January 31, 2009

What do you do with a crappy old brush?

In my last post I told you how you must never, ever allow ink to dry in the ferrule, because it will ruin the brush by causing it to splay. But what do you do with a brush if that's already happened?

You've all seen Ghostbusters, right? Don't cross the streams?

When the world is about to end, it's acceptable to cross the streams to reverse the portal and blow the evil goddess back through the door she came in through, and if your brush is already good and fucked you can let ink dry wherever you want. Your brush is now a special tool that everyone should have: a drybrushing brush.

Do you not know what drybrushing is? Go read Blankets and come back. Okay, good. You can drybrush with any brush, but it's harsh on a good brush, and it actually doesn't work as well with a nice brush. To get really nice drybrushing you want a brush that wants to splay, that has no spring left in it at all, that's basically been reduced to a spindly mop. You take the brush, don't wet it, dip it in ink, and then doodle with it until the lines become scratchy and begin to break apart over the texture of the paper.

Play around with it! Your brush is already hell and gone, so you may as well try the craziest things you can. Here's just some of the the many distinct textures I was able to come up with in a minute using my poor, dead W&N:
Fantastic stuff, right? Imagine using them for wood, or rock, or water, or clouds.

You can make even, solid tones with drybrush if you're good, but there's a trick to it:

the beginning of the stroke is always darker, so if you want and even tone you need to work backwards so the lighter ends feather into the darker backs of the strokes, like in the above example. Of course, a creative person could find many interesting uses for the dark bands that occur if you overlap the strokes the other way.
Drybrush almost seems like a cheat, because it lends and drawing a kind of automatic motion and atmosphere. Look at these 20 second doodles I did to prove this point:
Wish almost no work at all the marks of the drybrushing itself makes the art seem alive and tangible. The rain feels thick and wet, the rocket seems to be speeding while in place.

Play around with drybrushing and see what you can do with it.

Next week: Cartoonists on their brushes

January 26, 2009


My photographer friend Emily Felger let me know that Hack-a-Day blog author Eliot Phillips wrote a post about my raisin box camera mask that I use for taking some of the photos of my hands.

I don't know that strapping a raisin box to my head counts as a "hack", even by the loose definition I see on BoingBoing these days. I mean, if I pick something up, is that a "gravity hack?" Is any method of getting around and problem by any means now a hack? Now that thing I did a few years back to that busted fountain pen- that was a hack. (And let me address something some commenters brought up about that: I was fucking with a broken pen that I was going to throw out anyway. Some people seemed to think I was advocating doing this to a new pen, making Frankenstein out of perfectly healthy living people, so to speak. Do NOT do this to a new pen, or baby fountain pen Jesus will cry. Also, I have since found better ways to accomplish the same goals I did with this, ones much less aesthetically harmful to the pen. That having been said, years later it still works just fine.)

In any event I'm grateful that he was tickled enough to post about it and plug my blog on his. If you're reading, thanks Eliot!

January 24, 2009

New Episode of P. Craig Russell TV

This is my favorite episode so far. The part where he explains why he places a block of text off-center in a tier of white space instead of centering it...this is a man who thinks carefully about every single thing on his page and what it can do to convey meaning better.

And I love how forthright he is about crediting people he's stolen techniques from. It's my belief that a mature artist steals anything that works, while loudly crediting the people they stole from. The work is what matters, not your "originality." Telling people who you stole what from spreads the word about the artists who influence you, opens people's eyes to them, and in some cases accomplishes the nerd's greatest dream: to turn people on to your obsession.

Brush Care

I've had friends complain that their expensive brushes were great when new, but that they didn't last very long, and that they felt like they'd wasted their money for something to be so expensive and have so short a lifespan. I'd always ask to see their brushes, and they all have one thing in common: they all treat their brushes like shit.

A good, expensive brush is a marvelous tool, but for Christ's sake, THINK PEOPLE: it's made of HAIR. Soft, delicate HAIR. How many ads do you see in five minutes of television dedicated to hair care? If you got ink in your hair you'd wash it, right? You wouldn't let it crust and cake up on your scalp, would you? You wouldn't let the harsh laquers and solvents in the ink toast your hair into brittle tangles, would you? And your hair grows in for free. So what are you doing letting a tiny point of hair that you paid twenty dollars for become clogged solid with hardening black chemical piss? Are you some sort of conceptual artist performing a piece about the wanton waste of money and destruction of perfectly good tools? CLEAN YOUR BRUSH!

