Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Pencil Rules

Most of the artists, illustrators, designers and cartoonists I know start the same way I do: pencil and paper. Sure, there are some fancy pencils out there now, but the technique of choice is still dragging that graphite over the paper. These initial sketches are often scanned, and then cleaned up, revised, worked over and otherwise turned into finished art in Photoshop or some other tool.

It's been 45 years since Ivan Sutherland wrote the Sketchpad program for his Ph.D. thesis, and we still haven't found a computer drawing tool better than pencil and paper for those initial sketches. I'd like to know why not. Why are artists not inclined to do their initial drawings on the computer? It's certainly easier to make corrections and revisions, and it would allow you to preview a more finished looking drawing while you're still sketching it. So what's the appeal of pencil and paper?

One possibility is cheapness. I don't mean the cost of materials. Once you have a computer and software, the cost of making additional drawings is essentially zero. I mean cheapness in the sense that pencil drawings feel like they can be tossed out. On the computer, it's so easy to make things look perfect that I think there's a tendency to be perfectionist even in the early sketch stage. It's just too intimidating.

Another possible factor is comfort. You can sit in any position you like, with any reasonably flat surface in front of you, and draw on a piece of paper. At the computer, even with Wacom tablets and other accessories, you're forced to sit up in a more deliberate position. You can, of course, plop a Wacom tablet on your lap, but you still have to see the screen. Future technologies may make the physical activity of drawing on the computer more like drawing on paper.

One of the big comfort factors is being able to move and turn the paper around to draw at a comfortable angle. If you're right handed, for example, it's probably easier to make the 'C' shape than the 'D' shape. Some tools (e.g., Painter) can do this, and I expect to see it in Photoshop at some point.

For me, one of the things I love about drawing in pencil is accidents ... those little blips, dots, unintential curves and jags and other marks that find their way into the drawing. The lack of full control is part of the charm. (Of course, I may just be less coordinated than other artists!) But that's the part that I find hard to replace ... the haphazard flukes of drawing by hand. When I try to draw an oval, for example, it looks something like this:

Then I redraw it a few times, picking the lines I like and ignoring those I don't. (Actually, the above is too perfect ... I did it in Photoshop since I don't have a scanner handy.) I unconsciously make lines lighter or darker depending on how tentative I feel about them. As I go over the pencil drawing, with more confidence, I automatically darken the lines I like.

Certainly this can be done with digital tools. But it won't be unless there's an economic justification for it. Will Adobe sell more copies of Photoshop if they make it more pencil-and-paper-like?

What are your reasons for choosing pencil and paper or some other tool?

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