It’s a wonder that Matt Rota found time to write The Art of Ballpoint. An SVA alum and faculty member recently endowed with a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators, Rota maintains a busy freelance illustration career, in addition to teaching courses for SVA MFA Visual Narrative and Continuing Education.
Matt recently published The Art of Ballpoint, a book that examines the qualities of the ballpoint pen as a fine art and illustration medium. The book combines drawing exercises with interviews featuring contemporary artists and illustrators. The book is “equal parts instruction and inspiration,” according to Marc Scheff, writing for Illustration Age.
We flagged down Matt to discuss his insights on ballpoint, technology, and illustration.
SVA: You have interviewed many artists on your Tumblr blog, Pen and Ink. Is The Art of Ballpoint an extension of the blog?
MR: The blog is actually an offshoot of the book. The book itself is an offshoot of teaching, I have taught for several years in illustration departments at SVA and the Maryland Institute College of Art. I also was teaching online classes for a company called Craftsy; these were basic drawing and painting classes.
It was these online classes that I think led to the book. The classes were structured in a similar vein as a book, with chapters and condensed lessons, and it gave publishers a chance to see the sort of language that I use and how I communicate. A couple of publishers approached me to do books on drawing. (I assume not only because I taught an online drawing class, but because my professional work is largely drawing.)
I had generated a lot of writing that would be used for the book, but in a slightly different form. I did these interviews, but in the book, they are translated into third person. So the blog started once I was done with the book, as both a way to raise awareness for the book, but also as a way to to showcase some of the really great interviews I had gotten from the artists.
The interviews have the artists speaking in their own words, and the artists I got for the book I think are really great, so I was excited to present those as well. I thought it would be a shame to have all this writing sitting around from all of these great artists not being seen. Right now, the blog is attached to the book and the material from the book, but I gathered so much stuff I could not fit into the book. Eventually, the blog will carry on beyond the book until I run out of ballpoint material to post.
SVA: What makes ballpoint pen a unique and compelling subject for an art book? Is it distinctly different from traditional materials, such as charcoal, graphite, and watercolor?
MR: The ballpoint pen has been around for less than a century, in the form we know it now. It’s only been in existence since right before World War II, and has only been on the market since the fifties, so it’s really the tool of the mechanical age. Pencils and pens have been around in various forms for centuries. You could make an argument that the ballpoint is an extension of the fountain pen in that they are both pens that contain their own ink wells, but really the fountain pen is a part of the quill tradition, the last step in the evolution of a quill pen, and a ballpoint is something quite unique in and of itself.
MR (cont.): The main thing that makes the pen unique other than the ball tip is the ink. The evolution and success of the ballpoint is the development of its ink. The innovation of an ink that dried quickly, did not smear, but did not clog the pen, and did not dry out over time (by some accounts the ink will last 20 years without drying inside the reservoir) came from Laszlo Biro, the first innovator of ballpoints (though not the inventor). He was working at a newspaper and noticed that printer’s ink dried more quickly than fountain pen ink, so the first ballpoint ink was based on printer’s ink formula. What these innovations meant was a writing tool that was extremely durable and long-lasting. (The ink can draw, I think, up to almost two miles’ worth of a line.)
The next major innovator, Marcel Bich, figured out how to mass produce them. He is the reason ballpoints are everywhere; there’s been something like 100 billion pens made by Bic over the years. For art, that has meant a lot of different things. For some, it is the modern drawing tool; it was popular among Futurists like Lucio Fontana for its mass-produced modernist implications. It has lowbrow appeal for other artists like Lennie Mace, where the pen is a non-art drawing tool due to its inflexible tip and ubiquitous, mass-produced nature. The fixed tip of the pen, typically 1.0mm, is pretty small, and the fact that you don’t have to dip, refill, or sharpen it results in a very focused, detail-oriented aesthetic that is common to the ballpoint. That unbroken focus creates a specific mindset and almost meditative quality that is almost always associated with the pen, and quite unique to it. The pen’s ubiquity also lends a casual quality to some of the art associated with it; it’s a thing you can just doodle and daydream with.
SVA: You describe the ballpoint pen as “the tool of the mechanical age” and “the modern drawing tool.” And you observe that its precision and endurance make it ideal for a visual language of a focused, detail-oriented aesthetic and meditative process. Do the artists in your book all share these qualities in their artwork? Or some more than others?
