Get Started

On Using Pencil then Pen

Looking at how to get started, we have thought about the supplies needed, how to set up a sketchbook, and about creating the first content.

Now for a key idea that has helped me overcome procrastination, whether putting off starting or, just as bad, neglecting to finish, a sketch.

A Sneaky Idea

I begin each sketch in pencil: a quick preview of the overall idea and some brief notes. And sometimes, that's it. I hope I finish later from those few notes.

But often there's time for a more complete sketch. Rather than work on the whole thing in pencil, though, as soon as I see the picture 'working', I pull out a pen and force myself to commit to definite lines.

It cuts out a lot of time and encourages me to look more accurately by committing to the permanence of pen. Sort of scary, like being a beginner driver out on the interstate. But it is a great key to focus the eyes and the mind.

Budweiser Horses

One day, while on a trip to visit family, we had a chance to see the famous Budweiser team of horses. I was in full sketchbook mode on that trip. Which was a good thing, because I needed to be in a state of bravado to take on a sketch of eight harnessed Clydesdales. All those legs and all that gear!

It was daunting. But in my naive bliss I had a go.

I fastened on the idea of attempting just one horse and drew what I saw. The team was about to move off and the crowd was thick around us. I added as much detail as quickly as I could and literally built out from the middle. But what really sped things up: I whipped out my pen and made myself look more carefully so I could draw a sure line. It was intense.

Then the whole team strained against their collars and slowly clopped off and I had to be done.

Budweiser Horses: half of them. Sort of! Michelle Geffken.

Budweiser Horses. How do you those enormous horses on one page?! Michelle Geffken.

I was happy with the results, though notice the suggestion of an extra horse behind the main one. A head ... that has no legs! Never mind. It gets the idea across. Sketchbooker's privilege to leave things out! I suppose it is not so much how the end picture looks but the fact that you try something and learn along the way.

Knowing I couldn't erase anything really focused my attention and sped me up. An SAT Essay version of drawing. Think just enough and throw that thing down on paper!

Library Lions

On the other hand, changing to pen can get you to finish a drooping drawing.

In an earlier post I mentioned a New York City trip one March in which I was too cold to draw much. One sketch I couldn't help attempting however was of the beautiful marble Public Library lions at 5th and 42nd Street.

They were nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by NY Mayor LaGuardia in the 1930s because he knew how much New Yorkers would need those virtues during the Great Depression.

'Patience' I completed in pencil. I liked how the shading was turning out and decided to leave him that way. But now my hands were going numb and I was hankering after hot soup and coffee.

I began 'Fortitude' but he just wasn't coming out right. What to do? I couldn't leave him half done, knowing I'd probably never finish the sketch, and I had a train to catch in a matter of hours, so later wasn't an option. How could my sketchbook have only half of the famous pair?

Suddenly I saw the irony and laughed at myself. I was about to give up on a subject called 'Fortitude'!  The dilemma was solved by resorting to pen.

I quickly went back over the lines I liked. The new darker line and having to choose just one somehow shook me loose from my indecision. I had soon completed at least the basics of the image. Then over steaming tomato cheddar soup downstairs in Grand Central Station, I erased the leftover pencil muddle now that the overlaid ink was dry, glad that I hadn't given up.

The New York Library Lion: Patience. Michelle Geffken. Sketchingbooking you can do!

The New York Library Lion: Patience. Michelle Geffken.

The New York Library Lion: Patience. Michelle Geffken. Sketchingbooking you can do!

So, from these humble attempts, you can see that switching halfway through a pencil sketch, to complete it in pen, can:

  • focus your concentration
  • make you be brave
  • help you to finish.

Thanks to Barbara Stecher for this wonderful tip.