A brush that is used correctly and well cared for can last years and years even with very hard use. These things are made of real hair from a real animal, this one, in fact,
so have a little goddamned respect for it, will you?

Now, here's how to keep your brush going like new for years to come:

First, you need to learn a little brush anatomy. You've heard about icebergs and how the bit that sticks out is just a tiny bit of the whole thing, right? The bristles on a brush are the same way. Most of the length of the bristles goes down into the neck of the metal ferrule. The secret to virtual brush immortality rests in not letting your ink get up into that ferrule. If any ink t all manages to dry in there, it will stay there forever. If it builds up, wil will force the bristles apart, causing the brush to splay apart. Once this happens the brush is dead, unfixable. I did not know this rule when I had my first brush, a perfect Windsor and Newton #5, and It's a sad thing, because I've never had a brush as fine as it was.

Before you use a brush, ALWAYS give it a swish around in your water cup. You should always have a cup of water around when using a brush. Here's mine:
Your cup should be wide enough for you to really swish the brush around. NEVER, EVER leave the brush in the cup bristles-down. It will distort the bristles and ruin the brush. Just swish it around and set it down. It's important to have water closeby because a brush must never be allowed to dry either with ink or inky water inside it. From the time you get it wet to the time you clean it it needs to stay wet.

To start drawing, wet the brush, tap it to form the point, and then dip it in your ink.

When you dip your brush into your ink, LOOK at what you're doing, and do not dip the brush in all the way. Just enough for a good load of ink. How far is far enough? Right about here:

Any lower than this and you won't have enough ink to draw for very long, any higher and the ink might crawl up the ferrule.

If you do et ink up in the ferrule, don't freak out, just swish it in water immediately, and keep doing it until you can swish it in water and have the water stay clear. It should still be just fine. Just react immediately and you won't have damaged the brush.

Keep the brush moist even if you aren't working with it, right up until you're done. Then when you've finished drawing, you must clean it.

Enter one of the best things in the whole entire world: Old Masters Brush Soap.

Fuck the pyramids or Machu Pichu. If ANYTHING was given to humanity by aliens, it's this stuff: it smells great, is non-toxic, and it's water-soluble. It gets dried oil paint, dried varnish and dried ink out of brushes, off skin and out of clothes without damaging any of them. In fact, it acts as a brush moisturizer and preserver- essentially a brush shampoo/conditioner. You can buy it in little kars but I have a huge tub of it:

And here it is inside:
To use it, get your brush good and sopping wet, like this: Now don't just go scrubbing your bristles around in it- they're delicate! You need to make sure they don't get bent in the wrong direction, or crimped under the ferrule. So pretend you're drawing with the brush, pulling it back and forth over the cake of soap, like this:

Immediately you'll see the soap turn grey or even black with ink. If it does turn black, you aren't doing a good enough job of keeping your brush wet and rinsed while working. Draw it back and forth until you build up a good gob of soap around the base, like this:

Then, with water running over it, massage the gob of soap into the back of the brush- you want to try and push it deep into the neck of the brush, to get any ink out that may be there. Then rinse it thoroughly, and repeat. You're done when the suds on the cake come out clear with no gray.

Below on the left is my Rosemary and Co. #2 brush, and on the right is my poor, dead W&N brush. You can see that the ink caking on the base is too much even for Old Masters to get out. It will never hold a point again. What do you do with a brush like that? I'll tell you next week. You don't throw it away, I'll tell you that much.

By the way, if you're wondering how I get those photos where I'm using both of my hands, I built this rig that fits onto my face:
I made it out of a raisin box and a badge lanyard from a temp job. The camera is held securely in place by straps in the front. I can access the camera controls through holes cut in the side. I see what's in front of me using the digital camera's back display. I frame my shot, set the timer, and presto, I have a me-eye-view of my hands.

January 18, 2009

New PCR (P. Craig Russell) TV episode

From Lurid.com. This time embedded video! I finally figured out where it was.

January 17, 2009

Helicopter hand draws for youLast week I explained how when trying to make controlled lines with a brush, you need to keep the brush handle vertically oriented, and that to change the line width you should hold the brush higher or lower rather than pressing harder or softer. I said that for newcomers to the brush, who come from a background using markers or nibs to ink, a good way to get their hand used to this new way of moving is to think of your hand as a helicopter hovering above the paper.

I was going to illustrate that metaphor, but I was sick last week and didn't have the energy. But I think seeing it illustrated will help brush virgins to understand both the metaphor and to understand some of the problems they may be having with the brush.

