artist’s fungus, or, the signification of the stylus

October 1st, 2007 | Oddments


Last week I was a visiting artist at the Center for Cartoon Studies. One of the things I did there was letter and ink a panel while the students watched, so they could see what kind of pen nibs, paper, etc. an actual working cartoonist used. This gave me an opportunity talk out loud about something I’ve spent my life suffering over in silence–the fact that most pens suck, and even the best ones constitute an obstruction, a hindrance to the line I could be making.

My ideal drawing implement would allow me the same freedom I have drawing with a stick in wet sand. No skipping, blotting, or catching. A line as thick or as thin as I desired in the instant, and that could be initiated from any direction or angle. Sort of the Platonic idea of a line.

But I’ve never been able to find a pen that will do that. Of course pens work very differently than sticks in sand–you’re laying down ink instead of scraping something away, and that’s always going to be a more delicate operation. But still, I dream.

Then yesterday I was walking in the woods with my friend Ruth and she pointed out that those big semicircular fungi that grow out of trees have a smooth white underbelly that you can draw on. I’ve seen those things all my life, and never knew this about them. They’re even called “artist’s fungus.” So I took a stick and drew on one, and it was the most delicious drawing sensation I’ve ever had, way better than a stick in sand. The underside of the fungus is a smooth, creamy white surface. And when you draw on it, you expose the brown mushroom underneath. Here’s a kinda sucky little movie me and Ruth made of it with my digital camera.

36 Responses to “artist’s fungus, or, the signification of the stylus”

  1. Robin B. says:

    Hi, Alison. Is scratchboard unsatisfying? It seems like it would have a similar effect to the mushroom, but perhaps the physical sensation is totally different. Scratchboard seems to be an incredibly labor-intensive way to create art. Maybe that’s the last thing you need!

  2. Jill says:

    My grandmother used to paint little landscapes on them. I always called them shelf fungus :). We sometimes would paint with her; it was fun!

  3. lucy says:

    hi alison. have you ever used a program by the alias company called “sketchbook pro.” i work for an animation company and all the artists here that use it, love it. its much looser than the adobe programs. i know its not the same as traditional drawing, with pen and paper. just wanted to pass that on and let you know i love your work so much.

  4. kate mckinnon says:

    Me and Ruth? oh dear.

    Did you read the funny series Neil had on his site about me and them, them and me, and the uses of me vs. I? It was a funny take on the niceties of the grammar rules. I think you mean “Ruth and I,” although if you were feeling like a Top to her Bottom apparently you could say “I and Ruth.”

    Cute mushroom. Do you know what pen I miss? The Pilot Razor Point in black, the sexiest off the shelf pen to ever live.


  5. Raffi says:

    It’s easy to make grammatical errors when rushing with emails and biggie! It just shows that you’re human.

  6. Jon-Mikel says:

    Hi Alison. Sorry I missed you in WRJ.

    Maybe it’s time to switch over to a brush; you’ll get a lot closer to the “Platonic idea of a line.” Also, you may be interested in playing around with a glass brush – it’s the smoothest line I’ve ever had. Also, as I’m sure many of the students mentioned, you might try playing with a Tachikawa G nib. They’re very popular at the CCS.

    Of course, I’m still madly in love with my trusty Hunt 107, despite the ink flow problems that seem endemic to Hunt nibs made after 1960.

    The guy who runs New York Central Art Supplies is a true pen geek – he might be able to point you to the pen of which you dream.

  7. Hey, Jon-Mikel. SOrry I missed you too. I was actually given a G nib when I was down there. I was all excited, but when I got home and tried it out on my plate finish bristol, it bled! Maybe I just need to break it in more.

    As for my grammatical error, it was intentional. I don’t know why. Sometimes I just like to talk wrong.

  8. A Reader says:

    The film was great. I love that you left the fungus where it was. Now, when passing squirrels look up they’ll find secret fungus drawings.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I know the answer to this question is out there somewhere, I just don’t know where…what kind of pens DO you use (somebody else can direct me to where I might find the answer to this question as well)?

