I first fell in love with pen and ink as an art form when I was in the sixth grade. My teacher Mrs. Van Den Berg, took some chalk and showed us that by a series of lines and cross-hatching we could create form, shade, and substance. I was hooked!
I love the smell of the ink, the smooth flow of the pen against the paper, the striking effects of black on white paper and how powerful that image can be. When I am not drawing, I write with a fountain pen, there is just something to the dark flow on white paper that I can’t explain, but I love it.
There were no classes to take, so by chance, I found a massive volume of one of the great masters of this art form, the American Artist, Charles Dana Gibson. I copied his Gibson Girl writing a love letter, and that was my first pen and ink drawing.
It’s an art form that reached it’s hey day when printing costs for colour was prohibitive. Charles Dana Gibson was a master at marketing and a tremendous success in his day. Magazines fought over him for exclusive rights, but he remained true to Life, where he started his life as an artist. His Gibson Girl was on the same level of merchandising as Harry Potter, large size table albums (of which I owned one and somehow with so many moves have most regrettably lost), plates and saucers, ashtrays, spoons, fans, all sorts of tat that we find today in the shops.
I moved on from copying his work from his big red table top book, to my first dog drawing in pen and ink. Gibson’s influence can be seen in the heavily ink lines of Titus, the Newfoundland Dog.
The hours I spent lost in his book, studying his lines, his bold strong strokes, and marvelled! From there I experimented with pointillism and my large portrait of The Sealyham Terrier. It took one week to draw. What amazed me the most, is not the– drop by drop of ink on white paper process, but it is the fact that I never once spilt a drop, had to erase a mistake, smudge, or even a threat of one! That impressed me. For hours after working on the drawing, my brain eye connection saw the world around me in an amazing series of dots of colour. It was easy to see how the early artists were often thought of as mad.
I tried one more large pen and ink and that was of Asta in the Thin Man series. I still own this drawing, and it always reminds me of how crazy I was to do it in the first place. I could not see a straight line for hours afterwards, the world was nothing more than dots, far and or close together. Strange what the brain can do.
Gibson was born in Roxbury Massachusetts, the great-grandson of a U. S. Senator. He studied at New York’s Art Student league and sold his first pen and ink to Life Magazine. His sketches brought him fame and fortune, and even a drink named after him, a gin martini with a pickled onion. I think I will pass on that!
What was so exciting about the Gibson Girl was her independence. She was a heart breaker at the turn of the century.
What is so special about his Gibson girl? I think Susan Meyer’s got it right when she wrote:
“She was taller than the other women currently seen in the pages of magazines, infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirt waist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in back with just a hint of a bustle. She was poised and patrician. Through always well-bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes.”
She was in short, the New American Woman. Many young American Women felt the strength and awe of her power, and flocked to Gibson’s studio to poise for him, each claiming to have been the original Gibson Girl. Nothing has changed in our modern times, instead of pen and ink artists, fans chase after rock stars.
And Gibson wasn’t a sexist. The men might dream of the Gibson Girl. The women want to be like her, but Gibson played fair and created a handsome, dashing romantic Gibson Man. A man who was always smitten and struck down by blind admiration of his Gibson Girl. A match made in ink heaven!
Ink struck lovers or not, I still love Gibson’s drawings, the stories he told, his sense of humour, and he’s still the man I go to if I need to refresh my brain so I can lay down some ink. I still hope the big red table top book will show up. Here’s a deep thank you to two great teachers, Mrs. Van Den Berg and Mr. Charles Dana Gibson. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.