This past winter I spent the majority of my time in the studio working on large scale ink drawings, ranging in size from 22″ x 30″ to 29″ x 41″. Ink has always been a great sketching medium for me. I discovered it my sophomore year at RISD in a drawing class in the painting department. I had been working so intensively with charcoal during my freshman year that charcoal was starting to feel stale and dull. I liked the cleanliness of the ink, and how it had the potential to be sharply graphic yet also intensely atmospheric at the same time.
I began doing ink studies two years ago on a very small scale as a means to planning out compositions for the oil paintings. However,in discussing and showing my work to colleagues and friends, I found that the ink drawings were starting to take on a direction of their own and that perhaps they were worth pursuing on a different level.
I use walnut ink, a specific brand of ink made by Tom Norton who lives in Cambridge and manufactures the ink. The ink is not always easy to find at art stores, and I hope every day that he never stops making the ink because I don’t know what I would do without it. The walnut ink has very specific properties to it that are unique compared to other types of inks. It has taken me a very long time to recognize all of these properties and to learn how to use them effectively in my work. The aspect of the ink that I am the most enamored with is the subtlety of the color. The ink can be rewetted even after it has dried to the touch, which dictates a different method of working than if one were to use india ink which can be layered. The most striking feature of the ink for me is the way the ink moves, it has a subtle, sensitive flow when it releases from a brush that is wonderful. One difficulty I initially had with the walnut ink was the fact that it’s inherent color is nowhere near the darkness of a pure black tone. It was tough because I wanted the punch of a tone that read as a black, but could not achieve it. After several experiments, I realized that if I puddled a significant amount of ink in one area and let it dry overnight that the ink would indeed settle into becoming a black tone. The only part of this technique which can be tricky is that if too much ink is puddled into one area, the ink actually builds up too thickly and begins to crackle.
The other issue which came into play was what kind of paper to use with the ink. The initial ink studies were all done on straightforward cold pressed watercolor paper which is very smooth and untextured for the most part. I actually came upon my final paper selection by accident. I knew that I wanted to work on a much larger scale, so I purchased a large roll of Arches Rough watercolor paper. The first experiment with this large scale watercolor paper was a complete disaster because I neglected to stretch the paper beforehand, which resulted in the paper buckling to the degree that I lost all control of the ink on the surface. What I did discover in the process was the incredible potential of the ink and its interaction with the highly coarse surface of the paper. The range of textures and marks that I could make with the ink became exponentially larger and I loved the way the ink could bleed and flow in completely unpredictable ways.
At that point, I knew that I wanted to retain the extreme roughness of the surface- the question was how to prevent the amount of buckling from the ink. I remembered at the back of my head that when I was shopping for paper that I saw sheets of watercolor paper that were so thick they almost looked like mattboard. After another trip to the art store, I had found exactly what I needed- 550 lb. rough watercolor paper; paper which was so insanely heavy and thick that buckling was basically impossible. I backed this up by taping the paper down before applying the ink. The extreme weight of the paper also served another purpose- I saw how much I was responding to the gravity and density of the paper and saw its presence as an important part of my approach.
I completed most of the ink drawings in a mad rush to finish work before starting the spring semester at the end of January. I knew that the second my teaching responsibilities started that the work would have to be put temporarily on hold. The start of the spring semester certainly slowed down the level of productivity that I was able to maintain. I never stop the studio work while I’m teaching, but I definitely notice a distinct difference in terms of my mindset. The toughest part is keeping that continuous train of thought. Often times during the semester my time in the studio is very sporadic, and it usually takes me a good hour or so in the studio just to remember where I left off, or to get to a point where I’m ready to start something new. To prevent this from happening I have been making a habit of always leaving work unfinished- that way, when I return I can jump right into working without having to think about it too hard. The most difficult thing is when I finish something, and don’t start something new. The next time I’m in the studio I make myself crazy trying to figure out how to get started again. I have yet to return to the ink drawings right now; a month ago I got very distracted making intaglio prints and right now I’m feeling like its more important for the to see this strain of intaglio prints through before I pick up the ink drawings again.
A few months ago I stretched some very large sheets of watercolor paper on heavy duty canvas stretchers; they’re still sitting in the studio waiting to be worked on. It might have to wait until the summer before I’m able to pick them up again.