  10. stumptown SK says:

    talking wrong

    wonderful mushroom story and drawing, the whole blog, lovely – stick in sand, yeah, great…

    writing wrong

  11. Brian Moore says:

    Hi Alison! To add to what is sure to become a long list of pen recommendations … have you had the opportunity to play with a brush pen?

    I recently picked up a Kuretake brush pen and it’s got all the likable attributes of a brush (good line variation, unlimited angles of attack) but doesn’t require any trips to the ink bottle or pointing of the brush. The downside: if you’re used to the firmness of say, a crowquill nib, a brush pen might seem really mushy. But it’s really freeing to just draw and draw with it. It’s definitely sped up the inking time on my comics.

  12. hunt #100
    I use this nib, the Hunt #100 Artist’s Pen.

    Yeah, thanks for the suggestions about brushes. I do use a brush for panel & balloon outlines, but what can I say. For drawing, I like a firm implement.

  13. Ken Leslie says:

    Hey, Alison–I’m getting geared up to read “Fun Home” with my freshman comix class again (last year they LOVED it–even those boys-will-be-boys boys! Forgive my surprise!) So, in preparation, I checked into this site and saw your mushroom challenge. About 10 years ago my daughter, then 8, was furious that her class hike up Mt. Pisgah quit half way, in deference to those in the class who couldn’t go futher. So that weekend I took her up to the top. To commemorate it we made these same mushroom drawings of the view. Unlike you, we took our ‘shrooms back home. You might be interested in knowing that they dry and last, well, at least 10 years–I’m looking at mine now! Ken

  14. Rick says:

    Vandalizing nature, huh? Go you. ‘Tis a very cool mushroom.

    I’d join in on The Great Pen Debate, but I still just use Pilot Precise V, Extra Fine. Which are no longer what they used to be, sadly. I seem to remember a grey version that had an even thinner, smoother line than their current Extra Fine. But ah well. I just never got used to the scratching sounds of a nib pen. It’s almost like nails on chalkboard for me.

    And sticks on sand are pretty nifty, but there was always those bunched up bits of sand that I could never quite get rid of. I think my favourite “nature” materials are leaves. Except for all the sap [occasionally], the lines tend to stay pretty smooth and even.

  15. Bruce says:


  16. zeitgeist says:

    Wow, Hunt #100, huh? And all these years I was so sure you were using a rapidograph.

  17. Josiah says:

    You realize, of course, that there will now be legions of comix fans scouring the woods of Vermont for the Alison Bechdel original you left attached to the side of a tree…

  18. Maggie Jochild says:

    Oh, Josiah, you’re such a fun guy.

  19. Blushing Girl says:

    I love a woman who prefers a firm implement…

  20. laura says:

    WOW!!!!! Allison, not only are you a genius, but you let us get glimpses of your creative process. Mushrooms, comments on pens, sand-and-stick drawing ARE a treat! Thanks.

  21. AmandaTheGreat says:

    Oh god, I have the same trouble with pens. I find that Copic multiliners are alright in that they get so small that I can generally get the precision I look for, and I don’t even remember the name of the pens that I loved best ever; they just had a little metal tube where the ink came out, rather than a ball or a felt tip or anything, so you were really just laying the ink down. Rather satisfying.

    I’ve never liked drawing in the sand because I get annoyed at the excess sand off to the side of my lines. The mushroom sounds pretty good though.

  22. Chris (in Massachusetts) says:

    Have you ever tried the Wacom graphics tablet?

    The stylus and tablet is the damndest thing I have ever used. The stylus is angle/position sensitive, and recent versions have an insane number of levels of pressure sensitivity. (=line thickness and/or color density.)

    The downside is that you have to learn a whole new way of drawing. The stylus does so much, it’s more than just a pen or brush.

    Plus, there’s the weirdness of looking at the monitor while you draw, instead of the tablet.

