Fifty Shades of Beer

Posted on Tue, March 19, 2013

I’m a black & white artist. It’s just easier that way. And sometimes lots harder.

When I made the switch from respectable employment to art, I did so precipitously. There was no time to master any of the painterly media. I had to go with what I knew.

What I knew was the ballpoint pen. It had been my companion through nine years of higher education, and most of my lower schooling, too. I used it to write, to draw, to pry open stuck desk drawers, to puncture soda cans when the pop-top popped off. I had used a ballpoint pen for so long, on so many pages of lecture notes and patient charts, that I already had a permanent groove pressed into the middle finger of my right hand.

And after nearly thirty years of drawing professionally, I’m still uncovering new potential, exploring new technical and artistic possibilities with a common ballpoint.

My wife (a painter and portraitist) rankles whenever I speak of my reluctance to work in color – especially since I always refer to the color that isn’t really there in my B&W drawings.

“What are you working on now, honey?”

“I’m drawing a bouquet of anthuriums. Trying to separate the bright red from the dark green leaves in the background.”

“It’s all just shades of grey, dear.”

“Not in my mind.”

That's the challenge of the shadowy media (charcoal, graphite, ink)  - to represent different colors by subtle changes in tone. White is white, and black is black (unless it’s a shiny black, then part of it is bright white), but red is black, too, as are the darker browns, purples and greens. As long as these colors stand alone in a design, there’s usually not a problem. Put two or three of them together, and things start to get interesting. Add shadow, or texture, or both, and you find yourself layering tone on tone in an already saturated palette.

That's why the current project has been so demanding, and why I’ve left it sitting on the drawing board for months at a time.

Six beer bottles, seven glasses. My job is simply to make the eye 'see' clear, green and brown glass, and various shades of amber beer from pilsner to stout, using only black ink.

She tackles such problems with colored pencils and paints – with tremendous results.

I approach them more with fear, trepidation, and as much avoidance as I can muster, followed by brief forays involving short, stiletto-like stabs with my pen before rushing back to the safety and comfort of Facebook and video games.

I mean, really - a ballpoint pen is good for making skinny lines. It's not so good when you need smooth, even areas of tone. That’s what paintbrushes are for, or spray cans. Crosshatching is easy enough with a pen, sure, but who wants a beer that looks like a haystack, or a bottle that looks it’s made of scratched glass?

The answer is to proceed with a combination of patience and practice (neither of which is my forte), and a willingness to experiment. Fortunately, stubbornness is a good substitute for the first two. Curiosity fuels the third, and I’m always interested in what’s about to happen, even if it terrifies me.

So I forge ahead, hesitantly, eventually embracing the probability that I’m going to screw up the picture completely, and will have to start over from the beginning. Once I’ve accepted those parameters, experience takes over, and success (or something close enough to it) is achieved in a halting series of successive approximations:
I'm still challenged by the ballpoint, and amazed at what I can continue to squeeze out of it. There may be color in my artistic future, but it will always be surrounded by alluring shades of grey.