The Good Eye: Drawing with Pen and Ink

Talking Shop about Moebius: #1, I Ink Therefore I am

Here’s a first installment in a series of critiques of the (mostly) pen & ink techniques of the late Moebius (Jean Giraud). I plan to intersperse them with my Snark GN postings, so don't freak out, fellow Carrollians.

For now I’ll focus on his Airtight Garage, a scorched-earth masterpiece in which he rang through almost all the changes of pen and brush, a bravura performance which utterly blew this inkster’s mind when he first saw it in Heavy Metal in the 70s. We could sum up The Airtight Garage as a comix version of the Goldberg Variations, a series of constrained deviations to delight both connoisseur and professional.

Good inking is a performance, frozen in time by the medium of mass-reproduction, and like all performances, it follows rules, overt or otherwise. The Airtight Garage has 3 basic rules:
1. Only two colors will be used: black and white. (1)
2. All artwork will be camera-ready, ie., cleanly inked with no excessive wasted work when reduced (dropped-out or filled-in line-work), no shadows, sloppy pro-whiting, left-over penciling, etc.
3. The final results will be attractive to the viewer.
The last rule is crucial, it is the Prime Directive of the commercial illustrator. In fact, all 3 of these rules are commercial in nature but that’s beside the point for now. What matters is what Moebius added to these rules, employing different constraints upon different pages with results reminiscent of the salad days of Oulipo.
Let’s start with a great page from the AG: number 36. What are the rules of this page?
4. no brush work, only pen and furthermore, at least one pen was a nicely flexible nib (using different nibs on the same page is a double-plus-good inking practice … although using only one nib can also serve as a good constraint).
5. minimal crosshatching, almost entirely hatching
6. a high-keyed lighting scheme, ie., inking mostly in the 0-40% zone of the greyscale, with only a minimum of shadows and spotting. This tonal scheme is one of the hallmarks of The Airtight Garage; Moebius loved the contrast of delicate tonalities spotted with a few judicious dark passages and it gave his inking a solarized feel, an American southwest desert lighting scheme which contrasts deliciously with the French sensibilities of the (minimal) plot. We should also note that, all theorizing aside, high-key inking is often faster to execute.
The first tier sets the tone of the page. The loose hatching on the backs of both the man and the woman semi-serves as a contour function, roughly indicating volume. There's a minimal crosshatching, normal to the long lines and probably done wet on wet. The man’s hatching lines are drifting too far apart to integrate with the white. They are functioning on their own, tending more towards pattern/calligraphy instead of tone/local texture.
There is a ratio between the thickness of an inked line and the thickness of the adjacent white line (2) that when done properly creates an effect I call “petillance”, a sort of optical sparkle similar to the chromatic analogue of simultaneous contrast. The effect works with both hatching & crosshatching but because Moebius kept the AG mostly high-keyed, we see little of it. Petillance works with any line width but rarely below a 40% over-all tone. The amount of reduction also effects it and that should be taken into account when using it.
The Beardsley drawing shown here is a classic example of petillance (a bit dark though, which is not a requisite of the technique) and Beardsley would have been aware of it thanks to the commercial wood-engraving techniques that had become obsolete in his own lifetime.
In page 36 of The Airtight Garage, the girl’s hair in tiers 1 and 2 has nice passages of petillance in them, which is why they look so satisfyingly rich and crisp to the eye. In addition, unlike the man's back, the girl's hatching in tier one is mostly petillant, owing to the tighter spacing in proportion to line width (or vice versa, the white lines are sized in a better proportion to the black lines).
The backs of the figures in tier 1 have locked in the general inking feel of the page. Moebius had a penchant for letting his lines shed their tonal and volumetric function and work in a more calligraphic, patterned manner, weaving them in and out of more tonal hatching/crosshatching. This calligraphic business creates a powerful rhythm on the page and it requires a flexible nib, really good hot-plate paper and most of all, a steady, confident hand moving quickly.
In fact, one could classify all pen work by the velocity of the hand moving the nib. Faster means more swell and taper, more energy and also, more reliance on draftsmanship. Slow is the speed of a more classical and conservative crosshatcher who focuses on rendering volume, shade and texture and eschews the bravura of calligraphy.
Which leads us to the starting rule of this particular page, or at least of the first two tiers:
7. Make lots of optically long lines.
There’s a bit of dashing and dotting here and there and a soupçon of crosshatching but on the whole, the lines in the first two tiers are long and draw attention to themselves, especially by avoiding petillance. Long lines require either slowing down to make them seamless, or, as Moebius loved to do, butting medium long, mono-width, unswelled lines end to end. The hatching in the very first panel shows this butting nicely. It avoids using crosshatching to create the darks and goes straight into a solid spotting. This butting together of shorter lines was a basic move of Moebius’ crosshatching (and most French crosshatching of the time) and when done as crosshatching, it means simultaneously advancing & rotating nib and hand in an orbit around the axis of the implicit spherical volume.
