angled tear drop brushes.
I’ll need some good new palettes, the big English glazed porcelain ones. Grab half a dozen. That watercolor bucket looks interesting – it has water basins and palettes inside it and there are holes in the hadles to keep brushes upright. Oh, and this Rinse-Well thing is cool. You fill the big bottle with water, it fills a basin with clean water and when it’s dirty, you press a button and it flushes it into a hidden reservoir. Cute and just $30. I need three. Might as well get this Sta-Wet palette with the lid that seals the paint like Tupperware. It seems a bit fiddly and I can always just get fresh paint but, oh, what the hell… in the basket.
Watercolor canvas? Apparently it has a special coating that takes the watercolor, you can lift off mistakes or even wash the whole image off the surface and start again. It doesn’t rip or shred and comes in huge rolls so you could do paintings that are 4 and half feet by 18 feet! Wow.
I also need loads of Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper. I want to try the hot press too and both 140 and 300 lbs. I love the Canon Montval Field books for journaling but also want to try out these Michael Rogers books with 140 lb. cold press acid free paper. Take a half dozen of each. This Nujabi journal looks good too: 25 130 lb. deckled pages in a Royal blue cover. In the basket. Lots of empty pans and half pans and an enameled steel box to hold them. Some nickeled brass palette cups. Check. One of these steel tube wringers that squeeze out paint. Check. A few dozen empty jars and squeeze bottles. Check.
I’ve never used a Mahl stick to rest my hand on while painting. It’s very Rembrandt looking. In the basket. And a thing called an Artist Leaning bridge, a transparent shelf that sits right on top of your page so your grubby paws don’t get on the work.
Here’s a very cute and must have item, the art traveler, a combination back pack and stool, with aluminum legs and lots of pockets and padded straps.
I like these huge art bins with the casters on them, full of individual boxes that neatly stack. Even a pocket for my wireless phone. Do they have to be such an ugly shade of purple?
I’m getting a huge paper cutter for bookbinding. I am used to the arm cutters (which could live up to their name an sever a limb) but am intrigued by the Rotatrim that rolls the blade along a bar. They have a massive 54″ one here that’s a bargain at just a little over a grand.
I need pencils: These Faber-Castell Polychromos come in a box of 120 colors and , for some reason, a CD-ROM. I like the idea of pencils so sophisticated you need to use a computer to work them. I’ll take the matching Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils too. In a wooden box, just $300 a piece. I’ll also need an electric eraser, just in case I ever make a mistake. These triangular TrioColor pencils looks interesting. Oooh, and these color pencil easels that organize everything in rows behind elastic straps and Velcro closures. Very nice.
I want to try some new media too: Encaustic crayons that you apply with a special electric iron. British scraper board for beautiful cross hatched drawings tat look like engravings. I’ll take some in black and some in white. And foil too. Oh and a set of cutters and scrapers you need to work on them.
No pastels. I never like drawing with them and I never like the look of pastel drawings. Except for Degas. And Lautrec.
Some gold leafing. I’ve used cheap stuff and it’s very dramatic but I’m going for the real stuff this time, 22k Double Gold and Pure Palladium too. The perfect way to class up a humble line drawing.
I’m going to have to order some clay for sculpting but I might as well pick up the armature set, the metal mesh and the riffler tools for shaping. This rotating sculpture stand is cool. It goes up and down and has a little adjustable shelf for tools. And this clay gun extrudes different shapes of clay, like a grown up play do maker, only in steel. Ultimately I want to get a welding setup and a kiln but this’ll do for now.
I love pure pigments, no idea what to do with them, but I want a few jars of them sitting around: Sennelier sells a nice starter set for just $1250 in a handsome wooden box.
I want some gouache to try out for the first time. This Lukas brand looks sort of interesting but I think Roz urged me to get Schminke. Better ingredients, less chalky and dull.
Now that I have all this space, I’m going to do some oil painting. I have painted on canvas before but always hastily, using a dining room chair as an easel and acrylics because they dry fast. I’m intrigued by Williamsburg paints. They’re made here in New York by an artist who based his recipes on research into the paint houses that supplied Monet and Cezanne. I’ll need 150 ml. tubes and the colors go from $25-145 so I should probably get the whole range, looks like about 150 colors. I can’t stand the smell of turpentine and how it gets into everything so I better get some Turpenoid and a citrus based thinner.
Brushes: If in doubt, buy the most expensive. In this case, more Kolinsky Sable. I’m getting a set of flats, of rounds, of filberts and of liners: grand total, a mere $1802.15. Hang on, these color shapers look like fun. They’re silicone brushes which I can use for applying and scraping paint, sort of like more elegant paint knives. But I should get paint knives too. Here’s a set of 60 different ones for $450. Done. Oh and a smock. Here’s a nice black one, cotton, lots of pockets. And though I won’t be getting a beret to go with it, I like this life sized human skeleton made of wood. Beautiful, and look, life sized posable manikins. They have men, women, boys and girls. A lovely family for just about two grand. And a posable giraffe too. Other miscellanea: a reducing glass les for looking at my canvas without having to step back and … duh, an easel, I’ll get two: one for plein air, a french easel that folds up into a little box to strap on my back like Van Gogh did. And then a big one made of oiled oak wood with cranks and shelves and casters. Here’s a nice one, called appropriately, the Manhatttan and it’s just $1707. Greta would approve.
Finally, canvas, double primed cotton duck to start with, and then a roll or two of Belgian linen and loads of stretcher strips and canvas pliers and a really good staple gun. And a few maple panels for painting on too, the really thin kind, satin smooth. Oh, and a Bob Ross video, maybe “More Joy of Painting”.

(This grotesque fantasy of excess was inspired by the arrival of Jerry’s Artarama catalog in our mailbox. In the real world, I ended up buying a bamboo sketch pen, for $1.79).