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The Vintage Inkwell Academy

Brass Tacks

Come on in and take a seat class, this post is going to get down to the brass tacks of vintage art instruction. In this post we begin to explore tips, tools and I’ll be sharing some more rare and valuable educational references into the TVIA Library. At The Vintage Inkwell Academy, the instructional style and content are predominantly derived from tried and true classic training techniques from a bygone era. Some refined techniques and tools used will try and preserve this source knowledge as much as possible. However some of the curriculum may have been updated to accommodate either lost/undiscovered knowledge or newly upgraded techniques.

The goal will always be the same however, and that is to provide vintage, genuine-article resources to produce and develop better artists. So if you want to know what and whom Lou Fine, Reed Crandall, N.C Wyeth and J.C. Leyendecker studied to get their skills honed razor-sharp, you’ve come to the right place. Other than publication aids rarely used such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to move content into the digital world, we will never talk of using drawing tablets, stylus-based drawing or anything like it. I’m not knocking their use, this is just not the aim at the Academy. This is strictly organic, old-school techniques that would be lost if not documented and preserved here for any who are interested.

To me there’s a vibrancy, spirit and expression that’s lost in straight to digital drawing and a whole lot of foundational technical training missing that produces the effect that works like the old masters achieved. It’s simply too clean, and too sterile and detached. There’s life, energy and style in those lines and the old artists poured themselves into each of their works. They transplanted themselves into the heart and character of their subjects to bring them to life and it shows. Take some moments and examine these work of N.C. Wyeth and Dean Cornwell look closely and study the form the style and emotional vibrancy. The flow of the line, the brilliant composition that guides the eye exactly where it should land and for just how long it should dwell. The subtle interplay of light and how it plays against shade to shadow to bring the work forward powerfully. N.C. Wyeth’s work isn’t just colour and line… it breathes… it lives! It engages and draws you into it’s world where you can feel the heat and cold, smell the scents of that environment; where you are a standing witness to the scene transpiring live.

Sea Captain painting by N.C. Wyeth
Sea Captain by N.C. Wyeth

Draw from Life and Set Goals!

As much as you can, always draw from life and if not, then fall back on photographs. But nothing is as good as drawing from live models! Do not use other drawings as references as they will pull you away from YOUR interpretation and you will only be imitating the original artist’s vision. Carry a sketchbook with you to work and try to get in some gesture drawing when you can. Keep a medium-sized clip board with blank copier paper next to your couch or bed. When you find yourself watching a movie on TV you’ve seen multiple times, capture this drawing opportunity. Start sketching faces of all kinds you see on the screen, in all manner of emotive states (silent movies are great for this). Also try and capture the essential gestures of wild movements of the character’s figure, making sure to exaggerate their actions on paper to dramatically increase the vitality.

Always put vitality and pull the spirit of the motion and emotion into the drawing! The great thing about this type of exercise is that it transforms a typical waste of time into an opportunity to progress your skills. The images are not static and move quickly which begins training your mind to imprint the action mentally and then draw from this. You are NOT trying to produce finished drawings during the exercise and are merely trying to capture the essence of motion and emotion live. Do the drawings suck? Who cares?! That’s not the point, this is a skill building exercise which will produce results if you are persistent. It amalgamates speed training, eye-hand coordination, memory image imprinting, as well as incorporating what you are and have learned in your anatomical and figure drawing education. Is this easy? No, not at all. It takes practice and concentration until it becomes second nature, if it was easy then everyone would be doing it. Not everyone has the aptitude to drive the stimulus and momentum to succeed at illustration, it’s long, hard committed work. For some more inherently gifted, it may come easier but if you have this powerful need to express yourself through art then that is enough.

Imagine young Lou Fine, his left leg crippled by an earlier bout with Polio, which prevents him from joining the frenetic play with his peers. He sits gazing out of his tenement window sadly taking in all the playful action he sees but is he himself is unable to participate in. Instead, he uses all that pent up energy and fire to learn how to draw. To express all that action he sees before his eyes on paper over and over, refining it each time and pushing past frustrating mistakes. With whirls of stylistic fervor Fine depicts all the intensity movement, explosive energy and agility that he physically was unable to do, but instead beautifully articulates it all through his work.

Modern life has too many distractions and mounting responsibilities, so you must clear them away and create time in order to progress. Drive through all distraction! WHAT IS YOUR GOAL? Analyze, unpack it and write it down, then stick to completing each one you define, or you go nowhere, and have only yourself to blame. Make what you need to achieve your top priority in all things and put away the nonsense of the world. Don’t permit it to shift your focus in any way when time is your own. Make your mind up that this is what you NEED to do and commit to this idea with all due energy. No one has this energy all of the time and there are times where you won’t want to do anything as work has drained it out of you. This is time you need to dig deep down and overdrive that feeling by drawing, reading or doing something to progress your artistic mission. Always be moving like a shark, ALWAYS be moving forward… keep moving FORWARD. Brilliant illustrator and painter N.C. Wyeth spoke of times where he arose in the morning and didn’t feel like doing anything artistically for the day. He pushed himself to the task and before he knew it he said he’d be up and producing better than he had thought he would achieve. This might help, below is an inspirational image I created that I printed, framed and hung up in my studio. If you think it might aid you as well, then feel free to print it out and do the same.