The hair passages in tiers 1 and 2 are not only petillant but also governed by lines of beauty. Note that in the uppermost left-hand corner of the 2nd tier, the man's hair drifts so far apart that the lines tend to cease cooperating with the white, although their natural tendency to revert to purely calligraphic lines is subverted by a loss of curve and swell (3) in certain spots. The lagging of this passage is confirmed by the slight shakiness of the lines; my suspicion is that Moebius was going too fast to bother with turning the page to a more comfortable angle.
NB. On the other hand, just to show how attention to detail pays off, Moebius takes care to make the borders of the whole page petillant, using the classic scotch rule so beloved by those wood-engraving petillistes of yore.
The shorter line-work of the rendering of faces and wall in tier 2 makes a good optical foil for the superb calligraphic passage of the three guards standing in the door. When doing linear rendering at a smaller scale, judicious omission is critical — one is creating a pattern, not tonal volumes — and Moebius flavors the contour lines with delicate flecking and dotting which he also deploys in the girl’s face. Note that most of the minimal marks of her face still cling to the invisible grid of the contour lines governing an implicit and undrawn crosshatching.
Then he moves down and lets the girl’s neck go calligraphic, along with the back of her seat and her shoulders. This panel is quite beautiful, the mixing of techniques creates an infinite depth of field, in other words, Moebius avoids the traditional use of a focal design point and lets everything in the panel come forward all at once. The effect is dreamlike and precise at once.
Tiers 1 and 2 are inked in a somewhat different style than the bottom of the page; down here Moebius speeds up his hand. The lines get shorter and the remaining long lines are really the contour lines, which are far more jumpy than before. One might say that the bottom of the page has jettisoned the long-line rule, in which case, we’ll decide to amend our last rule to:
8a. Speed up on the last tier’s inking.
The bottom of the page is executed faster and reads faster, more energetic and jumpier. The final panel has some very long contour lines (almost naked in their avoidance of thick-thin calligraphy and relying entirely on the skillful negative spacing of good draftsmanship to succeed) but most of the linework is fast and “stabby” with the nib. Note how the spotting of black shadows in the first panel of tier 3 is so nervous that the white flecks go petillante, which gives the lighting scheme that classic Moebius solarized desert feeling — even indoors!
The reason for this change of rule? Who knows … pressing deadlines? Some unexpected Lebanese Sunshine? A hot date for the night? I think we have here another axiom of our art-as-performance-game, an axiom which eludes some critics:
9. Be prepared to go aleatory. Stuff happens, finish the page no matter what.
Perhaps Moebius sped up on purpose or perhaps he just got distracted by something, we’ll never know. In any case, we clearly see his hand speeding up but still remaining accurate.
One of the paramount qualities of Moebius’ inking style was the dominance of the hand. His physical pleasure in drawing shaped every line, every panel and every page. He reminds me very much of Velasquez or Rubens at their best (which was superhuman), where the brush movements revealed their total immersion — and joy — in the visual story. (4)
The long line rule is a basic move in inking and Moebius tended towards it more and more in his career until he entered a genuine clear-line phase for several years. It should be pointed out that his draftsmanship was so good that this was an inevitable development. Technique is mastered to be thrown away at some point and I think he felt that clear-line would satisfy this zen-like rule. Alas, not only was the garage airtight but his draftsmanship seems to have been so innate that he could not throw it away. (5)
More to the point for us lesser inking mortals is that fact that the long line rule is essentially a calligraphic move. At the foot of the page Moebius slips into a faster mixed tonal-calligraphic mode with a nervous, shorter line, but the calligraphic still dominates. As a French inker, Moebius was well aware of the classical line tradition and for the French (as opposed to the German/Dutch tradition) it really begins with the calligraphic, not the volumetric attitude.
To round things off, let’s have a sample of hatching with a long-line and without significant petillance from Albrecht Dürer, the Renaissance master who perfected and standardized the two poles of line-work: the fast-calligraphic-hatching pole and the slow-tonal-crosshatching pole. Quite an accomplishment and more to the point, both styles still attract the jaded 21st-century eye (see Rule #3) and reproduce well (Rule #2) at a minimal cost (Rule #1) when done properly.
We are all Dürer’s children, even Moebius. Different technologies allowed the latter to greatly expand the rules of the inking performance-game but both men relied on this final, most important inker's axiom:
10. Draw, don’t just ink. And remember that you’re drawing with white.

