New Project: And Two Beautiful New Tools

This is really my first real attempt at sequential art outside of commercial storyboards (I didn’t really work on sequential frames as a storyboard artist back in the studio; it was a huge team of artists pulling everything together). This is the first time I have almost complete creative freedom, reigned in only by the script. And even that is flexible. What’s more, I have time- months- to do a good job on this. This is such a departure from what I’m used to, where clients will call you up and set a week long deadline, only to cough up the advance payment two days before the deadline and then request a slew of changes from their original brief and expect you to pull Photoshop magic to make it all work. Well, in my case, Procreate and Apple Pencil magic, because I came of age in the iPad Pro generation.

But it hasn’t been Procreate that’s won my heart today. For a long time (months really) I’ve been coveting a certain pencil: the Forever Sostanza pencil.

These beauties arrived in the mail today from Cult Pens, and I’d wanted them for so long that I was scared I’d be let down. Far from it, the moment I held them and sketched with them, I was pleased beyond my expectations. The way the Sostanza works is both astonishingly simple and simply ingenious. It’s basically just a slim cylinder of wood, tapered towards the end (I have here the Canaletto/ Black Walnut and the Mahogany models), with a hole drilled through it to hold a piece of 2mm lead. A ring made of silver slides up and down the slit to release the lead or tighten it and hold it in place for drawing. Effectively, it works just like the standard Staedtler 780c clutch pencil minus the push button drop type mechanism.

Because it’s all wood, it’s very light. Sketching with it was an absolute joy; the silver ring, which is finished in different accents to complement the wood of each model, served as the perfect gripping point for my fingers. If I have one complaint with my faithful old Staedtler 780c, it’s that the knurled metal grip can be a bit harsh, and gets dirty very quickly. Plastic grips on the other hand can get slippery in long drawing sessions. Wood solves all of those problems; the Sostanza isn’t quite raw unfinished wood, but it’s not polished to the point of obliterating its natural beauty. It’s superbly light, warm to the touch, perfectly textured, and handles so deftly in my hands that I was able to create three sketches in rapid succession. Even the packaging is gorgeous and minimalistic; it comes in a simple cylindrical glass tube, stoppered with a cork.

I was fully expecting the pre-loaded piece of lead to be some generic, scratchy HB lead, but it’s actually very nice to sketch with- tactile and toothy without being scratchy, and capable of a fair range of values. I don’t know the brand or grade (the lead is unmarked) but I wish I did- I’d like more of these. The only disadvantage to this pencil is that it it can’t be sharpened with either the Staedtler 2mm rotary tub pointer, or the tiny Faber- Castell lead pointer- the only way to sharpen it is to rub the lead on a bit of sandpaper. This isn’t a big deal for me at all, since I have a lot of spare sandpaper from woodworking projects lying around, and I use sandpaper to sharpen my 5.6 mm leads, too. There’s even an upside to this method of sharpening; the grit of the sandpaper often cuts uneven ridges and grooves into the graphite core, so that when you tilt and shade you get these expressive rake- like lines where the grooves skip on the paper.

The cool thing about this project is the versatility I get. As much as I want to become a full fledged Procreate artist, as much as the cool thing to do is to go digital (especially for entertainment arts) there’s just something in me (perhaps the part of me that goes crazy for stationary) that keeps drifting back to analogue art. I will still be compositing and developing all of these sketches on Procreate or Clip Studio, of course, but for the ideation stage I almost always find myself reaching for physical paper and pencils and pens.

A part of this, no doubt, is the inability to ‘zoom in’ on physical paper. This is something I’m guilty of doing too often when it comes to sketching quick, rough, sketchy thumbnails like these. So I keep this stage on paper, to focus on the composition and value groupings. And I try not to worry too much about mistakes and imperfections- these are less than blueprints, more like launching pads.

Part of the challenge of illustrating a short graphic story like this is envisioning different parts of an imaginary environment from different angles. Creating concept sketches is one thing, but intelligently searching for reference to help you navigate that created environment is a skill of its own. For this particular setting, I picked Aberdeenshire- a bleak, windy part of northern Scotland that I’ve visited once or twice, that serves the story purpose very well. There are a few master references I’m using, like Dunnottar Castle, but a lot of the smaller stuff that’s just as important has to be carefully selected; I can’t have shrubbery that’s native to Eastern Europe growing along the pathway to a barren Scottish island.

When I was a literature student, I often used to think that the study of literature is really the study of everything. Our tutors would take us to art galleries to help us understand the flavour of contemporary work we were studying, or make us read Newton’s theories on light refraction to help us understand what the poets were trying to capture during the Enlightenment. We had to study the impact of wars, the economics of slave trade, the realities of costume and stage and the challenges of bookmaking- there was history, science, sociology, art, geography, economics, religion and of course lots of politics.

But the deeper I get into art, the more I realize that it’s the same story here. You’ve got to understand all the technical scientific things like lighting, perspective, and colour, core shadows and cast shadows and bounced light and rim light- but you’ve also got to study biology, the human figure in movement, botany, the geography of various distinctive landscapes, and, most importantly, how to imbue character to environments and objects, and human emotions where there are no human subjects.

Perhaps that’s the way it is for everything- perhaps the distinctions between all the fields and practices of study are ultimately superficial, and on some very deep, core level, they’re all a study of the same thing: a universe in flux, and the stories of all who inhabit it.

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