Posted by Dave Kopperman
One of my lifelong passions is comic books – reading them, producing them, and trying to encourage others to experiment in this most democratic of art forms. This is an excerpt from a letter to Kalliope, a former student of mine, on my youthful development. It was written to help assuage her anxieties about inking her own work. Reading it back, now, I’m struck by how much it talks to the struggle with discipline and craft – even the core necessity of it – that every young artist goes through.
A little note of explanation for those not pen and ink savvy: “Pigma” pens are Japanese-made pre-filled drawing pens that come in different widths. Many young pen and ink artists (and even older ones) like them for their convenience, cleanliness, and portability, and they are what Kalliope was drawing with at the time. “Radiographs” are mechanical pens with a small ink reservoir to be refilled. “Hunt 102’s” are common pen nibs, and widely popular in the comics industry. It should be noted that much of this conversation on tools is mooted by the advent of computer drawing tools, and combined with improved printing techniques (or lack of paper printing in the first place) inking is no longer necessary to ‘trap’ colors in four-color comics. But the craft remains popular.
“Comic book inking is like anything else worth doing: it takes practice. And I don’t consider myself particularly accomplished NOW, but I assure you that the purely physical act of learning how to control the tools went a long way in refining my sense of aesthetics – a feedback loop of the best kind.
You’re twelve. Now, bear in mind that I hadn’t inked with dip pens until I was eighteen, so you’re about six years up on me. I first inked with Pigmas (which I didn’t like because the line was soft and fuzzy and oddly brownish), and then moved on to Rapidographs when my primary interest was doing highly detailed architectural drawings (ala David Macauley). In my late teens, I really got addicted to those thin, unchanging lines. But when I was a freshman at RISD, Walt Simonson stopped by and gave a brief private lecture in the Illustration offices. And I can’t tell you how valuable that day was, because I learned more about actual tools and technique in that half-hour with Simonson than I did for the rest of my four (well, five) years there. And it was he who told me about not only the Hunt 102, but also the Ames lettering guide.
BUT: I was already pretty far along in my feel for ink by that time, so starting with the dip pen I already knew how to cross-hatch, and etc. I worked with the dip pen for a few years, but I moved on to brush before I graduated from RISD (followed by a few years of indecision of which tool I preferred), and now really just like to use that. I suspect I’ll just move on to smearing the ink on with my fingers next, and then the nice doctors will come and bring me back to my cushioned room.
Pigma, Rapidograph, 102, Brush. It was a natural progression, and one I’m going to encourage you to try. When I originally laid out the agenda for the class, I’d sort of assumed that I’d have people who already had worked out some of the technique I was teaching, and my job was to help them refine it. When I realized that most of the class was going to be a lot younger than what I envisioned, I still chose to keep the tools as is, with the idea that showing kids what the tools (and ideas) were, even if they first found them a little daunting, they’d at least know what to aim for in the years ahead.
You’re too hard on yourself and can’t see how advanced your work really is. In terms of content and storytelling – and visual panache, you’re well ahead of the curve – and, again, far, far ahead of where I was when I was 12 (or are you 13 now?). But, still, you haven’t yet quite got the romance of ink, the feel for it, and I think that the thing to do now is to move yourself through the progression of tools to build your confidence in working with it. Keep in mind that the 102 and the brush are only one option – there are plenty of professionals who use entirely different tools altogether (witness the chapter on inking in McCloud’s “Making Comics”). So maybe your goal isn’t even to master those two tools in particular, but to find tools that you feel an affinity for.
My early attempts at inking were just pitiful. Much, much, much worse than anything I’ve seen you do. I don’t know if you were there for the classes when I brought in my early comics. I almost hesitate to show you because the stuff from when I was 12 and 13 really makes me look like I might have been – well, developmentally challenged. But it might be worth seeing a few samples from when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, etc., so that you can see what incredible leaps are possible. Without, I assure you, much in the way of anything that could be considered ‘work.’ It’s just the natural, freaky growth and expansion of the mind and talent at that age. I suspect what will happen is that you’ll look at my work and say, “Jeez, I’m WAY better than he was!” Which means in a very short time, you’ll be way better than I am now. At which point I’ll have to disown you.
I think you can bypass the Pigmas, but let’s break out the Rapidographs and see what happens with that. And with you and I working directly together, we can really focus on some specific ideas for inking that you can easily master. It’s all tricks, you know. Just being smart is 99% of the battle.”