(1) Moebius used zipatone on a few pages but technically, it’s still black. Anyone who’s ever shot photostats or film negs will confirm this to any readers who want to quibble over this point. Stipplers may want to weigh in also, if there's any of them left.
(2) The white of the page is not an empty space; it’s the equivalent of the black ink. Never forget that you are drawing with white at the same time as you’re drawing with black, and oftentimes you’ll ink better in tricky passages if you keep your eye focused on the white — not on the black — as you ink.
(3) That is, swelling the line-work not by pushing on the nib but by drawing another line very close to it, often merging into it and sharing its curve.
(4) By visual story I don't mean the conceptual ideas and symbols, but the purely nonverbal meaning generated by the visual structure and components of a picture: its 2D vocabulary, grammar and syntax. This is the quality which delights what was once called a “good eye” in the business and it is the heart of good draftsmanship — not mindless realism or slick technique.
(5) Was this because his draftsmanship and personality were the same? A fruitful subject for the introspective pen-ster with a taste for existential inkery. The very word draftsmanship is so misunderstood these days, it seems to be mistaken for having a camera-eye or something similarly dullard. Draftsmanship is a translation of reality into movements of the hand which speak pictures in the eye's native language — not the language of words or dull habit or style.
NB. If you're interested in the late 70s/early 80s comix & SF scene in North America, including the French Wave of Heavy Metal, there's a very fine blog here … Nicollet, Loustal, Caza, Moebius, plus the great Paul Kirchner, Chaykin, lots of journeyman SF cover art … I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some Nicole Claveloux and a bit of B&W Bilal


Talking Shop about Moebius: #2, On a Clear-Line Day, You Can See Forever

Last week’s look at page 36 of The Airtight Garage was such jolly fun with its talk of constrained rules and Goldberg Variations, I’m determined to carry on in the same inky vein with a look at page 77 of Moebius' Garage.

I mentioned then that Moebius went through a clear-line phase before returning to his (cross)hatching habits but I should have been more precise: he went to a relatively orthodox clear-line phase, for he already had a modified clear-line "house" style of his own which he used with great effect, especially in the AG. He had several variations of the style and on page 77 we see an excellent sample of one of them. The first specific rule of this page (always bearing in mind the first Three Rules: keep it black & white, camera-ready and pleasing to the eye) is:

4. Use supple, relatively fast lines to render contour and explanatory texture.

This is the fundamental principle of the clear-line style, as practiced by such masters as Hergé, Joost Swaarte, Ted Benoît, etc. Its commercial appeal is obvious although it has one catch: it requires thorough draftsmanship to execute well. Needless to say, Moebius had no problems in that department and his clear-line, both in the AG and his later “minimalist” phase, was eye-popping.

His hand — never forget the physical testimony of the hand! — moves fast on contour then speeds up and down on detail, lightly varying pressure upon the nib to create swell. The whole page looks all-nib, with some lines twice inked to reinforce the rule of thicker towards the foreground & edges, thinner towards the back and centers.

Even when the smaller lines look mono-width, they are not. Look carefully and you’ll see the ceaseless, minute waxing and waning that a dip pen gives to the line. Inkers who use Rapidographs lose much in line energy, much more than they gain in convenience. They are often forced to keep lines shorter so as to not betray the spindliness of extended passages.
The line breathes when one uses a flexible nib, and when the hand is fast and confident, the result is lively to the eye.

This is a conversational page, talking about shape and texture at a brisk (but not hasty) pace. The pen flirts at times with calligraphy but moderates the ratio of line thickness to white space just enough to avoid the brush & ink corporate American comix look. The latter style, which is often a clear-line style, tends to flex the line severely with mixed results.

