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Things and places of the past are the ingredients of many a favorite painting, sketch, poem, and story. A wistful oversimplification almost always goes hand in hand with a nostalgic piece in any art form. One temporarily sets aside all unpleasant aspects of reality and focuses on the remembered—or imagined—beauty and peacefulness of long past moments. One basically provides an emotional glance at something that was, or that might have been if ...
Nostalgia implies pleasant memories of or fantasies about things that will never again be; for instance, the security and warmth of a happy childhood remembered only as a hazy overall feeling when toys of that era are seen, or the imagined comforts of a far less hurried life when old-time photographs are rediscovered, or the rosy image of a place still loved but unlikely to be visited again.
If you travel—either near or far—you have a wealth of sketching material stored in your memory. Places that are imposing, modest, or downright dingy but still hold a special place in your life's experience are great subjects. They are good choices because they have spoken to you, touched you, so that your rendition of them can truly be your statement about something of value to you. The way you capture such scenes becomes your personal nostalgia. It may well touch someone else in a similar manner. This is what all art should be. Interpretations by critics are relatively meaningless; the important element is what the artist felt as he or she executed the work and how well he or she feels the statement was made. If seeing the work touches a viewer's heart, then the work is even more successful. This added success should be considered only a bonus, however, since the basic success is determined solely by the artist.
Nostalgia can encompass a variety of subjects as wide as your own imagination when tapped as a source for sketch ideas. So, once upon a time ...
This is a sketch of a small collection of toys that probably predates most of us. It was handled with a fine pen and, for the most part, delicate line work in order to carry out the idea of softness in the doll's clothing and the bear's fur. Bold pen work would have created a valid but entirely different feeling.
Notice that the doll's hair was created with relatively few strands actually being drawn. The fur on the bear was suggested with a very few fur indications, the fuzzy outline of the bear carrying most of the idea. Compare the bear with the doll's feet, which are comparatively smooth, as is the wooden toy soldier.
Other old-timer subjects would include some old books, an old Tiffany lamp, a steamer trunk laying open, a well bucket, a horse collar and other tack, and so on.
The Old Rural Route
The Old Rural Route includes a number of old-timers—mailboxes that have seen better days, milk cans of a bygone age when people were less concerned with health hazards (and probably worked too hard to be sick), a rail fence long past performing any function, and a tree still exhibiting a rugged, massive dignity, even in death.
The composition is based on a series of overlapping triangles of different sizes, as shown in the auxiliary sketch.
The predominance of old weathered wood in the composition dictated a bold, rough approach to both the outlining and the texturing lines. A heavier pen was used here than that in the preceding collection of toys.
When I sketch a jumble of weeds and grasses, as around the mailboxes and the milk stand, I indicate just enough to carry the idea of mixed vegetation. Too many strokes make it look dark and shadowed in what should be the sunlit areas.
The four sketches on the following pages 1900 in Farmington, Michigan, now a are based on old photographs taken about Detroit suburb.
The Old Home Town
Correct perspective is vital to successful rendering of structures. Whatever method you use, be certain that you eliminate all perspective problems in your pencil sketch prior to starting with the ink. The best way I have found to catch mistakes in perspective is to look at the working pencil drawing in a mirror. This seems to magnify such problems and lets you spot them more easily.
If you are like me, you are never quite satisfied with the exact view presented by a photograph. Almost without exception I change the angle, move the "eye" to a position different from that of the camera lens—perhaps higher or lower, and often considerably farther to the left or right. This is done to include more of some element or another and often to minimize or eliminate the relative monotony of a particular feature. Artistic license is there for you, the artist, to use.
Successfully changing the point of view requires at least a little knowledge of perspective drawing so that you can reconstruct the object in the correct proportion and relationship of detail. One of the best summary explanations of perspective basics—all anyone needs to know about the subject to sketch reasonably well—is contained in the Walter Foster book Perspective Drawing by Ernest Norling, which is available in artist's supply stores that carry the Walter Foster series.
This sketch of Town Hall Tower was taken from a photograph that showed much more of the building, and showed it from ground level. The pattern of the Mansard roof, decorative brickwork, and windows of the tower caught my fancy. I imagined I was up in a "cherry picker", close to the second floor level. Then I created my own composition, using the photograph as a reference for placement and proportion of details.
I used a fine point for the line work in the sunshine and a medium one for the shaded work.
The Steele Mill
The Steele Mill sketch was done as if I was looking across the creek at the building on a bright, hot summer day.
