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Studio Views: Human Mistakes and Trembling Lines

sv_selznick_staedtler_pencilAlmost all of my drawings are done with a Staedtler Mars technico lead holder, which is a blue plastic pencil that holds a 2mm lead in place. This type of pencil, which is sort of like a more heavy-duty version of a mechanical pencil (the kind with the very thin lead that breaks easily and is famously found in the pocket protectors of nerds everywhere), holds lead that is about as thick as the lead inside a common 2B pencil, the type you use in school. This pencil needs a special sharpener, a small barrel-shaped pointer that spins the lead around an enclosed blade with a satisfying whir. You can get an extremely sharp point with this little device, and since I work very small, I have a magnifying glass on a tensor arm attached to the side of my desk. The magnifying glass can be maneuvered into any position above the drawing for a clear view of the finest detail, and a small fluorescent light encloses the magnifying glass, creating a nice, even illumination. I use a kneaded eraser, which you can pull like taffy into any shape and then knead it to “clean” the graphite it’s just picked up. It’s great for picking stars out of a night sky or the highlights in the irises of a character’s eye.

My first book, The Houdini Box, was drawn with Bic pens. I had a “palette” of pens that I kept beside my desk, that went from new pens with deep black ink, to pens that were just about to die, which make that faint line that for most people makes the pen useless. But those faint lines were great for details in people’s faces and parts of the drawing where I didn’t want to get too dark. I loved the black/purple color of the ink, and the quality of the drawings felt very rich, but of course you can’t make a mistake with Bic pens — each mark is permanent — so if the ink blobbed or I drew a line in the wrong place, I had to start over. I’ll never use Bic pen again for an entire book.

I used to work actual size so I knew exactly what the drawings would look like when they were reproduced. Some people, like Chris Van Allsburg, work very large so that when the drawings are reduced for the book, all the details and lines become even sharper. It’s very satisfying, but larger paper means more time covering it, and somehow it never made sense for my own work. Then one day I went to an exhibition where I saw some of Maurice Sendak’s original drawings for I Saw Esau, his nursery rhyme collection with Iona and Peter Opie. I was surprised to see that he had done some of the drawings very tiny and then enlarged them for the book. This made the drawings rougher, looser, and it made you as a viewer more aware of each line and each stroke of color.

When it was time to start The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I thought about what I’d seen Sendak do. I tend to draw pretty realistically and somewhat “tight,” rendering many details to create what I hope is a believable scene. Yet I love letting the viewer be reminded that there’s an artist’s hand visible somehow behind the art, and I knew that if I worked small and then enlarged the drawings, then the human mistakes, the trembling lines, the touch of the graphite on the paper, would be even more visible. This was one of the reasons I started working small for Hugo and have continued doing so for Wonderstruck — and the book I’m working on now.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

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