Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Ballpoint Art?

Most artists train for years to master a specific medium, perfecting their technique as they strive to create a consistent, recognizable body of artwork. Not me. Not intentionally, anyway.

I did spend years discovering the practical applications of the ballpoint pen, becoming an expert in the use of my chosen medium to render letterforms and images from cartoons to detailed line drawings. I just didn't do it in the art studio.

Like every other college student, I spent hours every day writing pages and pages of lecture notes, essays and research papers with a regular ballpoint pen. Because I was a science major, I also wound up drawing lots of little pictures of plants and animals for biology class, chains of bent lines and hexagons in chemistry, and all kinds of angles, arrows, ramps and pulleys for my physics courses. This process continued on through medical school, only at double the rate. In the hospital I filled reams of chart paper with ballpoint ink, writing patient admissions, physical exams, progress notes, procedural outlines, lab reports and discharge summaries. By the end of my internship I had worn a permanent, pen-shaped groove between my writing fingers.

Ironically, the only place where I did not regularly use a ballpoint pen was in the art studio. After some difficulty convincing my college advisor to allow me to take an introductory drawing class (he felt it wasn’t the kind of thing a serious pre-medical student should have on his transcript), I tried using the ballpoint to sketch out my assignments. This unusual practice was soon discovered, however, and the lowly pen was banned from the classroom. Thereafter I was only allowed to use ‘legitimate’ art media (charcoal, pencil, and paint) in the studio classroom.

Of course this prohibition only increased my desire to work with the more familiar medium, though now all my ballpoint sketches had to be done outside of the art department, in my spare time. None of them would be included in my official student portfolio, and would not be considered in determining my grades.

Fortunately, my ballpoint drawings were eligible for consideration in the student literary magazine. In fact, one of them managed to take first prize – and I took home the $25 award. (I know that doesn't sound like much, but this was a very long time ago, and I was a poor college student. Twenty-five bucks was a lot of money to some people in those days, and I was definitely one of those people.)

Fast-forward five or six years, and very little had changed. I now had a degree and a medical license, but I had also made the decision to leave the hospital and become a full time artist, with very little in the bank, and a large educational loan hanging over my head. (We can debate the wisdom of that choice another time.) Suffice it to say that twenty-five dollars was still a lot of money, and the bills were piling up fast. If I were going to make a living creating artwork, it had to be with a medium I already knew how to use. There was no time to polish up my minimal painting skills, or improve upon my marginal ability to wield a pencil (which could be summed up in a single word: Messy).

Ballpoint was the only way to move ahead with any hope of success, so I settled on the happy medium I knew best.

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