    It took me a long while to get used to working with the tablet. I like the versatility. And yet, I still find myself looking at the tablet and not the screen from time to time.

  23. Becky says:

    There’s always the Tablet PC, if you really want to splash out. A friend of mine is a freelance cartoonist, and he swears by his.

  24. --MC says:

    All my cartoonin’ chums are buying brush pens and drawing in Moleskines.

  25. Kat says:

    So now that we know what pen you use, what about the ink?

    I know, I know, we’re all weird obsessive fans….

  26. holli says:

    In Asia, they have hi-tech, felt-tip brushes for writing calligraphy. I think they might give you the sensation you want against the paper.
    The nearest to you that I know to get them is the mall in the old Sears building at Porter Square in Cambridge, Mass. It is full of Japanese businesses, and is also excellent for noodle bowls at one of the (6?) Korean/Japanese style fast-food places. And that AMAZING paper store is right down the street!

  27. Christine Hahn says:

    I used to draw on the tree fungus all the time as a sullen artsy teen. My mom still has a few of them. They last forever.

  28. TeratoMarty says:

    The shop in the “Sears Building” (AKA Porter Exchange Mall) is Tokai, and they do mail-order.

  29. Jana C.H. says:

    I once took an art class in which the teacher had us draw with twigs dipped in ink, on brown butcher paper, using white chalk for highlights. I did some surprisingly good drawings that way.

    I’ve been getting the hang of brush pens for quick, on-the-spot sketches. My usual drawing style is to use pencil with lots of erasing and correcting. The brush is discipline; once the mark is on the paper, I have to work with it. Sometimes I cheat and sketch in the basic proportions with pencil first.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Floss Forbes: If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  30. sharon says:

    How about a nice grey litho stone? If you like it firm, it’s worth checking out the old fashioned hi-tech method, the most sensual think I’ve ever drawn on, oh golly it’s lush, and get a lovely print geek to edition it for you. You can use all kinds of implements and wet or dry goo, and scratch back in for whites and rework the whole thing after you print… ok, maybe not for the comic, but as a side project some day.

    Sharon Rosenzweig

  31. mysticriver says:

    Wow. Love everything about this post.

    Including the fact that so many people near Porter Square in Cambridge are weighing in! Pearl Paint in Central Square, Cambridge (and one would presume, NYC) also carries the brush pens.

    Yay Hunt 100s! Actually I think I used to use a 102. My favorite was something called a Spencerian No. 9, I found a few in a now defunct antique shop.

    Charles Schulz – someone also devoted to the perfect line -apparently favored one particular nib most of his career, and when the company stopped producing it he bought the remaining lot. As far as I know he had stocks for the rest of his career.

    Thanks for such a cool post!

  32. Kelli says:

    Yes, it’s a shame how Sparky’s palsy affected him so much in his later years.

  33. Aunt Soozie says:

    Pen and ink did me in…and that blasted ruling pen…Whatever! I would use half a roll of masking tape to adhere the ink bottle to my drawing board so I wouldn’t knock it over…and always kept the wite out nearby. My professor used my work as an example of what not to do, “I said you could apply some wite out but not with a roller”.

    Led me to printmaking. You’re so right about stone lithography Sharon. Yummy. And the way the ink sits on the paper, too…once you’ve pulled the print…yummilicious.

  34. holli says:

    I live in Aspen now, but Porter Square is one of the things I miss most about Boston.

  35. nimble says:

    Sometime try drawing on a piece of vellum or parchment – the real animal skin kind, prepared with some powdered pumice the way calligraphers prep it. An unbelievable surface for pen and ink, but expensive and of course not exactly cruelty-free. Talas in NYC is a good source, also smaller pieces are available from John Neal Books.

  36. Elliot says:

    I love the connection you made between the stick and sand drawing towards pens. It seems that most pens now days just flat out suck. I’m tired of using pens that create “bumpy” and uneven lines. I use pencil because of my annoyance with pens, but if ever I found a pen that could be used the way a pencil or for you, the way a stick works in sand, I would switch over in an instant.