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Monday, September 20, 2021

Where Great Art Was Carved By Hands

Above and Two Images Below, Examples of Wood Engraving from 1842

 Pen and Ink the Master Stroke


Someone’s devoted effort of a scrapbook again lights a way to understanding how movies were sold forever ago. Pen and ink as ad basis would be lost as progress of printing went hand in hand with expulsion of silent filmgoing, high contrast black and white drawings for newspaper promotion given way to photographic rendition of show folk being promoted. “Halftone” broke up an image into black dots on a white background, or white dots on a black background, these to achieve “a credible simulation of a photograph.” Where dots were small enough, they would not register to the human eye, but could be detected where the image was examined close. Reproduction in a newspaper was sufficiently poor for halftones to get by, but none flattered subjects of a so-called photo, certainly not in comparison with pen and ink, dynamism a given where the artist was capable as most were at the time. Pen and ink in hindsight seems a lost art sacrificed for no good reason. There were those who’d say as much for voiceless storytelling, that argument made and lost as amusement choice were made for a public rather than in concert with their wishes.




Pen and ink ads, seen but infrequent after the very early thirties, seem another category of lost art, or so I thought until search for P&I at You Tube found a fresh generation holding torch aloft for what might be thought a technique gone forever. These artists don’t just fan-follow, they apply and instruct, having devoted creative lives to recapture of pen and ink as preferred format of expression. I wound up taking a YT art lesson of my own, made to realize (no surprise) that pen and ink drawing is no cinch. “What I don’t know, I sure as hell can learn,” says William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, though Pike would surely be let down by my failure to make a go of what they call “representational art.”

Here, and Samples Below, of Pen and Ink Art That Was Photo Engraved


Photoengraving enabled pen and ink to spread through magazines and newspapers during the late 1800’s, having crowded out wood engraving, a hands-on and labor-intensive process not to last beyond a turn of the century. Photoengraving wasn’t easy either. You had to draw the ad or image, then trace it onto a metal or copper plate (those seeking a cheapest way chose tin), apply wax, ink, felt-like cloth or soft pads under heavy rollers. An engraver generally took over for these steps, as they required levels of expertise and repeated application of technique that artists for the most part lacked time or inclination to master. To draw an ad seems effort enough … but what came after daunts me more. I’ll not ask to be reincarnated as a printer, let alone an engraver. Precise work that, complex and exacting from start to finish. Nothing so requires patience and an eagle eye, not even the initial creation of an image. One could as easily transfer a restaurant menu to the head of a pin. Even explanation as given by the videos confound me. Were I not so enamored of pen and ink art, I would probably give it up as a bad job, or one completely beyond me.



One thing’s sure: distance between executing an ad and seeing it published was flush with hazard, two dozen ways to see work spoiled by a careless engraver, mishap printing, art shaved off for theatre policy or to promote another show at the expense of whatever you drew for. Long as a man got paid, then no worries, for it was all tomorrow’s fish wrap, and who ever confused movie ads with art? (Me, that’s who). There’s a chapter in The Art of Selling Movies about pen and ink ads. I called it lost art then and my feeling since is more so, especially as increased number turn up in album searches and amusement sheets yellowed with time. So much precise application of infinite gradations of pencil, then “color” that was black ink as realized in newspapers before fuller color could be reproduced on pages. Black-and-white for ads made a same argument for artistic primacy as movies using the same process. You got more mood and effect from those stark contrasts than any alternative proposed, deep-etched portraiture of star favorites more dramatic than dot depictions to diminish most if not all of them. The You Tubers made pen and ink look doable, if not simple. You have but to master line shading, hatching and cross-hatching, “scribble-doodle,” contour and cross-contour, and stippling --- and from there split atoms for an encore. Anyone might learn given talent, patience, concentration, proper tools, and did I say talent? This is where I stumble, kind of like last year when I tried to take up “Pickleball,” a venture I’d recommend to anyone who’d like to recapture joy of ninth-grade P.E.




I used to draw at school … comic strips, monster heads, flip books. My desktop was briefly a mural celebrating the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, which surely our sexton regretted having to wipe over. There was then a spark for art if latent and put aside since. Real drawing is one tough nut it seems. Tricks of pen and ink are spice on essential course that is composing a face, mission I’ve accomplished but for eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, and overall shape of the head. Way to live best with yourself is not to take up drawing unless there is ability, instinctive or otherwise bred-in, to build from. My effort was applied upon John Gilbert as he appears in His Glorious Night. I know not the most basic tenets of portraiture as demonstrated by a first pencil draft, then a next done on reflection of the failed first. Pen-ink artists knew what I clearly do not, pity being they aren’t here to guide me. Does one begin by shaping the head, or doing the eyes, then setting the hair and jawline? A chicken or egg argument, and I can’t figure which is correct. Maybe it comes down to individual style, and I’ve not found mine.


Contrast Milky, Dot-Driven Halftone at Left on this Ad, and Vivid Pen-Ink Rendition
 of Emil Jannings at Lower Right


Back in elementary, there were those that took art lessons from a lady up the street from school, pupils wanting to be there but slightly more than for piano instruction also thought necessary by parents wanting to raise offspring proper. I never got the lessons thanks to predisposition to draw Batmen, werewolves, what not, though piano did claim me, if briefly, and best forgot since. An artist is born, not made. Those who illustrated for a livelihood came by it on their own initiative, so says ninety-five percent of bios I see of those who became career artists. I’m inspired by magic woven from pen and ink ... Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, each aware from beginnings of what they were put on this earth to do. We could all hope to duplicate them, but such gift comes to but precious few. Just to try, even if it’s to realize you haven’t got the stuff, is help toward appreciating the remarkable skill these artists had, and what the rest of us might aspire to, or maybe just enjoy the more for realizing how easy it isn't to draw well.

