Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Sunday Afternoon Chat About Ink, Wash, and Totleben...

This query from Heath arrived recently, and with his permission I'll reply here, where you all can benefit from it:

As I'm pouring over my issues of [Miracleman:] Olympus tonight, I was did/does John [Totleben] get such an intricate line in his work? The line form and style seems deceptively simple, but upon trying to duplicate it, I can't. Does he use a pen, or a sable brush? The pen I was using is not a fine art pen, but lays down liquid ink rather thickly, thus I thought that perhaps the lines were rendered using a pen.

Oh, here's another lil something you can help me with, if you please...exactly what is the process of ink-wash? I saw the art in the solicits for the Roy Thomas/Dick Giordano Dracula hardcover from Marvel, but I don't understand exactly how one goes about creating an ink-wash image. Is is simply using a toothbrush or something like it to finely splatter the ink on the page, or is there a greater technique than that in using it? Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks and g'night...

Believe it or not, that intricate linework was almost second-nature to John, and from our Kubert School daze to the Swamp Thing years and a bit beyond, I got to watch John draw numerous times.

There's some voodoo folks attach, with almost mystical belief, to an artist's tools, but I have to say I've seen John work his magic with all manner of rendering implements: croquill tips, cartooning nibs (both pen, mind you), brush, magic marker, marker brushes, etc. The quality of John's line flows from his hand, heart and nature: he creates those uncannily precise patterns of lines (and, sometimes, dots) with any instrument at hand, and with an almost casual abandon by all appearances. That is, he rarely labored over the portions of drawings that one would suppose took hours and days to render. In his youth, pumped on Pepsi and cooking at the board, John inked amazingly complex-looking illustrations with a speed and ease that was disorienting (that said, John did labor over his primo work, Miracleman primary among that body of work).

John was capable of laying down rhythmic patterns of ink and line -- usually with either brush or pen, or a combination of both -- that had a real life and was never forced. Part of the fun of doing Swamp Thing with John was seeing how he'd transform directional pencil shading into such intoxicating linear patterns, preserving the directional flow of the art while lending it a grace and mesmerizing intensity undiscerable in the pencilled art. These transformations appear delicate, even mathematically precise, to the eye, but John rendered much of this with ease and assurance: there was nothing laborious about his technique or actions. It all flowed.

As for what specific tools John preferred, that changed in time and depending upon what was available. The preferred watercolor brushes we tended to favor in the 1980s (Windsor Newton Series 7) gave way to synthetic hair brushes, which John experimented with as each line of brushes emerged on the market -- always sure to tip off Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates and I and our circle to which ones he found preferable, and why. John also worked with a range of croquill and cartoonist pen nibs (the kind you dip into ink, not mechanical pens or markers) in the '80s -- alas, most of those are no longer manufactured, and as Al Williamson warned us all early in that decade, if and when we found a tip we liked, it was advisable to stock up on them in bulk, as they'd soon be gone. The preferred cartooning pen points tended to be fairly flexible -- particularly given the rigors John put them through! -- and flow of ink was critical, too.

Getting a good ink became problematic after Higgins changed their Black Magic formula: I've no idea what John prefers these days, but we used to wrestle with the (rarely satisfactory) problem of finding a decent replacement or substitute on a fairly regular basis.

Finally, John experimented constantly, and it's tough to tell what exactly you might be seeing on any given printed page. Did he get that texture with brush, pen and ink, or with some other rendering method: toothbrush, sponge, organic (as in actually pasting down lichens, molds, etc.) or inorganic (the working mechanical parts that constituted his Swamp Thing: Loving the Alien pages)? John was quite inventive at times, laying down layers of anything from painter's shellac to Elmer's Glue onto the art, letting it dry, and then drawing/painting upon or scratching/cutting/abrasively texturing the surface with ink or some other rendering substance (the sky was the limit), all to arrive at a texture he found compelling, interesting, or necessary. Really, anything went, and anything goes!

Specific to your question, Heath, some of those line patterns you find so compelling were often laid down with pen (for the finer lines), thickening gradually to the point where John which switch (seamlessly) to brush strokes, perfectly matching and then expanding the line quality of the pen portions. He was and is a master of such mixed-tool applications, and again, the flow of the lines themselves were imperative: not for their uniformity, but for their gradual variation and transmutation.