The problem with hard-core clear-line, especially black & white clear-line, is that the lack of detail often bores the eye after a while. This is a violation of Rule Three (always make the page attractive to the viewer) but Moebius was a law-abiding inkster. To keep the eye happy, he modifies the clear-line by:

5. Rendering lots of detail with anything but explanatory hatching

There is far more detail rendering here than in any page by Hergé or Benoît. Yes, there is slight hatching to indicate a few shadows but generally, the pen is in a bas-relief mode of thinking. Volumes are indicated by rendering around their outer edges or even leaving them blank and rendering the space behind them to make them pop. The rendering itself is mostly texture and sub-contour and the former is often a sub-species of the latter.

The background of tier 2 is technically brilliant. Note that it's optically registering as a minimal 20-30% on the grey scale, ie., the classic Moebius high-keyed look but sans spotting & shadows. Note also the faces of all the figures in all the panels. Clear-line usually symbolizes faces (at the expense of realistic backgrounds) but Moebius has taken care to make each face spare but precise, using the language of figure drawing, not cartooning. The difference is subtle but essential.

By normal clear-line standards, the entire page — and the backgrounds in particular — is over-inked. But look carefully. All the marks are still contour, they are all explanatory, they are all well integrated into the white. There is no risk of confusing the eye, in fact, the opposite is happening, our eyes are enjoying the visual patterns of obsessive detail because they are firmly grounded in optical reality.
Our eye loves realistic contour even more than the convenience of orthodox page navigation — confusion is attractive if it is done just so. The total effect is a pleasing optical confusion of foreground and background such as we saw on page 36. Rule 5 (which operates to satisfy Rule 3, the satisfaction of the eye) has been further modified to:

5a. Make everything precise and dreamlike at once by maintaining an infinite depth of field through obsessive detailing.

Note also the lettering scheme of the last 2 tiers. The lettering is so muscular and supple (and with a brush, the show-off!) but without balloons the morphology of the writing melts back into the semiotic ooze of marks which spawned it. I guess even the words are not really there, either.

This drive to detail, this French-fried chicken-fat, was one of Moebius' deepest impulses. When he went orthodox clear-line, he also made several statements in print about wanting to shed these obsessions but in the end, he went right back to them. The horror vacui was a basic element of his style, even in clear-line, and style is an expression of personality. Moebius was an honest stylist. The Airtight Garage is a
genuine self-performance.

The game of art is the game of personality and obsession and desire. Aesthetic and structural rules encourage the deeply seated, collective human language of picture-making to speak clearly through the trained hand, without useless visual solipsism.

On a more practical level, if you're clear-minded about yourself and your obsessive goals, your style will sort itself it out. Above all, avoid passing fads and short-cuts, they encourage character weaknesses and will literally stunt your growth.

The clear-line style is ancient in commercial illustration, it dates back to Greek vase painting and East Asian block-printing. Let's take a look at one of its first appearances in mass-produced Western commercial book illustration, the
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Here's several page spreads by an anonymous artist, along with some sharp type-setting by Aldus Manutius, that old slicky-boy of the composing room. Note that all three of the basic rules are in full form here, in both type and ill0s.

The clear-line of these illos is not as over-rendered as Moebius' baroque variations but it is equally effective. The general aim is still the same: dazzle the reader with a stripped down but compelling approximation of optical reality. There's more about the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili here and guess what? It was constructed according to various obscure constraints of a symbolic and allegorical nature, rather like The Garage.

Constraints and rules! They are the inker's friends, not their chains! Accept the hermetically sealed confines of your own airtight garage and feed your head!

Talking Shop about Moebius: #3, I ink the body electric

The Airtight Garage started off as a bit of a larkish bagatelle but as the book progressed, Moebius employed more and more stylistic & technical variations: fast vs. slow, chicken-fat vs. clear-line, etc. But it’s in the very first section, the Major Fatal prologue, that he really played his hand, as we gambling inkers say.

I have to confess that page 10 is one of my favorite pages in the entire AG. It’s a classic example of direct inking, where the penciling is minimal and the inking is mostly improvised on the fly. Such a strategy compels the inker’s hand to show its stuff without resorting to any stylistic subterfuge and is not for the weak-hearted and handed.

The rule of this page (and yes, the first three rules of black & white camera-ready art that pleases the eye are still in force) is zen-like in its simplicity:

4. Ink to reveal the hand, not just the objects being rendered

It’s all about the hand, its presence on this page is overwhelming, much more so than in most commercial work Moebius (and other illustrators) did. Until several years ago, most book & high-end magazine work preferred a crisp, slick surface. The hand was usually hidden behind a Potemkin village of polished, impenetrable marks and on the whole, readers seemed to prefer it that way.