MR: It seems to me, and according to many of the responses I got through interviews with the artists, that this is common to most. (I say most, but none have said it wasn’t, I just don’t want to speak for everyone.) Although all of the artists are unique in their own ways, and the book covers a wide aesthetic range, the artists drawing with the pen tended to have a very meticulous focus. (Shane McAdams uses the pen a bit differently, and is more experimental with it, so he may not fit in here.)
MR (cont.): Take two very different artists: Joanne Greenbaum, an artist whose drawings can have the feeling of complex, cerebral doodles, and compare her work with Jim Rugg’s. Jim creates these nostalgic pop culture references in spiral-bound notebooks that bring us back to things we may have been enthusiastic about in high school. Both have the attentiveness and inwardness that comes from the pen. Jim’s drawings take on these dedicated daydream-type feelings, like getting lost in your sketchbook as a teen, filling the whole page up with shading and textures. Joanne’s images are radically different thematically, but also have feeling that she has let her mind wander. There is a “letting go” here that is what I’m getting at. An important aspect to this is that the motion of drawing with these is fairly limited and within a constrained area. The motion is all in the wrist; it requires very little physical engagement, and far more mental focus. The drawings as a result tend to be smaller than if you were using charcoal with your entire arm on a larger sheet of paper. This, I think, has an effect on the inward quality that ballpoint can deliver, and is typical of the medium. (Though it’s not universal, given the drawings of Il Lee, who creates giant, cloud-like field drawings, using long, bold pen strokes on a large sheet of paper.)
SVA: In addition to publishing interviews and teaching classes, you maintain a busy career as an illustrator, with work appearing in Vice, Reveal, and many other outlets. Do you consider these occupations to be separate interests, just various jobs? Or are they part of each other, like facets on a gem?
MR: At the core of it is my own work. I draw for my illustration work. I love drawing, and specifically, narrative drawing, storytelling. So the love of drawing and storytelling facilitates everything else. I teach illustration; I write about drawing and art that interests me. All of these are offshoots of my main interest in the art that i do. All of it, the teaching and writing, circles back around through and has a big impact on the work I do. As I teach and write, I have to research and always learn about new things, new skills, new artists. These things always impact my own work, so it’s all part of one big cycle.
SVA: You’ve made some good points about innovation and the technology of the ballpoint pen. And you benefit from technology in your work and teaching, such as Digital Coloring. Where do you see the most important technological advancements in art and illustration? Do you follow any publications or websites that feature innovative art?
MR: There is no particular area where I’m looking to find innovation, aside from the internet, where I find 99% of my art. Technological innovation is too widespread in the art world for me to talk about it broadly. In illustration, it takes a couple of forms, mostly in programs like Photoshop or After Effects, which simplify tasks and art forms that are over a century old, but which required processes that were much bulkier, and maybe required more people. Digital technology allows for one person to do what would have at one point required a team. Also, it allows for far more experimentation with less risk.
MR (cont.): For myself, I have a more traditional background in drawing. Photoshop allows me to treat my drawing process like printmaking, but with no constraints. I can replicate processes like screen printing, lithography, and offset printing, combining all kinds of wild ideas into a single image. I can explore multiple solutions to a single image very easily and quickly, and decide which one I like the most. For me, a program like Photoshop equals freedom to explore new possibilities in drawing, combinations of drawing, painting, collage, and printmaking that would be extremely hard otherwise. The coloring capability of Photoshop, that is, the freedom to explore a range of color options in a piece, is very liberating and has led to an era of very bold and exotic color palettes that I think are unique to this era. Photoshop helps me discover very unconventional but harmonious color choices I would not have thought of with traditional paint. Also, Photoshop has become wonderful at replicating the effects of traditional drawing and painting materials like pastels, watercolor and oil paint, which is great because it allows for quicker, cleaner illustrations that look traditional, but can be convenient for quick deadlines. Also, Cintiq computer screens, on which you can draw directly, have been around for more than a decade, but continue to advance, making digital drawing and painting more exciting.
In my experience, those are the advances that are happening on a technical level and that are advancing the field of illustration the most right now. In other ways, the internet and mobile technology are the other major advancement that are effecting the way people interact with art and illustration. More content than ever is migrating online and is changing the presentation and capabilities of print media by integrating motion and sequential elements in ways we’ve never seen. The internet has also facilitated advances in digital printing, which allows for inexpensive, high-quality, low-run print editions, like books, magazines, and prints. This allows for a much more affordable marketplace for printing and selling art products, which is great for getting artists secondary sources of income, as well as spreading their work to a much wider audience. I think these are the things making the illustration world a very exciting place at the moment.
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