I have learned that when I sketch grassy, weedy patches, less is generally better than more. I try to put a little variety into the indications of vegetation and let the viewer's imagination supply the rest. When showing the bright foliage of a bush or grass that is catching full sunlight I try to juxtapose it with a cool dark tone to work some dramatic contrasts into my sketch. I tried this in the lower left-hand corner of this drawing.
The shaded side of the building has just one door and two windows. This broad expanse of clapboard is relatively monotonous, so when the sketch was finished I broke up the shade by going over it with some irregularly shaped dark patches, rather than creating a fairly uniform tone.
I frequently mention that outlines should be minimized in your work. By this I mean you should eliminate outlines in ink on your final product. By no means skimp on pencil outlines of all detail work, which are erased when your sketch is completed. The better your initial sketch in pencil, the better your completed ink version will be.
Grand River Avenue
Grand River Avenue was the main road from Detroit to Lansing, Michigan, until the interstate highway system blossomed. In the 1870s, as pictured in this sketch, it was unpaved and Farmington resembled a town from almost any motion picture about the Old West.
The road itself must have been unbelievable during a rainy spring. I used a fine pen to show the bumpy, rutted dirt surface. Extremely uneven surfaces like this require a patchy texture of hatch work with the hatch lines lying almost horizontally. The white spaces between the patches indicate where sunlight is glaring off the irregular raised spots. The impression of irregularity is enhanced if in some of the groups of hatched patches the lines tilt slightly to the right and others slightly to the left. This simulates the undulating surface of a rough dirt road.
Where bricks, stonework, etc., are in the shadow, I indicate the details first, then hatch over it all to represent the shaded surface.
McGee Hill Bridge
At this writing the McGee Hill Bridge is still in existence, although well over two decades have elapsed since it was last used by regular traffic. The road has long since been rerouted to avoid the steepest part of the hill.
I picture this as a warm day in late summer with the narrow river quietly flowing under the cool darkness of the bridge.
When I show bright weeds and branches in the foreground against a dark background, as at the lower left-hand corner of this sketch, I work the background lines (in this case, the water) between carefully outlined weeds. Then, having left ample white space for the weed leaves, I emphasize the dark undersides of the leaves and stems. One stroke too many and the weed disappears into the background.
Aim for variety in the size and shape of rocks in your sketches that show them. Don't make them look like a load of potatoes.
The Old Smithy
This is an imaginary nostalgic scene. I like barns, old wood, and some of the clutter I associate with abandoned old rural structures. This was a rainy day exercise in which I used the same basic composition as that on page 73 of my earlier book, Pen and Ink Techniques. In this sketch, however, I rearranged some of the trees and redesigned parts of the barn, but I retained the same general layout. I don't know just what I'm looking for when I do this, but there are several basic settings involving old buildings that I sketch from time to time with some variations in the details—just for my own pleasure and relaxation.
This is another example of rough, undulating ground that calls for patchy, horizontal hatch work. The barn wood in this case was rendered with bold, deliberate lines using a medium pen. The same applies to all of the foliage, which is indicated here primarily in outline or silhouette with a style that is more decorative than realistic.
An Original Billboard
Before highways were constructed to convey traffic on a beeline from here to there, travel was much slower and more scenic. Our billboard blight of the 1940s through the 1960s was an outgrowth of the signs advertising tobacco, circuses, and Doctor so-and-so's pills that were pasted or painted on old roadside barns and sheds like the one shown here.
Such practical old structures are not mere rural curiosities but rather, as Eric Sloane, master penman, painter, and author, said, ".. the shrines of a good life...." As he points out, few structures built today will outlast their builders as the farm structures of a hundred or more years ago have done.
Many old farmhouses were small by today's standards. This was a practical move dictated by the poor insulation and heating systems of the era. Small and practical had to be the thing to minimize winter discomfort.
Grandma's House shows an alternative method of depicting wood when it has not weathered deeply like the preceding barns or the covered bridges that follow.
Generally, if the structure is light in color, the shadows will not be as deep as those associated with a dark structure. A fine pen rather than a medium one serves best in this case.
This is not my grandmother's house; however, it could have been.
This cemetery scene—with its rickety picket fence, tombstones broken and worn by the weather, gravel path, and birch trees—could be typical of any of thousands of such rural burial grounds.
It is interesting to walk through such a cemetery on a pleasant spring or summer day. Many tombstone inscriptions are still legible after a hundred or more years. They bring to mind sad stories of Civil War casualties and, even sadder, they point to the terribly high infant mortality rate of that era. In many ways the "good old days" are better in our imagination than they ever were in fact.
