Every year, my old buddy Dennis sends us a Christmas package from Georgia. This year there was DVD of Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse for me, a disc of Laurel & Hardy classics for Liv, and a book for Blake - all wrapped carefully with a set of handmade cards made from old magazines and holiday ephemera. I'd been putting off sending a thank you card because I wanted to return the favor and take some time to make one rather than buy one. The prospect of an illustrated card put me in a state of mild dread for some reason, but yesterday I decided to finally tackle the project head on. I figured that once I got started it would only take a few minutes, maybe half an hour to knock out a quick card.
After thinking for a minute, I began with a rough sketch of us enjoying our gifts. Nothing too elaborate, I wasn't trying to get all Al Hirschfeld and create amazing caricatures or anything. But I thought it might be nice to show each of us in a sequence of spots, so I had a layout idea to hang my hat on.
I had some blank Strathmore greeting cards, so I decided use a watercolor and ink approach. Now, I've never had much luck finding an ink that doesn't bleed when it gets wet. Even the so-called "waterproof" inks that I've used haven't held a crisp line under watercolor. So the prospect of mixing water and ink meant tackling an old media demon.
First things first, though. I did my rough sketch on a sheet of paper first, then I wanted to transfer it to the card. I do a lot of erasing when I draw, so I prefer to work out my sketches on smooth, infinitely erasable marker comp paper. Usually I'll trace over the rough work with a fresh sheet of paper to refine it and get it ready for ink. But the card paper was too thick to see through, so I tried using some Saral transfer paper. Maybe that stuff works great on certain surfaces, but it didn't work here. Exasperated, I decided to re-sketch the illustrations directly onto the card. Fortunately the Strathmore "mixed media" stock erased nicely and there weren't any rough spots when I applied the watercolor later.
Pilot makes a line of disposable fountain pens that I like to use, so I tried inking with one of those first. They're great for a lot of things, but I quickly discovered that the ink isn't exactly watercolor-friendly. I'm not sure why I thought this might work, but it's a good example of how most inks don't play well with watercolor.
I retrieved this fragment from the trash after I settled down:
Most inks out there just aren't bleed-proof when they get wet. You can try using your favorite pen for inking, but chances are as soon as watercolor touches your line work you can say goodbye to clean bright colors.
Next I tried using Higgins waterproof calligraphy ink with a Speedball nib - which also ended up in the trash.
Better, but there was still some bleeding that dirtied the color around the edges in spots. If I'd been going for an Arthur Rackham look, this would've been fine. But I wanted very clean colors for what I was trying to do here. What started out as just a quick 'thank you' card had become a campaign to settle this ink-and-watercolor puzzle for good. Looking around my studio, picked up a Sharpie. The lowly Sharpie. I usually use them for labeling packages or signing books, not illustration. If any pen is permanent, though, it's got to be Sharpie.
I decided to stack the spots vertically on the card and give the "ultra fine" Sharpie tip a try.
And whaddya know? I finally got my crisp, clean lines and un-muddied color. Not a masterpiece, but it had the vibe I'd been looking for.
The Sharpie may not be the most glamorous gun in the drawer, but so far I haven't found anything else that works quite as well for this kind of work. I was actually able to get some nice variation from the tip, too, although I found that for thinner lines I had to move pretty quickly. Best of all, there was zero bleed into the watercolor - none.
My 'quick' card ended up taking 3 hours to finish, but I'm going to go ahead and file this little project under Time Well Spent. Since I usually work exclusively with digital color, this was also a great exercise and excuse to spend some time with real paint.