Inspirational message, feel free to save, print-out
and tack up in your studio as a daily motivator

“No rules, just tools” — Glenn Vilppu

Just what does this eloquent phrase by the great artist and teacher Glenn Vilppu mean? Simply that in illustration or any creative medium for that matter, there are no hard rules, nor should there be any. For the driving force in creativity and expression is freedom to try, fail and keeping at it until your style emerges and your inner dynamics are conveyed through art. However, in proper art instruction there are logical rules of structure and anatomy that must be adherently followed like a bird learning to fly. Once the foundation has been mastered to a degree of proficiency, then the imagination and your specific vision must be granted the freedom to express itself to your audience. For this is your signature that defines your vision and promotes it before all the world. You’re merely providing your audience the lens to view what you have captured in a moment, to tell it’s story in imaged visual form.

Tools’, are defined by the instruments used and deftly manipulated with your amassed skill to communicate form, shadow, light, emotion, spirit and very importantly… weight. Compression and extension of masses against one another, twisting and turning with energy to produce action and contrasting reaction. Your eyes and hands are tools as is your imagination, ever as much as T-Square, pen and pencil are. The tools are the messenger conveying the dream you imagined and bring into existence. How frustrating it is when that message is trying to be told but the tools are not up to the job. How humbling that experience ever is and the only method of correcting it is to learn and practice. The object of practice as repetition is to open those new mental and skill pathways and provide the vehicle of expression formed from what you have learned and digested. It’s tedious work to be sure, but from it you are getting better and the rewards will come via your dedication to your craft.

Let’s look at it from the aspect of playing a video game, where initially everything is unfamiliar at first. There are rules and certain skills you must use to progress through the game and as you do so, the repetition becomes mental and muscle memory. Instead of struggling through the movements of the game pad and navigating the on-screen challenges, it instead becomes easier. Now you don’t even think about the movements anymore, they just happen by rote mind and muscle memory. Now the task focus becomes the game using creativity and resourceful imagination to accomplish your missions. The whole enterprise went from daunting and sometime frustrating to flowing, engaging and now absolutely compelling fun.

Art is Expression, Enter into it’s Flow

Image of Donnie Yen as Ip Man exerting his Chi'i
The expression of any creative art lies in it’s ability to flow like water.

The secret? It’s just perception and how you look at things. In Chinese martial arts, learning and repetition is to humble oneself in the universe to harmonize with Chi’i, the life essence, the essential flow. Art is very much the same and if you’re resistant, arrogant, frustrated, you will never enter that flow and become one with it. You have to submit yourself to the calm, the flow that enables the Chi’i to course through you and express itself creatively. You know when this happens, because it resides inside of you and once you sublimate the ego barrier you allow that Chi’i energy to flow along with all you have learned. It just happens as natural and undeniably powerful as when one falls in love. You allow you to take your place for a moment within that universal force and use it to express yourself creating art. Now the next time you go to draw and that resistance and apprehension surface, stop, relax yourself completely and change your mindset and perception of it. Approach it like the video game, just breathe in, turn some flowing music, be calm and just let it flow. The artistic content has no delusions of where it needs to be, so take yourself out of it’s way. Just allow it to take it’s course through your mind, your heart and your hand. Trust in your talents and let them play out as your feeling, your expression onto the medium. What are you trying to create? Be that thing, realize it’s dimensions, it’s inherent life and convey it’s sentiment artistically.

Let’s talk Tools!

Bristol Board Size
In Golden-Age comics, original art is drawn on Bristol Board primarily as it is very adaptable to the medium of India inks, washes and coloured inks or marker. The size of dimensions of the board’s the artist drew on was 12.5” X 18.5” which I feel provides a bit more landscape in which to explore your vision than the modern size of 10” X 15”. I’ve used many brands of Bristol Board and like Strathmore Series 300 and highly recommend it. I favor the plate finish rather than vellum which I find too toothy for me personally, but it really all depends upon your preference and the type of art mediums you are using. I find it best to buy the 19″ X 24″ size and cut it down to the size I require which gives me 2 sheets per page.