These are our most rapidly disappearing links with a truly rural past. I had the pleasure of living and working in Vermont during the late 1960s. In my three years there I saw three covered bridges burned and one destroyed because of dam construction. The older local Vermonters still called them kissing bridges, always smiling as their thoughts went back in time.
In some areas historical societies do what they can to preserve or restore these bridges, but few of the many thousands that were built still exist. So if you are fortunate enough to live near a covered bridge or to come upon one when traveling, take a second look at a truly nostalgic element that is almost certain to be lost forever in the near future.
Such structures make marvelous subjects for any artist, but somehow they are ideally suited to pen and ink.
The dark interior in the largest subject here was done using a small watercolor brush, blending the ink into the textured dark areas done with pen.
Of the three buildings shown here, the stone one is European and the other two American. I indicated that the dark sections of one covered bridge sketch were done with a brush and ink. The same technique was used on the stone building shown here.
Although this stone building was rendered with both pen and brush, you can simulate the finest pen lines by careful use of a 000 watercolor brush and india ink. The same brush can also give you the heavy, solid dark areas of this stone building. I always keep couple of small watercolor brushes handy with my pens.
Your Favorite Things
Old buildings are always favorite nostalgic themes, but do not overlook other things, such as a favorite rock, fence, or tree. Such an element could hold a memory that is dear to you and you alone, or it could remind you of some fond incident from long ago.
Never overlook your favorite things when looking for something to sketch.
An ancient Chinese Taoist poem states "... all things alike do their work and then we see them subside...." So it is with the rural structures that stand in the way of land development. Sooner or later the way must be made for progress and the enduring old removed to make room for the often transient new. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rural suburbs of twenty or thirty years ago that have become "developed." This means that streets have been paved, homes built, and shopping centers erected; and that service stations and traffic signals have appeared on every prime corner. It also means many other things, which can only lead thinking people to question the real quality of all this progress.
It is sad to watch a once proud and useful barn, like the one shown here, being demolished. If you happen on such a dismemberment in progress, you will have an interesting subject to sketch.CHAPTER 2
Subjects from Old Engravings
Most pre-1900 magazines liberally used engraved illustrations. Many of these are superb little drawings that represent some of the best examples of engraving craftsmanship.
Such fine examples of line work can provide you with endless themes for practice if you take a small detail in an engraving that attracts your eye and enlarge on it. Additionally, engravings can be very useful as studies of how talented professionals handled juxtaposition of light and dark, how they led the eye into their drawing, and—a most important thing to learn—how they "got out of" their drawing. This latter point is learned only after a great deal of trial and error. Just how and where to stop after you have surrounded your center of interest with enough detail to establish the setting is as important a consideration as the basic composition.
Some of the studies in this section were based on some pre-1890 engravings I happened upon. As usual, I took liberties with composition and content after something in the engravings caught my eye and got me going on the sketch.
The reproduction of the engraving I used as inspiration for this sketch was many times smaller than my interpretation. I eliminated numerous other boats and a number of figures when I made my sketch. I was attracted by the many different textures contained in the scene—stucco, brick, smooth stone in the buildings, mud, water, rough wooden pilings and herring barrels, as well as the painted boats.
When browsing for inspiration, do not feel obligated to copy the source material faithfully. That is not the objective. Rather, the primary function of such source material is to provide you with practice subjects. Its second purpose is to point out surface treatments that you might profitably work into your own subjects.
The full tonal range—from solid black to stark white paper—is used here. The dark portions were built up carefully after the underlying detail was established in ink.
The Old Cheshire Cheese
This famous London pub and restaurant is just a few yards off Fleet Street. Until the mid-1970s it had been open to men only and was frequented by newspaper writers. One evening in the 1960s David Ward, a noted opera singer, returned from an extended stay in Rome and burst boisterously into the pub to greet some of his many friends. I was there at the time and had the pleasure of sharing a pint of bitters and some light conversation with this huge, gregarious man in the unimposing, historic men's pub.
Ward told me, "Oh, this is the new Old Cheshire Cheese—original burned, you know—the fire ... rebuilt immediately after."
"What fire, World War II?"
"Why, the Great Fire—1666, you know—destroyed most of London ..."
Excerpted from Pen & Ink Drawing by Frank J. Lohan. Copyright © 1981 Frank J. Lohan. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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