Below is an illustration of my hand holding my brush, and of my hand as Hand-copter. In the below illustration Hand-copter makes a circle with a consistant line by maintaining the correct altitude and hovering in a circle. The bristles of the brush trail behind in a smooth, even curve, producing the line Hand-copter wants. To move the brush, you must lock your hand and move your arm instead. This is why when I use a brush for too long I get shoulder pain instead of hand pain. Unless I'm doing some sort of wild hatching or drybrush effect, my hand isn't doing anything except hold the brush slightly higher or lower.
Here's Hand-copter trying to draw the same circle but doing it as if it was a person holding a marker or pen nib, like most beginners are used to. You can see that allowing the handle to press on the bristles at any sort of angle will twist them and bend them like a spring, and when you come around a tight curve that spring will release, causing all sorts of uncontrolled havoc.
As long as the brush is held vertically, you can maintain a controlled line in any gesture, pretty much regardless of speed. I ink like greased lightning with a brush on everything but the most technical of drawings, and it's generally a fact that someone who is good with a brush can ink a page faster than someone of equal skill using a pen. Learning to use the brush is slow and very difficult, but once mastered it's a tool of speed and spontaneity.

And now, Hand-copter will draw you a picture using the principles I've discussed. Click on the image to enlarge.

Next week: Brush care

January 12, 2009

Tutorials from people who aren't me

For some reason, this was an amazing week for people giving out free information abut making comics.

Artist, writer, and Comic Tools blog reader Rivkah-last-name-unknown posted a tutorial of her coloring method for a recent illustration on her livejournal. You should already be reading her livejournal anyway if you aren't already. She has a great deal to say about being published and being a publisher, and about life as an artist in general. Plus she posts her drawings, which is incentive enough to add her journal to your friends list. I think she, I, and you, the reader, would all be happy if you bought her book, too.

As if that wasn't already enough free knowledge and blog content to make my week, I found out that Lurid.com has been posting really professionally shot, well-edited videos of P. Craig Russell talking about working with models, his creative process, and even dissecting single pages of his comics to show how and why they work. It's actually it's own show on the site- it's called PCR TV.

(This is a screen cap, not an embedded vid.)

This...this sort of thing is my wet dream, what I WISH I could someday make Comic Tools. This is one of the best cartoonists EVER, PERIOD, telling you how he does it, in a way that's free and accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Honestly, my jaw goes gooey talking about this. This sort of thing is so important, and means so much to me, and for someone of his level to be putting this out there...I've paid thousands for classes that taught me less, and so has anyone who's ever been to any art school.

What a great week.

January 11, 2009

Elevation, Not Pressure
The drop-out rate for newcomers to the brush is staggering. No one ever learns how to draw with a brush. They always come from using a nib or a marker to ink, and then they try the brush. They've seen Charles Burns or Craig Thompson or whoever, and they want their lines to have that thick, wet crispness, that texture, that delicacy. So they buy themselves a brush, and- okay, wait a second. Before I even finish that sentence, let me tell you how to find a good brush, or else everything else I say will be totally worthless.

If you go to an art supply store, you'll be lucky if one in ten brushes is any good, and you'll be lucky if there are ten brushes all in the size and shape you want. A crappy expensive brush, as I have said before and cannot emphasize enough, is worse than a cheap brush. A cheap brush will make boring lines with less variation, and it will die an early death, but it will work. Drawing with a bad expensive brush is like shooting with a gun whose barrel flails about like the trunk of an enraged elephant. Expensive brushes have springy, resilient hairs that will keep their snap for decades if treated with care. If the moron who made the brush left a single hair out of perfect alignment, it will burst out of the side of your brush during every single stroke like the Kool Aid man coming through a kitchen wall. It will subvert every line you try to make. And God help you if it's your first brush, because it will surely be your last.

It is important- VITALLY IMPORTANT- that you never, ever buy an expensive brush without testing it. Ever. EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER. Do you detect in my tone that I may have made this mistake myself? EVER.

So, here is one of the top three most useful, invaluable pieces of information I have ever been given as an artist: here is how to test a brush.

Step 1: Any art store that deserves anybody's money has a basin of water (and sometimes some nifty testing paper) for testing brushes. Take the brush and soak the bristles real good. Get all the glue sizing out of them. Swish the brush around until it's sopping and swollen and tender, like this: Step 2: Now hold it by the back of the handle, and with a light bur firm tap , bring it down ONCE onto your wrist. This is a tap, not an attempt to raise a welt. It should be just hard enough to make a little sound and shake the water from the brush.
Step 3: if the brush is a good brush, it will come to a perfect, razor-sharp, single-hair point. The sides will be smooth and taper evenly. Not a single hair will splay, and no part of the sides will bulge. Here is my Rosemary and Co. #2 brush, made by the same Rosemary and Co. that I mentioned in last week's post:
If your brush does not look EXACTLY like this, if it has even the most miniscule flaw, put it down before it's evil spreads into your drawing hand.

