Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorites in Pen and Ink

I've always had a fondness for drawings created with pen and ink or scratchboard.  Maybe that's because I've always found drawing with pen and ink somewhat intimidating and I admire those who can do it well.  When working with pen and ink, you not only have to be careful about not spilling or dripping your ink, but you have to have a good plan of where you're going with your drawing.  If your not careful with your crosshatching and shading, you can overdo it and end up with areas that are too dark.  This becomes even more of a problem if your drawing is to be scaled down for publication.

But when a pen and ink or a scratchboard drawing is done well, it can create a feeling of drama, delicacy or even energy. Three of my favorite children's book illustrators who have worked in these mediums are Maurice Sendak, Erik Blegvad and John Schoenherr.
The first Sendak illustrated book that I was ever aware of was one someone gave to my mother when I was very young. It was a little book written by Ruth Krauss called "A Hole is to Dig."  It has since been reissued in combination with another Krauss/Sendak collaboration, "Open House for Butterflies."  Both books are very charming and consist of Krauss's funny definitions like "A hole is to dig," "Dogs are to kiss people," "Snow is to roll in," "Buttons are to keep people warm," all accompanied by Maurice Sendak's wonderful pen and ink illustrations.  As children, my sister and I use to look at this book over and over again.  Many of the two page spreads are filled with details that keep the reader lingering on the page long after the minimal text has been read.

Erik Blegvad is a Danish artist, who even though he has illustrated over a hundred books is relatively unknown in this country.  Maybe I should say he's not a household word like Sendak, but then few illustrators are.  Blegvad also works in pen and ink, sometimes in black and white, but often his drawings are delicately colored with watercolor.  I believe many of his books are out of print but two that I know of are still available: "Around My Room," a book of poems by William Jay Smith, and "Mud Pies and Other Recipes, a Cookbook for Dolls." "Mud Pies..." is a sweet and funny little book with actual recipes on how to combine various elements like mud, leaves, dirt, sand etc. to create meals and desserts for your dolls.  Like Sendak's work in "A Hole is to Dig," Blegvad fills his illustrations with lots of interesting details.  Often there will be little dogs or cats somewhere in his pictures which always include lots of children involved in various activities.

I think my first exposure to Blegvad was from a calendar he created for Woman's Day magazine (which my mom subscribed to) in 1964.  I turned ten years old that year, and Blegvad's calendar captivated me enough that I cut it out of the magazine, strung it together by punching holes in the top margins and tied the pages together with string through the holes.  I still have it and I still love looking at the sweet illustrations.  One thing that I find striking about his illustration of a classroom for the month of May, is that he depicted an integrated classroom, which I think must have been a rather daring thing to do in 1964.

One book that is worth hunting down is his illustrated sketchbook called "Self Portrait: Erik Blegvad," which was published in 1979.  It is out of print but I easily found a used copy online.

An interesting fact is that Erik Blegvad's son, Peter is also an artist whose work "The Book of Leviathan" is a collection of his Levi and Cat's adventures, a comic strip that ran in The Independent on Sunday, a British newspaper.
One of my all time favorite books as a child was "Rascal" by Sterling North, based on North's youthful experiences in raising a wild raccoon.  The illustrations in it by John Schoenherr, which I believe are done in scratchboard, wonderfully evoke the WWI era in which the story takes place.  I love this portrait of the young Sterling with Rascal on his shoulder, framed in an oval that reminds the viewer of a turn of the century photograph.  And the picture of Sterling reading a book while sitting in a tree with Rascal conked out on a higher limb is one of my favorites.

Schoenherr also works in other mediums including watercolor.  He won the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations created for Jane Yolen's "Owl Moon," and also wrote and illustrated "Rebel," a story of a gosling who gets separated from his mother.  Interestingly, Schoenherr, like Blegvad, also has a son who is an illustrator.  John's son, Ian Schoenherr illustrated "Newf," by Marie Killilea and many others including "Read It, Don't Eat It," one of several that he also wrote.

By the way, Rascal was reissued a few years ago and the reproductions in it were terrible, many of the fine detail lines were missing, choked out by the black ink.  They looked like copies made from poor copies.  If you're interested in seeing these illustrations, look for an older copy of this book.  Sadly, the same thing seems to have happened with another book illustrated by Schoenherr, "Incident at Hawk's Hill," by Allan W. Eckert.  My copy of this book was purchased in 1996.  I have not seen earlier editions so I don't have anything to compare them to, but the illustrations in my copy are very dark and muddy looking, I doubt that this is the way that they were meant to look.


  1. Vince I too struggled with pen and ink in art school. I always ended up with an over done sketchy and unforgiving mess. So, I enjoy acrylics the best. Only an X-ray would show you the disasters behind my paintings.

    There is something so amazing about those pen and ink drawings, I'm truly in awe by the mere fact that the weights of the lines and dark and light can convey so much emotion, etc from the art work. Neat, huh?

    But I'm proud I took a pen and ink class because I improved my own techniques.

  2. I was googling Erik Blegvad and your blog appeared. I have always loved Mr. Blegvad's work and like you I collected the calendars from Mother's Day magazine starting around the same time you did. He illustrated the calendar for years and years. When my daughter was born and I had to return to work, I framed two of his pictures from the calendar showing a mother with her children doing simple ordinary things. I framed them together and the versus as well as the illustrations reminded me all these years (my daughter is now 25 and a teacher)what was really important to me. It's amazing what artwork of the simplest kind can do. This framed art of his two illustrations was hung on my office wall and still does. I was sad when Mr. Blevgard moved on from Woman's Day. Thank you for presenting him in your blog.