The Major Fatal prologue was a bit of a reaction to this. On page 10, the hand shows itself everywhere — but never clumsily. And it’s not just the obvious scribbling on the man’s face in panel 1 or the nervous foliage in panel 3. The entire pattern created by the hand’s movement leaps forward to create a nervous tension on all levels.

Panel 2 is exquisitely well-inked and deserves careful study. The background has vanished and we’re left with a brilliant, fast passage of contour drawing on horse & rider. It is so fast that we can see the delicate marks of the half-lifted nib whenever it changes heading. The nib is omnidirectional, it’s rounded enough to move spontaneously in all directions, unlike more precise nibs which catch and “sneeze” ink when moving too fast.

This gives the hand free rein to manoeuver and also allows the physical liquidity of the ink to flavor the rendering. That is to say, the ink blobs and crawls a bit (and each brand of ink behaves differently) whenever the hand’s impetus overwhelms the nib’s inertia.

The movements are economical, the nib leaves the paper as little as often, note the liquid parsimony of the man’s splayed hand. The description of the horse’s head perfectly breaks up the positive & negative spaces and then the pen goes down the neck, first hatching from 1 o’clock to 7 o’clock, then squiggling nervously and executing a half-spiral before exiting that passage.

Here’s an overlay explaining this. It also shows the same rapid, automatic movement of the hand that has rendered the man’s face in panel 1. The whiskers are grizzled with nervous scribbling while the eyes & nose are perfectly described with furious hatching.

This sort of fast, unthinking and rhythmic angling of a nib around a spherical volume not only describes an object; it’s also provides an immense, somatic pleasure to the inker’s hand. It feels right. The pleasure of movement is the key. The experienced hand’s muscle memory renders such angling passages with gusto. And as I've mentioned before, this "stabby" spherical movement was the foundation of Moebius' crosshatching technique, a technique which we'll analyze in a later posting.

I mentioned the stylistic Potemkin village before. The inker’s hand is often hidden behind one and to be honest, it’s not such a bad thing after all. This writer, in his own inking, has deeply immured himself in a byzantine, utterly impenetrable Potemkin village of inking. Perhaps one day I’ll venture out and mingle with the local mujiks but for now, I prefer my hand to remain hidden. The somatic pleasure of intricate crosshatching has its own peculiar intensity, in particular when rendering the long serpentine arcs of deeply spherical volumes at obsessive length.

It’s important for modern inkers to remember that not only are they entertaining eyes but that they are doing so by making a unique hand-made object. Electronically shuffling numbers and facts in the digital Potemkin village of virtual reality pays better but the mental and physical pleasure of highly skilled manual labor has its own rewards. The mass reproduction of these objects is a subject unto itself but for now, the point is understanding how Moebius built his success upon his hand, upon the specific marks and general patterns that its movement made upon the page.

His performance was not only conceptually stimulating, it was also physically grounded in the reality of muscle and nerve and steel and paper and ink. The Airtight Garage was a mental and physical performance on all levels.

Finally, here’s two examples of pen work which show the hand. I apologize for the da Sesto’s quality, my main reference library is 600 miles away and I must rely on the internet for these drawings.

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink

Cesare da Sesto, pen & ink

These are pen and ink performances from the early Renaissance, one in the Italian style and one in the German style. I usually choose mechanically reproduced examples (to match the three rules of The Airtight Garage) but this time I wanted to show the naked hand, so to speak.

We artists work in a world obsessed with creating perfectly commodified virtual realities which disdain the ethos of the skilled hand — for both commercial and conceptual reasons, I fear. But the airtight performances of Moebius — they dance elegant rings around the clumsy shambles of these latest re-inventions of our human reality.

The rhetoric of the hand, it's a resurgence of the Baroque aesthetic, in essence, and it re-affirms the power — and utility — of drawing happily. Ecce homo faber!

NB. One other thought has occurred to me regarding the stylistic display of the hand in inking: the use of Rapidographs & felt-tip markers. There are many inkers who do excellent work with the latter tools but this curmudgeon must confess that he harbors the sneaking suspicion that these artists' work would be even better with dip pens … the mono-width nib doesn't really show how one's hand has pushed and pulled and scrabbled about on the paper with the nib. The convenience is outweighed by the reduction in stylistic options. Crosshatching is deadened, the hand-heavy style is restrained and as for clear line with Rapidograph — the horror, the horror!


