Drawing always came easily to me. It was a skill I must have inherited from my father, as he was always good with both watercolor illustrations and posters promoting our school events.
As he moved into retirement, he rediscovered watercolor painting, often gaining his inspiration from the rugged coast of Maine that he and my mother would visit annually.
I was the kid in elementary school who had zero difficulty whipping up maps or posters to enhance my grade in history or similar classes. My parents would buy the poster board, and I would use illustrations from hardcover atlases and encyclopedias as my inspiration to create colorful learning tools.
Markers soon gave way to Speedball pen and ink sets. This transition from color to black and white was epic, at least to me. The sharp steel tip of the pen, dipped in jet-black ink, could do wonders on the correct type of paper. I could scratch across the surface and sketch the way one sketches with a pencil. Shadows could be filled in with solid masses of ink while the skill of crosshatching gave depth to the illustration.
This is how I discovered that paper had “tooth.” Basically this refers to the texture of art papers, made to be stiffer and have subtle textures. Glossy photo paper, for example, has no tooth at all, and I soon discovered that ink sat on top of it or rolled right off. It was not possible for it to soak into the paper and dry.
At around this time, my father gave me several pages from an already outdated booklet he had that was created by a cartoonist. I think his name was Nick Nichols, and if I could find one of those pages today, I think I might frame it.
These lessons offered simple steps to enable anyone to draw a face or create a funny character. The genre was very ’20s or ’30s and never included color or excessive details. The Nichols look was stark but accurate – and humorous.
I took art classes in all four years of high school in place of more practical courses such as physics and chemistry. Other guys took art because their grades were not good enough to successfully complete science and math courses. I, on the other hand, believed that I would become the next great commercial artist, although I had no idea what that would entail.
When it came time to consider college, I felt extremely confident in submitting an application to the Rochester Institute of Technology. After all, RIT cranked out some of the best artists and illustrators working for newspapers and magazines.
Applicants were required to attend a portfolio evaluation with a faculty member. I rounded up numerous sketches, paintings and informal illustrations, but faster than you can say “Hindenburg,” my hopes went down in flames. It was the worst of times, and it was the best of times.
I ended up going to Monroe Community College and successfully completed a program that helped expand my knowledge of photography, gave me new outlets for writing, and also allowed me to draw cartoons for the school paper. Some called it an extra two years of high school, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I can see myself rediscovering the beauty of pen and ink drawing in the near future. I always enjoyed its precision and simplicity. The finished work is seldom larger than the cover of a magazine, so it is extremely easy to execute and display.
Conversely, I have no interest in any electronic means of creating illustrations.
Thanks go to my dad (who would have been 95 last week) for steering me along this path. He never realized his dream to be an artist or illustrator, but he did draw some nice sketches in his World War II scrapbook.
Take that, RIT.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.