Pen Lines are not Elephants

Always remember that it’s just a drawing.  You can make a dozen drawings.  You can make a hundred drawings.  If you look past the immediate task, you can gain enormous freedom with the immediate task.  Removing your hesitations about the drawing you’re making now means that you can concentrate more upon the drawing you’re making now, taking bold steps, fully aware that if something doesn’t work out, there’s always another drawing following this one where corrections and new ideas can gain the day.

So it often happens that artists learning to draw with pen try to avoid making mistakes, since the pen line is permanent. They devise ways of evading error. They allow their reluctance to commit a mistake to take precedence over the ideas they wish to express.  They pursue the common wisdom that says draw the initial contours using chalk or pencil, firm up those lines with pen, and later erase the guide lines so that only the pen line survives.  This process is fine as far as it goes.  I’m not knocking it.  I’ve used this technique myself for certain kinds of finished pictures.  But underlying the technique is an altogether unnecessary fear, that of making a “mistake.”  When you stop worrying about making mistakes, though, you are opened up to the opportunity of using pen line as a direct tool of expression.

I love pen precisely because it preserves every mark.  When I draw with pen, I do so very freely.  If I think the contour goes here, that’s where I put it.  When I realize that I was off by this much, I throw down another line as the correction.  Both lines are visible in the drawing, and the energy between the lines becomes a record of my thoughts.  The drawing that results is not only a “drawing of an elephant” but is also a “drawing of what I thought the elephant looks like,” which is a slightly different animal.

When you are learning to draw, my advice to young artists (and young at heart artists) is to put the ideas down with directness.  You are, after all, making a drawing not an elephant.  The directness of the lines-as-ideas has a beauty all its own.  And when you use pen in this way you take advantage of the unique properties of the medium.

Let pen lines be pen lines.  That’s my motto.

[Top of the post:  Drawing of elephants, by Aletha Kuschan, pen and ink]

Goofy Elephants

To explore the idea of the elephants in the river, of my strange and marvelous dream (see previous post), I decided to make drawings of plastic toy elephants balanced on the shoulders of others.  They look like elephant acrobats.
[Elephant Acrobatics, by Aletha Kuschan, pen and ink]

Elephant Dream

I’ve had many dreams where magnificient events took place at the water’s edge.  In one dream of many years ago, I was living in a splendid house with a large French door that opened onto a view of a deep river.  As I looked out at the river, I was startled by an amazing sight.  I saw elephants swimming in the river with the current.

While I watched, I became aware of something else even more startling.  The elephants at the surface were not swimming, I discovered.  In the crazy narrative logic of dreams, I was able to see into the depths of the water to discover that the elephants at the surface were actually standing on the shoulders of others that were underwater.  And somewhere under the layers of standing elephants a herd of elephants in contact with the river’s floor were walking.

And I wondered: how can this be possible?  How do they breathe?  How can they survive?  But somehow this was something that they do, something we didn’t realize about them, some ancient knowledge they possessed, a way of survival that was powerful and mysterious and strong.

I’ve always wondered what the dream might mean.  Sometimes a symbol has communicative power that transcends cultures and eras.  Might some scholar of India or Africa be able to interpret my dream of elephants for me?

[Elephants in the Deep River, by Aletha Kuschan]