Talking Shop about Moebius: #4, Ink Lightly into that Dark Night

Inking is a physical performance in which the extreme polarity of the marks being made allows little room for fuzzy thinking or clumsy action. One must be precise and accurate whether one's moves are bold or delicate, and in the latter mode, Moebius was the undisputed champion. Not many inkers can keep things so quiet yet energetic, as Moebius did when he was in the mood.

Here’s page 30 of The Airtight Garage and after 34 years, it still makes this inker seethe with a happy envy. It is a performance governed by a simple rule (in addition to the 3 Prime Directives of camera-ready, eye-pleasing black & white line art):

4. Toujours délicat — always delicate!

This page is an homage to the expressive powers of a crowquill nib handled with care. Each panel retreats backwards in point-of-view, shedding detail but always staying crisp and balanced and detailed at the precise level needed to maintain continuity and attract the eye further. The breakup of white space is completely interlocked with the lines, the spotting is perfect — in fact, there is little one can express with words to do justice to this performance.

Note the petillance in panel 2; the woman’s hair is an optical eye-sink which perfectly balances the spotting above her. Also note that on this page, Moebius tackles one of the great technical challenges of any inker: realistically rendering disparate textures in the same page. In panel 1 we have the delicate flesh of a woman (more about that in a moment), the short-napped fur of her jacket collar, the rougher masculine flesh of the hand pointing to her, the burned edges of paper and even the brass screen of a hash pipe with ashes in it. In the next panels we have hair, pearls,, shiny fabrics, a puff ball of sorts and even smoke.

Nothing makes an inker sweat harder than tackling lots of different textures in one rendering, it requires careful choices in choosing one's marking system so that the entire assembly makes sense in the end. If, for example, one over-renders the female’s face, then everything else usually needs more rendering to stay in tune and this may skew the tonal design. If the cigarette smoke had been crosshatched (as Moebius does on other pages of the AG) then the fabric it floats over may need more rendering to keep up visually.

In other words, when rendering disparate textures, the decisions made with the lighter textures set the tone for everything else and when one then considers lighting and modeling (which Moebius ignores here, the scamp!), things can get tricky.

The delicate touch of this page smites this inker’s heart mostly keenly in panel 1, which we see blown up here. It is a bible for crosshatching in the first quarter-tones of the grey scale.

I mentioned that Jerry Cornelius’ face is rendered in the feminine style, ie. when inking women, always maintain a lighter touch and avoid modeling. Supposedly, Moebius used Patti Smith as photo reference for this face, I don’t know if this is true but no matter, he rendered her perfectly. The hatching describes the spherical volumes in the classic Moebius “stabby” short pattern with the classic Moebius 90-degree crosshatching in judicious passages.

Two additional points: first, Moebius has broken one of the Prime Directives here, the linework is dropping out slightly. I’ve seen several different print runs of this page and they are not quite up to snuff. He made the dots and lines of this passage too delicate and they are dropping ever so slightly. This is the danger of delicate crowquill work and this is why most fastidious, delicate cross-hatchers work at same size or very close to it. No reduction minimizes the dangers of sloppy pre-press, digital or photo-neg. It also reduces the sheer amount of labor required in covering the page with obsessive marks.

I know that Moebius had a fetish for inking bigger and bigger at one time in his career; I do not know the original size of this page and if any readers do, please let us know. My gut feeling is that this page was reduced too much — not that it was subjected to sloppy prepress.

The other point is one that seems to perplex some younger illustrators & comix lovers. Using photo reference is a perfectly healthy and useful practice for the illustrator, it is not cheating or “faking”. Before the camera came along, professional artists (ie. illustrators in modern parlance) used models and drew from life, often keeping these drawings in collections which were used as reference by other artists in the studio. When photography came along, they began collecting photographs of appropriate subject matter and continue to do so even now.

The danger of photos lies in their over-use by developing draftsmen, who unwittingly learn to copy the distortions and omissions of the photographic process and thus stunt their growth. Photos always lie in subtle ways and the experienced draftsman learns to correct them without conscious thought, simply by using his good eye.

In any case, despite the dropping of lines, panel 1 is an amazing performance. A delicate mood is maintained despite the wide span of tones and textures being rendered. The crosshatching on the face is classic, it demonstrates the natural evolutionary growth of stippling to hatching to crosshatching.

The delicate touch is a learned touch, it requires the hand to perform at the very edge of its physicality. Moebius mastered it after years of practice and used it to great effect in The Airtight Garage and elsewhere.