5 Comments:

Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

As applied to movie poster art, hand-drawn representations held fast into the early 1940s -- mostly employed by smaller companies that couldn't afford more expensive typography and halftone printing. PRC's early graphics relied heavily on pen and ink, and Monogram sometimes used illustrations concurrently with photographic posters (the posters for The East Side Kids' GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE had photographic images, while those for the subsequent BOWERY CHAMPS had drawings). The even lower-budgeted reissue purveyors (Astor, Atlantic, Guaranteed, etc.) favored hand-drawn art as a matter of policy, until they could afford more sophisticated techniques.

Twentieth Century-Fox used illustrated portraiture as a matter of style on its posters. The faces of Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Laurel & Hardy, etc., were usually seen as very accomplished paintings or drawings.

11:14 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have collected a lot of these hand drawn newspaper ads from newspapers from here and Latin America. My favorite is a double page newspaper in full size from Argentina promoting the release of THE IRON MASK featuring an impressive Douglas Fairbanks as D'Artagnan. It is quite possible that the best artist ever doing newspaper ads was Osvaldo Venturi from Argentina. Since most of the films that his work promoted were reissues, he had to come with new illustrations that are still impressive and usually much better by far than the original artwork (his poster for Anthony Mann's THE BLACK BOOK is high quality unlike the lousy one issued in the United States). Venturi also prepared the black and white artwork for newspaper. His work is personal and recognizable. Somebody like him is really missed today.

12:32 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

It's bad enough to be humbled by the talent of old artists. It's staggering to contemplate the sheer time and labor you describe here, especially when you look at an old magazine or newspaper overflowing with marvels like Little Nemo and Hogan's Alley.

During my days as a newspaper advertising copywriter it often fell to me to assemble ads and pieces when our artists were swamped. This was just after the last Linotype was hauled away and pagination was beginning its slow evolution to desktop publishing. Very rarely attempted to draw anything, but had to finesse clip art, weak photos, and wrong-scaled halftones into something suitable for publication. Today all my hard-earned tricks and more can be done on a smartphone, but I remember sweating to put a border on a photo with tape and an exacto knife, or lining up presstype letters, or working with a proportion wheel, hot wax, and other now-extinct equipment. And I was doing simple stuff compared to the real artists and composing room crew, who had skill and experience but about the same tools.

After a few years of typing out codes for fonts, type sizes and formatting into a funky terminal and hoping the mainframe computer would produce what I intended, still remember how exciting it was when the first primitive Macs displayed exactly how a piece of text would look. And of course my tribulations were zero compared to what it took to put Charles Dana Gibson on a page.

There's a scene in "Charlie Chan at the Circus" where Number One Son, smitten with a pretty contortionist, admires her postcard photo under his father's microscope. Was he the first movie character to blow up a halftone and miraculously see detail rather than dots?

2:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on prior exposure to vintage, pen-and-ink, art:


Years ago, I had a bound volume of issues of The Illustrated London News from the 1870s, a gift from my sister one Christmas.

The binding was battered and falling apart, but the pages themselves were printed on good quality paper—not the wood pulp that discolors and becomes brittle—and remained surprisingly fresh for all the passage of time.

The text was heavy and dense but the illustrations giving the magazine its name were abundant and often stunning. Here were the images of personages and parades, of plays and pantomimes, but what set them apart, even from the photojournalism that LIFE would later be celebrated for, was the emphasis brought by the artist to the subject. His was not merely the telling moment or composition of a photojournalist—he had more control than that—but rather each detail was selected for its importance to what he wanted to convey, or else it would not even be there.

In looking at these illustrations, then, I was not only seeing a rendition of a scene, but the expression of an attitude that was in kind with artist and audience. For this period in British history, it was one of celebration by a nation which had not been involved in a serious war for many years but which was almost daily expanding its empire and the sometimes-benevolent reach of its rule. This was found not only in the subjects, the viceroys and marching troops, the dark hulls of warships beneath their cloud-like sails, or the gentry and aristocracy in their fancy dress, strolling down promenades or attending the derby, and of course, in the image of the Queen, but in the heightened perspective from which they were seen or the refined proportions of face and figure, more easily rendered by the artist’s hand than the camera.

So far as the artists were concerned, here was grace and power and gentility, a lordship worthy of being exercised. This also was the way the readership would see themselves, as being part of “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” For each, it was something deliberately chosen, to the exclusion of that which was not a part of it.

I enjoyed having the book, but later gave it away to some children I knew, also as a Christmas gift. I was later given to understand that they enjoyed the articles on their birth dates, in seeing what the scene was like then, more than one hundred and forty years before, and in looking at the pictures. As to these, they no doubt would have appreciated the strange beauty they possessed, when this was yet another distinction between that time and our own.

11:26 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

If it's any consolation, the second attempt does look a lot more like John Gilbert. You can always tell people the first attempt was Lowell Sherman!

7:00 PM  

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