If you visit five stores and none has a brush that passes and you really need a brush, STILL DO NOT BUY A BRUSH. Get an inexpensive brush that will be hard to work with but which will at least make lines.

Okay, so to continue my thought from before: people use a nib or a marker and then they get a brush, and what do they do? They use it like a pen. Using a brush like a pen is like putting a car into a slide: fun for experienced drivers, dangerous for beginners.

Allow me to illustrate the difference between a pen and a brush with an analogy:

Imagine you have sandy beach and a stick. The stick is the nib, the sand the paper. You take your stick and draw a circle with the tip. It looks just fine, a smooth circle.

Now you put a mop on the end of the stick, and you reach out the stick to draw a circle again. As you start your stroke it seems to be working. The mop drags behind the stick, making a line. But as you come around the curve, the mop twists and bunches up. The line becomes unruly, the mop twists and tangles.

Here is what a circle looks like when you handle a brush this way; note how distorted the tip becomes with pressure as the bristles are forced into a steep angle, the way the tip flips and smooshes into all sorts of shapes and widths:

Now you try it another way: instead of holding the stick out in front of you and drawing the circle, you get right over it and keep the mop perfectly vertical, and you carefully move the vertical stick so that the mop drags behind in a smooth, consistent curve. (The example below is a little wonky because I was drawing with one hand and photographing with the other.)

As you can see, the handle is always in front of the stroke, the tip of the brush trailing in back. The tip never becomes bent back or twisted.

Because brushes are so soft, and because making a controlled, consistent line means holding the brush vertically at all times, it's useful to think of elevation instead of pressure when you want to change the thickness of a line at any point. Don't think if it as pressing down or letting up. Imagine your hand is a helicopter with a brush underneath it, and when you want a thicker line you decrease your altitude and when you want a thinner line you increase your altitude. You always fly so that your windshield is ahead of you and the bristles trail on the ground in back of you.

Taking curves is the hardest part for beginners with a brush- you'll be going around a curve just fine, and then WHAM- the brush winds up splayes out or a hair splits off:
This is the result of handling a brush handle the way you would a pen stock.

You are using a new tool now, and it doesn't work anything like your old tools. Forget what you know and THINK about what flexible, springy bristles are likely to do when pressed into a tight turn. React accordingly.

For those new to brushes, below are some common problems and exercises that will help you overcome them. I used these exercises to train myself to the brush, and I still do them to warm up if I haven't used a brush in a long while:

If your brush seems to fly out of control on turns or changes width totally uncontrolled, the two exercises on the bottom of this image will help: Try drawing a row of fingers, like piano keys, and don't let the line get thicker at the tip of the finger.If you can do a row without messing up you're pretty good to go.

Also, try doing ziggy-zaggy curves, either without letting the width change, or while changing the width, but in a smooth, consistent way. Remember: it's a change in elevation, not pressure. Fly in the same pattern, but lower.
Drawing circles is tough with a brush: it's hard to make the line connect back up without being able to see where they meet. On the bottom, you can see the trick: you start a circle tapered, then expand to the width you want, then you draw right on past the beginning, and taper off inside the line, leaving an overlapping, invisible join.
Drawing arrows is a great way to practice accuracy. The exercise is to draw a 3-stroke arrow where the stem comes out of exactly the middle of the two lines of the cap, and with a perfect pointed tip. On the left are some I drew on a train while exhausted, and on the right are some that I did while feeling fresh and spunky. I find that this exercise is really good at showing my mental state better than any other exercise. If I can't do this exercise it means I need to take some time to get into the zone before I ink, or else I'll be sloppy and mess up.

These exercises will allow you to gain confidence and control with your brush, which is needed for doing small, detailed work like this hand, for instance:

Nest week: Helicopter draws a picture

January 3, 2009

Some reader comments I wanted to highlight,
regarding the lead holder I mentioned in this post.

