Saturday, March 07, 2020


India ink is an Old Testament god.

It is unforgiving and irrevocable.   Artists may plead for mercy, but ink permanently records their every shortcoming and uncertainty.  Watercolor will let you renegotiate your choices.  Photoshop will let you reduce the opacity of that layer, guilt free.  But ink obliterates everything, everywhere it goes.

That's why beginning artists, if they are wise, fear ink and try to control it with a rapidograph or a no. 3 brush.  That's also why experienced artists who can draw quickly and confidently with ink are so inspiring.

Consider the terrific drawing by Joe Kubert, above.

In his 70 year career Kubert drew many thousands of pictures under tight deadlines.  During that long apprenticeship he and ink grew to become close friends; he learned how to make the most of ink's liquid qualities and to achieve powerful effects with its dense blackness.  Look how beautifully he controls the structure of this face with just a few loose dabs:

You can't work with that kind of speed and simplicity unless you've already thought out the concave shadows of cheekbones, the receding plane of the chin and the unity of the shadow on the neck and face.  These were strong choices and once made they could not be revisited because the choice wasn't there any more.

I also love the marvelous ink on that skirt--

What character! What personality! What a facility for hydrology! That free flowing ink captures the free flowing skirt in a way that a rapidograph or dip pen never could. Notice Kubert's courageous decision to completely blacken both arms and the shawl.  Turning them into silhouettes was a key dramatic choice for the picture.

And speaking of staging, it was smart to convey a dead body by showing only the feet projecting from the back of a cart, but it was brilliant to direct our attention to the woman by placing her face between those two feet: 


These are the choices of a master who has spent decades figuring out how to make the most out of the limited space in a comic book panel.

 Each of these choices could've easily gone awry as the result of a misplaced brush stroke or even a last minute failure of nerve. Yet Kubert pulled it off like the pro he is.  Ink may seem like a simple binary choice-- black or white-- until you experience its richness in the hands of an artist like Kubert.


Camomile said...

Posts like this are why I follow your blog: you help me really see. Thanks for articulating that which might otherwise slip by unnoticed. You broaden my enjoyment and give me a sense of being one of the cool kids who "get" art.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I responded to the feeling-emotion in his work . His pencils were loose , leaving a lot to be said with the ink . The Sargent Rock and Enemy Ace facial closeups showed a complete involvement and conviction in the characters . That later in life , unlike many artists , he would attend life classes , shows he was still seeking improvement . As an adult he hasn't dimmed a bit .

Early Neal Adams work showed a real feeling for character , but the minute he began inking with a rapidograph [ '78 Ms Mystic ] ? he lost something which Kubert never did , likely due to the choice of what to express his vision with .

Al McLuckie

comicstripfan said...

Thank you Mr. Apatoff for this example of an analysis which is hard to find and which helps those of us who love comic art understand why we appreciate it so much. And thank you Anonymous for reminding us of Mr. Kubert’s wonderful epitome of an American G.I. at war: “Sgt. Rock”, helmet slightly tilted upwards and cocked to one side, stripes sporting a golden glow on the front, straps hanging loose on each side, the visage comparable to that of a veteran athlete, slightly wizened perhaps, who’s seen and been through it all.

David Apatoff said...

Camomile-- Thanks, you made my day!

Anonymous / Al McLuckie-- I agree. Neal Adams was another one of those fearless inkers, from his Ben Casey days through his DC / Deadman and Warren periods. I loved the way he'd start with fine line cross hatching using a flexible nib pen, then come back with a heavy black brush to create extreme contrasts. It was a different approach than Kubert's, but still very gutsy.

comicstripfan-- Yes, Kubert was synonymous with Sgt. Rock, and we can really see him mature as an artist over the years with that comic. By comparison, Marvel's counterpart-- the Sgt. Fury title-- had none of the fine attributes you describe, and none of the growth. There are comic artists who continue to improve with time and those who simply tread water.

chris bennett said...

Wonderful post David, thank you.
If ink is an Old Testament god then that of the New Testament would have to be sanguine chalk.

Movieac said...

So many great artists then. Russ Heath was a favorite of mine with Joe Kubert. Any thoughts?

Alan Hartley said...

I have ruined many a proud pencil drawing by inking it.

Vanderwolff said...

That last sentence:

"Ink may seem like a simple binary choice-- black or white-- until you experience its richness in the hands of an artist like Kubert." filled me with an intense sadness, and also a sudden desperate appreciation. The latter due to your fierce, heartfelt summary of Joe's rarely-matched command of a humble medium, one that the brutal demands of a bygone system like the comics industry in the 50's, 60's and 70's could transform into a brilliant graphical Morse code for the gifted few; the former due to the fact that we are relegated to the past tense as that kind of mastery recedes into an occasional searing salute, such as yours, as we watch those distant islands burn.

Maybe I'm just old.

Thanks David, as always, for keeping us moored to what's real.

bcedraws said...

One of the greatest of them all ...Sergio Toppi

Mort said...

Here´s Alberto Breccia retelling (in spanish) how he came up with the razor inking technique.

Also his quote about inking, as best as I recall: I won´t be a slave to the pen and the brush, if for an effect I need a hammer, I´ll use a hammer.

Mort said...

And since I´m being a pest again and navigating youtube; here´s a very nice report on the late uruguayan cartoonist Hermenegildo Sábat (spanish).

Rabbytx said...

Was white out not a thing at the time? :)

Robert Cosgrove said...

There were a few instances where the Kubert School was selling copies of Kubert books--specifically, Tex and later Kubert's book on figure drawing where you could order a copy of the book (obviously at quite an enhanced price) and Kubert would do a drawing in it. One could request that he draw something in particular, but Kubert reserved the right to draw whatever he wished. The offer was enticing enough for me to by a few duplicate copies of already-purchased books for the opportunity to acquire a Kubert drawing. When each book arrived, it was quite apparent that Kubert had done the drawing inside directly in ink, and in at least one case, white-out or white gouache, not to correct errors but to create particular effects. No pencil work apparent. His skill in wielding a pen was amazing.

kenmeyerjr said...

Ha! Hydrology! You helped me learn a new word, you smart bastard!