Let’s see an example of Albrecht "Big Daddy" Dürer in the same mode, a detail from his Fall of Man engraving. This sample has been blown up considerably and shows a consummate mastery of the stipple-hatch-crosshatch progression executed with the most demanding — and expressive — linear tool ever devised, the engraving burin.

I urge students of inking to visit the site that I got this sample from, it’s a massive blow-up of the engraving from Google and the MOFA-Boston. 75% of everything you need to know about classical, long-line spherical crosshatching is in this engraving. It's all in the hands, baby.

Moebius performed with pen and ink and paper, Dürer performed with steel and copper and engraver’s ink but the song remains the same — a woman’s face, a brass screen, a fur collar — it's all the same melodic, physically-inflected line. If it feels good (to your hand), it's good.


My Illustrative Process behind The Gentleman: #1, A Slap in the Face 


Instead of the usual Snark blather, I think that a process post would make a nice change. I recently did 17 illustrations for Forrest Leo's novel, The Gentleman, just published by Penguin/RandomHouse, and here's a look at a full-page I did for Chapter 2.
The novel is a bit hard to classify, which is always a good thing … a multi-homage to James Cabell, P.G. Wodehouse, various steampunk illuminati and even such recondite corkers such as The Diary of a Nobody and Augustus Carp. Set in a slipstreamed 19th-century, the story involves the romantic intrigues of a young poet who has accidentally consigned his young bride to hell. There's lots of steam-powered ornithopters, pistol duels, satanic visitations, cool Victorian womenswear and more to my point, both the author and the editorial team (Ed Park editing, Claire Vacarro art directing) were keenly aware that James Cabell's illustrator was none other than the late, great Frank Papé.

That posed a conundrum for this illustrator. Papé tended to go for a very Symbolist handling of his material and although Forrest was certainly working the same Cabellian vein, he had wandered off in a more Victorian steampunk direction. I felt it best to emphasize the Victorian feel with a faux wood engraving style of rendering plus a more sedate Victorian style of design. Melodrama on a stage within a defined picture frame, that's the way they liked it back then. Which is where this process post kicks off: the initial thumbnail concept for a scene illustrating the young hero-poet being soundly slapped by his angry sister in the presence of their much-suffering butler.

The Victorian illustration is a theatrical picture space, ie., no funny angles or odd positioning of actors, just a 3-D volume seen head on through a normal picture plane, as if we are in the front row seats. Hence the reaher sedate composition of this thumbnail. Emotion would be concentrated in the sister's about-to-slap hand and also in the books literally flying off the shelves, The scene is set in the hero's library and that was a major theme of the novel: it was a novel about many other novels (and poems) and I wanted to emphasize this visually.
The text box at the bottom was for Claire's initial idea of running a title cartouche at the bottom of every full-pg illo, in the true Papé spirit, an idea she later dropped. In any case, the main thing was the thumbnail was clearly Victorian in feel and gave full scope for lots of Easter eggs.

I'd like to note that this thumbnail concept was probably the 4th or 5th idea I had for this picture, it's really important to not be satisfied with your first or even second idea, it's usually best to sleep on it and come up with more ideas, for several days if possible and eventually, things will work out for the best. This is the great advantage of book illustration, you have the time to think at length. And nap between thumbnails, that's always nice, plus lots of tea, that goes without saying.

After approval of thumbnail, I did a tight pencil on vellum, focussing only on outlines. Sometimes I do a value study, usually in Photoshop atop a scan of the pencil but I didn't on this picture. On reflection, that was a mistake on my part. In any case, Ed and Claire seemed happy with this pencil and as far as the values went, there was only one possible solution: a background of about 40%K, going from light to dark as the page descended to create a  theatrical effect (something Gustave Doré often did to great effect) and everything else high-contrast, with shadows about 75%, a few midtones at about 25% and sufficient blown-out highlights.
This pencil was about 20, 30% larger than my final inking, which I did from a reduced scan of the pencil. That final inking was still about 15% larger than the final print version. My eyes are tired and my hands arthritic, every square inch hurts. I ink on denril, a synthetic vellum, with acrylic ink, using dip nibs, on this job, Gillot 1950 for the tight lines and Brause 66EF for the heavier lines. Really tight hairlines were done with a Hunt 104. I use a floating, illuminated magnifying lens while wearing a specially prescribed pair of coke-bottle lensed glasses designed to magnify at 20 cms. I like to ink very tight and very clean. When this job was done, I had some posters made of the art for promotional purposes, the inking easily blew up to 400% while looking very crisp and optically balanced.