: I have that exact same lead pointer for my turquoise pencil leads, and contrary to what the reviewer says, the leads break easily (until you really get the hang of it), and any time I put one of these in my bag, I end up with blue dust all OVER my papers and supplies, to the point I've started keeping it in a plastic baggie. I even tried putting an eraser head in the top opening, and still the shaving somehow manage to leak out. They also don't come with instructions, so for someone who's never used one before, they're downright confusing. Which hole does the lead go in again? ;D

In spite of its flaws, however, it's still the best pointer on the market, and once you get the knack of it, they're easy to use and the leads don't break so easily. Just use some cheaper leads the first few times you use it.

Raluca Z: there's a cheaper version of the lead pointer which I use.
it's home-made but then again homemade tools are sometimes better.

It uses sanding paper - fine grain, the ones you usually use for sanding wood boards.

You go find yourself a small size cilindrical recipient with a good sealing cap. The best ones are shallow. Cut the sanding paper and stick it to the circular walls of the recipient. And here you go- your own lead sharpener.

It doesn't leak dust 'cause of the sealing cap. It's pretty straightforward to use, it offers many style of lead pointing depending on the inclination of the lead. When you wear the sandpaper you just take it out and stick another one.

Personally I use a small tomato juice tin can as a recipient and as a cap - a Carlsberg beer plastic cap. I discovered it fits. It is pretty rudimentary but it does its job and most of all - it doesn't leak dust.
The best brushes in the world are made by a nice lady in England

Every person who has ever used a brush to do very precise ink drawing has at some point wanted to magically imbue the brush with the power of speech and the ability to feel pain, so they could hear it scream in agony as we snapped it in half. For those of us who have fallen in love with the kind of performance and quality of line only costly kolinsky brushes can provide, life is nothing but expense and inconvenience. We try cheaper brushes, but they lack the sharp point and snap to make those beautiful lines we're so addicted to. The outrageous expense of kolinsky brushes isn't their only problem, but it's the biggest, and there seems no way around it. At list price, even a small #2 size brush will run you over 20 dollars. A #4 will cost you nearly double that. There are discount sites where you could purchase the same brushes online, for half the price. But anyone who's done that knows it isn't that easy. Buying brushes without testing them is for no-ropes rock climbers and people who like bareback sex with sickly looking men from craigslist ads. Winsor and Newton and Raphael make the best kolinsky brushes in the world- every once in awhile. The rest of them are worse than a cheaper, crappier brush. A cheap nylon brush won't form a perfect, single-hair needle point, press out into a half-inch thick mop and then spring right back up into a needle over a decade of continued use like a good kolinsky will (with proper care), but at least it won't splay. We've all had the experience of going around a very precise, delicate curve, and just as we're coming around the bend, and the bristles are pressed into a curved shape, a stray hair sticks out and draws a second spidery line right next to our line. Or worse, the splayed hair acts like the second point of a pen nib, and suddenly the brush starts laying down a lande-wide elevated river of ink where we wanted a delicate stroke. It's confidence destroying. And about nine out of ten expensive kolinsky brushes does this. So you can't order them- you need to go to a store (where you'll pay full price or more), to try the brushes out. More often than not they're out of good ones, so you have to return to one or several stores, perhaps four or five times each, until you find a good one. It's an expensive and time consuming drag.

Well, there's a nice lady from England named Rosemary who's come to save us all. For the last 25 years, she's made brushes by hand and sold them by mail order, directly from her house, to artists. She makes all kinds of brushes, for oil paint, acrylic, watercolor- and she makes Kolinsky brushes with such beautiful razor points you'll be scared of cutting yourself on them. And she sells them for way less money. How much less? I bought four #2 size brushes and one #4 from her, and with shipping from England included, it came to $36.37- less than the list price of a single #3 brush from Windsor and Newton. Every one of them has a perfect point. And if she sent me one that didn't, she would gladly replace it, or refund my money in full. Even though it cost me an extra couple bucks, I called her in England to order, because I wanted to actually speak with her. She picked up her home phone after 2 rings, greeting me with a bright, almost musical English accent. She took my information and my order, and she'd processed it less than ten minutes after I got off the phone with her.

Her website is www.rosemaryandco.com. Everyone who inks with a brush should give this woman their business. Her website has several styles of kolinsky brush suitable for inking with. And she'll even make you a custom brush if you like. For instance, she can make you a brush with a triangular handle, if you have arthritis. (the price goes up on custom jobs, of course.)

I don't think there are a lot of people left who still make brushes by hand this well, let alone who sell them directly to you for 1/4th the cost. Take advantage of this lady's amazing talent while you can.

And while I'm on the topic of brushes, Comic Tools reader and frequent commenter --- displays his powerful brush-fu on his blog. Go have a look:
Next week: Elevation, not pressure.