Ah, the Totleben magic! Unfortunately, almost all the reprints in all editions of John's seminal 1980s works invariably lose a good deal of his original linework, due to the diminishing returns and degradation of subtleties characteristic of shooting or scanning from photostats and/or copies rather than the originals (the DC/Vertigo Swamp Thing paperbacks are particularly sorry in this department). The original printings -- however cheesy the newsprint or paper they were printed upon -- remain the truest to John's exquisite original efforts, and are well worth seeking out.

As for ink wash, Heath, that's simpler stuff in one way. Wash is, simply, a dilution of ink in water: the greater the proportional quantity of ink, the denser (darker) the wash, the greater the proportional quantity of water, the lighter the wash. Thus, one can work from black to white via gradations of gray from one end of the scale to another, with remarkable control of density and effect, once one is skilled in the technique.

That is, of course, easier said than done. As anyone who works or has worked with watercolors can attest, "control" is as much a factor of one's willingness to let accidents happen and "go with the flow" (literally) as anything. Black-and-white-and-gray wash is less volatile a medium than full spectrum watercolors, but it's still a matter of playing with the tools and washes with a certain disregard for "control" that's the ticket. I just did a couple weeks of sessions at CCS on wash, urging the students to relax enough to experiment and explore the potential via lots of messy accidents and seeing what happened, where things went, without fretting over "control."

It is most often applied with brush -- as with ink or watercolor, brushes of different sizes and types yield different levels of control, from laying down wide areas of wash to delicate work with finer brushes. Other tools are applicable -- sponges, rags, toothbrushes, whatever -- once one gets the hang of it and wants to play with different textures and such. As in with the cases I mentioned with John, the sky is the limit -- I mean, I've done wash pieces using glued down shed snake skin, painted with yogurt, used spilled coffee -- but the typical tool of the trade is a watercolor brush.

Once one gains a certain comfort level via trial & error, wash can be a tremendous medium to work in. Many of our greatest single-panel gag cartoonists (e.g., The New Yorker tradition, etc.) were masters of the medium -- check out Charles Addams work sometime, if you haven't already. In comics, it's hard to beat the early Warren work by Steve Ditko for a real crash-course in the power and possibilities of working with wash: the medium transformed Ditko's art, at a time when he was also drawing his key '60s stories for Marvel and Charlton.

Then, just to confuse matters (especially since I can't post illustrations and have to rely on clumsy words to describe what's better shown and seen), there's also the matter of transparent washes vs. opaque (or more opaque) washes -- the former, washes as watercolors, the latter a more painterly approach to using graytones. But let's not go there today -- just note the two approaches exist, and are quite different in technique and effect, though they can be used quite effectively in combination with one another.

I went through a very productive dance with wash as my preferred rendering technique, from about 1979 to 1983 (with some of my Scholastic Magazines stories, Bizarre Adventures stories like "A Frog is a Frog", and the story "Kultz" for Epic). Alas, the crap printing Marvel used on Bizarre Adventures prompted me to abandon the technique -- no matter, I was soon pencilling Swamp Thing, which leads us back to the first part of your question about John's work.

Hope this answered your question!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Odd you should talk about wash in such depth, as just yesterday (and you know what kind of a day that was) I turned up Bizarre Adventures #33 -- I hadn't seen a copy in several years -- and commented to K about how your beautiful washes were mangled by the printing, and how you gave up that technique as a result of the dissatisfaction. It begs the question of how much should an artist limit oneself if the intended publication process is known to be substandard. Just think of the bite page in that Dracula story, the mud of it, and how the heart sank upon first opening the printed work and seeing whayt a hack job was done to it. It made you decide not to persure ink washes with the vigor of your previous approach, and perhaps folks like Heath might want to avoid such pain. But really? Isn't that very struggle a learning tool. I always regretted you giving up on the direction your stuff was taking in that grey watercolor area -- but nowadays, with printing so much better, perhaps this might not be the issue it once was. By the way, the back cover -- Varnae -- scared the living shit out of little Leo.

Blogger heath lail said...


Thanks for the in-depth yet also cancise answer. I intended to reply last night, but my ex (the one with whom I'm on good terms) called and knocked me off-line after I had written such an excellent reply.

Therefore, I resolved to write this morning, to say that at this point, I feel as though I now know all I need to know (currently, anywhos) about both John's wonderful linemaking, as well as the wash process. Thanks for enlightening me, and taking the time to write such a lengthy blog on questions I'm sure you have been asked multitudes of times prior. Best to you and yours,



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