Using dip nibs is mandatory for serious, complex inking and any inker who thinks that they can get away with felt-tips is only kidding themselves, their inking will always lack snap and energy. The constant swell and contraction of the dip nib conveys the movement of the hand and wrist, which is the essence of good inking. I also avoid using scratchboard for the same reason, the scraper blades cannot flex, giving the line work a mechanical feel. Sometimes that's necessary but frankly, I loathe it. As for digital inking … my opinion of it is unprintable.

Here's the initial inking. I had deleted the snakes with my electric eraser (another advantage of using Denril, it's easy to erase and re-ink), they simply weren't working. In fact, the entire drawing was not making me too happy, it lacked energy. The slap in the face was lost in a maelstrom of lines and shapes. It was time for a painful re-evaluation of the situation. Also, half-way through the inking, Ed and Claire realized that my rendition of the sister's face was not quite right for the text. I was making her too tarty and too old … ah, middle age, when all romantic hullaballo is but a sound and fury signifying nothing.
But they were right, she wasn't quite on the mark. Every book you illustrate involves a drift away from the text towards your own ideas on the same material, and sometimes that drift works and sometimes it doesn't. In any case, this picture was a problem child (the fact that it was the first picture I inked was part of the problem, you tend to warm up conceptually and physically as you go along).

And so, dear reader, I cropped it. Thank the gods of obsessive inking that I had the extra space and size to make it work in the trim size. I also inked a new head, can't remember if I did it on this drawing or a separate piece of Denril, but in any case, here it is: A Slap in the Face, Redux.

The butler gone, the serpents vanished, the sister had a face-lift and I had tossed away several painful hours of inking (I estimate about 24 man-hours for the whole page) but now things were pulling together. I had sacrificed the faux Victorian feel for a more modern crop but it had salvaged the picture's story and that is the bottom line in illustration: every line you draw must have a genuine function. It must advance the story and also serve a necessary structural purpose. Inking to fill space is a heinous affront to the gods of freelance, they like your pages to work hard for the money. The more you put into the page, the more it gives back to the reader and that makes for happy readers and happy editors. When everybody is selling less for more, such strategies pay off handsomely.
To sum up for the jury, every line must have a purpose and every white space also. The primary purpose is narrative, the secondary is optical pleasure, which is the same thing but on a more visceral level. Never hesitate to spend extra time on a picture, no matter the client. Do a lot of thumbnails, pencil thoroughly to cover all inking contingencies and no matter your inking style, take the time to make it look the best you humanly can at that moment in your development.

On a final but inevitable mercenary note, if anyone wishes to purchase some of the original art for this book, drop me a line … mahendra373 at hotmail dot com. Support the arts by supporting my need to nap and drink tea between inking bouts! Aye, work is the curse of the inking classes. 


My Illustrative Process behind The Gentleman: #2, I Ink Therefore I am

Another process post for one of the 17 pictures I did for Forrest Leo's novel, The Gentleman
Books about books are always fun and The Gentleman is very much about other books: Dante, Tennyson, James Cabell, the entire  Beerbohm/Wodehouse cabal, it's all grist for this particular literary mill. Which brings us to Chapter 6, where the two main protagonists meet for the first time. Naturally, they meet in a bookstore whilst drinking tea (what else?) and it's not any ordinary bookstore, it's Tompkin's Bookstore, an emporium of all that is recondite and obscure and generally very cool about books and reading.

Here's my rough thumbnail, final pencil and final inks for this chapter … a stonehenge of biblioliths from which the inventor Kensington emerges, lit by a single spot, in the approved Gustave Doré manner.

Like certain North American chain bookstores, Tompkin's Bookstore also sells the usual accessory tchotchkes and fanfreluches, but not of the dreaded scented candle type, no, Tompkins only offers the finest oneiric baubles and creatures that dreams can buy.

And dreams are really what books (and books about books) are all about. They are the universal, biological template of storytelling and more to the point, they are stories told by the same person that they are meant to entertain, a recursive ploy similar to drawing a picture for a book-about-books.
Pretty heavy stuff for a book about sending one's wife to hell but I draw 'em as I see 'em, with eyes wide shut.


  1. I the Moebius entries and the Gentle Man studies!

    Amazing stuff, Mahendra!

    1. Thanks, Martin. Any reader lurking here who loves genuinely mordant satire needs to read Martin's Encyclopaedia of Hell. It is required reading for the damned.