An art teacher I had a four or five years ago wanted everyone in the class to have a sketchbook and demanded that we only draw in it with pen. His theory, I think, was that we would all be more deliberate and focused if we didn’t have a safety net; that is, an eraser.
As a pencil devotee and a sometimes overzealous eraser user—the kind of person who tragically rips holes into paper when trying to scrub away errors—I wasn’t a fan of this assignment. For me, drawing anything in pen without lightly sketching it out in pencil first, especially something that might be seen or judged, was unthinkable.
I like drawing portraits and capturing the likeness of a subject is difficult enough when I can make adjustments with a pencil and eraser. How would I be able to do it with ink?
I messed up ALL THE time. Even the drawings that I liked—ones that I’d consider successful—were full of major or minor mistakes. The bridge of the nose was too long, the eyes were crooked, the jawline was all wrong, the proportions were odd, the person I’d drawn just looked nothing like the person it was supposed to be.
I found ink to be liberating in a way that graphite wasn’t. I was able to forgive myself for making mistakes with pen because I knew that mistakes were inevitable. When I used a pencil, I would obsess over every mark—erasing and redrawing, erasing and redrawing. But I couldn’t do that with a pen. I embraced the jacked up lips and weird beards as part of the process.
I tried to figure out ways to salvage the sketches. What if I made the hair a little longer to cover up those lopsided ears? What if I colored in the space behind the head to distract from this mangled chin? I saw that it was possible to recover from my mistakes, even when those mistakes were made in ink.
My pencil drawings may be more precise, but the drawings done in pen are more personal. They’re the expression of natural artistic impulses.
When I draw with a pen, there is a psychological shift. I allow myself to be imperfect, I allow myself to fail, and I think I’ve become a more adventurous artist because of that.