I first put up some ballpoint pen drawings on this site back in 2009, a whole two years after I started the site at this domain, but I had dabbled with sketching in pen before. I had forgotten how seriously I’d tried my hand at it until a few days ago, when I was flipping through some of my old notebooks. I came across a book from 8 years ago, just before I started this site, and in its pages between scribbled notes about story and illustration ideas, I found that I’d done a ballpoint pen drawing every day for a whole week at some point.
The quality varied, as it does when sketching with a pen and corrections are near impossible, but some of these, like the tiger here, were quite good. I thought I should put these up here and look at them with a bit of a critical eye because my entire series of experiments with pen drawings has been all about improving my skills, and seeing what works and doesn’t as my technique changes. Seeing so many carefully done pen sketches after a long gap teaches you many lessons.
The first sketch done at the time was this very rough collage of elements. Like all these, this one was pieced together from various pictures in magazines that I found interesting, with some vague attempt to make a coherent composition and adding in random graphical elements when required.
This drawing is actually important for all of it’s tentative lines and mistakes. Since I often get into these sustained drawing binges after long gaps of inactivity, the first drawing is always a great measure of how much skills deteriorate due to a lack of practice. The first drawing, like the first paragraph of your first draft in writing, is almost universally bad, but it is essential to put it down to improve and get back on track.
As the days passed, the pictures got better and more sensible in their compositions. The Tiger drawing on top of this post was also done a few days into my drawing marathon all those years ago. There’s much more nuance here and a real exploration of how the ballpoint pen can be used to produce fairly smooth grey tones, unlike my later experiments in drawing with a fountain pen, where the nib and liquid ink allows mostly for discrete and sharp line and clean hatching, rather than smudged areas of shading.
In these later drawings, I can really see my past self letting go of the lines and treating the ballpoint pen like a stick of graphite or charcoal, with a complete disregard for the fact that it produces lines. There’s a nice energy and enthusiasm to these, something it’s not always easy to capture, but practice does lend you that, a certain ordered chaos which makes for good pictures. There’s also the tighter composition and getting much closer into the detail of things which is a good lesson to remember in drawing and photography.
This last in the series was actually done after a fairly long gap, many months and takes a completely different approach, this is more graphic design and layout than drawing, with only the bottle being drawn from a reference and the rest invented. But even in that small bottle cap, you can see the fluidity I’d built up with using the ballpoint pen to draw, from previous sustained attempts.
Looking back like this, at drawings that are almost a decade old is a quite a useful exercise. You get to compare to more recent work, see what you lost and see what you learnt. I can see from these that I’ve gained a lot in line and structure since these drawings, but I’ve lost some of the fluidity. These drawings are braver than more recent ones in some ways, and they also seem to be better observed. In spite of using a pen, the lines and shapes put down are more confident and well thought out. These drawings tell me I need to go back to looking better when I draw.
By coincidence, the same old notebook had a scarp of much older, yellowing paper tucked between its pages. This little doodle of a house is from exactly 20 years before the other drawings in this post, and also done with a ballpoint pen. Perhaps this is the most dramatic version of looking back at old work. In some ways it is so completely different from what I’ve come to be able to do, and yet so much is similar as well.
There’s little value in obsessively saving your old work in an attached sort of way. Frankly, once you’re finished you should care more about drawing the next thing than creating archives, but archives and old memories in lines and shapes are useful in your growth as a draughtsman. You learn and remember things about how you thought then, and comparing it to how you think and work now gives you many valuable insights which will help you improve.
And improve we must.