Image of Strathmore Series 300 19" X 24" Plate Finish Bristol Board art pad front
Strathmore Series 300 19″ X 24″ Plate Finish Bristol Board

If you plan on using brushes, the one most recommended is of course the renown Windsor Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brushes for it’s point resilience, ink retention and stroke accuracy. The most common sizes used in comic illustration are #0, #2, #3, and #4, but again there is no hard rule, and you should try whatever suits your needs artistically. Personally I like the performance of the Kolinsky brushes made by Raphael as I feel the quality of Windsor Newton has slightly diminished within the past few years. Bottom line is that it doesn’t come down to the tool as when I first started, I was using the more affordable nylon tipped brushes and learned how to control the line and dexterity required to utilize a lesser quality brush. Lou Fine originally used the cheap Japanese brushes stingily bought by the companies he worked for and learned to bend them to his will to produce his masterpieces. You can work with any tool by acknowledging it’s limitations and quirks and make it work for you ultimately.

Image of Windsor and Newton Series 7 brushes with different sizes
Windsor Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Brushes

Pen Nibs
Originally way back when the major tool of choice in cartooning was pen nibs such as the old stand-by Crow Quill pen and the versatile Gillott #170, #404, #303 and #290 Speedball B6, C6 and A5 tips are the best for hand lettering and produce very satisfying results with practice.

Image of vintage Gillott Ink Nib card
Vintage Card of Gillott Pen Nibs
Image of vintage Speedball Ink Nib card
Vintage Card of Speedball Pen Nibs
Chart of Ink Pen Nibs sizes
Assorted Pen Nibs and their diverse strokes

Ink is not inert, it’s the life blood of any pen and ink illustration, taking it from framework and imbuing it with vitality. It commits the passage from idea, to form to detailed inked dimensions. The pencils are the conception but the ink is the birth! Long established has been the use traditionally of using India ink for draftsman rendering. There are many India Inks out there and I’ve tried many. For a while, I swore by Higgin’s Black Magic as the best there was until they started greedily watering down their product. Then I had to resort to the trick of leaving off the cap for up to 2 days to in order to condense the ink to usable opacity. I finally gave up and moved on to Speedball Super Black which is a dense, rich and opaque bliss that I highly recommend for this type work.

Image of Speedball's Super Black India Ink products
Speedball’s Excellent Super Black India Ink

Vintage Colouring methodology was performed manually using Dr. Ph. Martin’s coloured inks which back then were not light-fast much less waterproof. These problems have now been surmounted with their new line called Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay India Inks which come in 2 diverse sets. Set #1 is the standard recommended set which should produce most if not all the colour variations you’ll need. Set #2 is more of a selection of warm and cool colours in the spectrum, so you can purchase one or both if so inclined. Except for the possibility of using Photoshop for some modern effects, I personally abhor digital colouring and find that instead of enhancing the work, it often makes it a distracting, confusing mess. The colour is off too, it’s too bright and garish rather than muted and allowing the interplay of the story and illustrative content. It’s too clean, sterile and impersonal often trying to emulate cinematic effects that fail due to the lack of variations of light and shadow to produce atmosphere. It’s the mastery of atmosphere that drive the visuals and you can see this clearly in the early works of Michael Kaluta or Bernie Wrightson.

All that being said, I’m keeping an open mind to hoping that digital colouring can evolve into something new, alive and vibrant. This YouTube clip by Nathan Lumm impressed me towards the realization of these new possibilities and it honestly made me reconsider.

Comic Book Coloring Tips and Tricks Episode 10: Old School Style by Nathan Lumm

I still feel it’s a bit sterile and asked myself why, then it came to me. The life is in the revelation of the errors, the imperfections are what adds the life. You can take an exact pencil drawing of an N.C. Wyeth painting and colour/paint it in Photoshop and it renders it lifeless. Take that original same Wyeth and examine it closely, note the differing textures on canvas, the color values he used to produce organic dynamics of light and shade. Take in each stroke used to depict the figures, the background and the emotional content within the scene, then back away and view it from a medium distance. Now what do you see? The pictures come alive with what Wyeth infused of himself consciously and unconsciously into the work. This is the difference! You must, must must always put yourself into your work, define the character you are drawing and become them on paper to drive the emotional content. This is the realization of full expression into the work that compels the audience to take notice, You catch the eye and hold it, then guide it to all the important nuances that connect with and move the viewer.

Well, there’s the bell class, see you next time. Before you go I want to extend special thanks to Neil McAllister of who’s got some very cool, writings and resources. He was magnanimous enough to share a resource that we’ve added to our Library on the Comic Creation Process. Also, I will be opening the TVIA Art Gallery up this Spring 2020, so that anyone using these tried and true methods can share their work, if interested, just hit me up through the Contact link. Do not be apprehensive of where you are now artistically, we all start from the same place and it’s only the destination that’s truly important.

Your homework is in the Library in the top menu, and for education and inspirational fire I recommend you read The Teachings of Howard Pyle and An Evening in the Classroom of Harvey Dunn. I’ve also added some absolutely vital, vintage anatomy instruction treasures to our TVIA Library to learn and practice from, so check them out!

See you all soon…

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