Stippling is many things: It?s challenging and satisfying, yet it?s frustrating and mundane. It?s not a technique for the weak-willed, for the time and commitment required to create a successful stipple drawing are considerable, but the range of values and the subtle effects you can achieve with it are truly unique. Once you try it you?ll know right away there?s no other art like it.
A Dose of Impressionism: The suggestion of reality in stipple landscapes is just as important as exactitude. I don?t draw leaves, for example—instead I use a large nib to loosely suggest their shape and texture, as in House on Prospect, Champaign, Illinois (ink, 11×14).
Simply speaking, stipple is the artistic method of creating light and shade with the use of dots, and I like to think of it as black-and-white pointillism. With stipple there?s no blending of color—the black dots alone suggest form, value and texture. Load up your pen and get comfortable, and I?ll show you how far your artwork can go from such humble beginnings.
The Dot Machinery
The most successful stipple drawings are done with technical pens of varying nib sizes, which allows a wide range of dot sizes, densities, and values. You can purchase one pen with interchangeable nibs or a complete set of different pens. (I find the set more convenient when I need to switch point sizes in the middle of a drawing.) Although you can stipple on a wide variety of paper and board surfaces, it?s helpful in the long run to work on a durable surface that can withstand handling, moving and dinging of the corners, such as a heavyweight illustration board.
The Look of Life: You don?t need lines to create realistic faces for your portraits. As I did for Dr. Newman (ink, 18×24), keep the dots small, then switch to slightly larger nibs as you move into the shadow areas and into the neck and hair.
Stippling is a very slow process, and you may need to set aside your drawing from time to time, so it?s important to keep your drawing clean throughout the project. To protect the surface from the oil on your skin, always work with a clean piece of paper under your wrist and forearm. When you set the drawing aside, store it flat in a loose plastic bag to let it dry safely and to keep dust off. If you work from a pencil drawing, be sure you have an eraser handy to remove any excess pencil dust from the surface, and be sure your pen is clean. It?s helpful to start the ink flowing on a test sheet before starting.
Points of Light
So how do you choose what size dots you need, and how do you begin? The values in your subject are the most important factor, and there are two principles for you to remember. Generally, the darker the value you want, the larger the pen point you use because larger dots give blacker, bolder results. But nothing is that simple, so you must also consider the space between dots. The closer the dots, the darker the value.
Here?s a good approach to creating a range of values: Let the dots in the darker value ranges overlap increasingly with each successively darker value, but be sure that the dots don?t touch each other in the lighter ranges. Plus, when drawing a large passage of a consistent value, it helps to get it right the first time. It?s very difficult to go back into an area to add dots for a darker value and still maintain the careful spacing you?ve already established, and altering your existing pattern can have unintended consequences for the resulting value.
This gets to the idea of rhythm, which is very important here. It?s often helpful to draw in small repeating patterns of dots, particularly in same-value areas. This process allows you to find a rhythm, or a comfortable pace, for working, which helps to keep you relaxed and consistent. I like to work in repeating ovals of dots, but with practice you?ll surely find your own favorite pattern. This can be laborious work, and letting a comfortable rhythm carry you along in your drawing will make the work seem less arbitrary and tedious.
Like Nothing Else
As a matter of preference I?m a purist about stipple, but there are plenty of ways to combine dots with other pen-and-ink techniques, such as contour lines or hatching, to produce a style that?s uniquely yours. The greatest appeal of a stipple drawing, however, should be in the elements that are specific to stipple, such as softness and an impressionistic look. Otherwise, you could do the piece with lines in half the time!
Finally, one of the most important ingredients for successful stippling is the right mind-set. ?How quickly can I get this done?? isn?t it. Patience and relaxation are a requirement, yet while you don?t want to be so stressed or anxious that you bang your pen like a jackhammer on your defenseless surface, you also don?t want to be so relaxed that you give in to the temptation to draw lines. So be brave, dive in and give stippling a try. Few achievements are as satisfying as completing a much-labored-over drawing with a technique that many artists don?t have the courage to approach.
- When choosing your subjects, seek out interesting light and shadow patterns. The soft effect inherent in stipple is nicely contrasted by a crisp, clean value pattern.
- When inking over a pencil sketch, gently wipe the point often—though avoiding the tip—with a soft, lint-free wipe.
- To create straight lines, first draw a few spaced dots along the pencil guide line, then go back and add dots using the original dots as a guide. Looking ahead helps to keep your dots straight.
- For areas of lighter value, don?t create the edges separately—draw them as part of a continuous pattern of dots to keep them from looking like outlines.
- When drawing a large graduated passage, you?ll get good consistency in the results if you fill in one strip of the passage from beginning to end across the value change, then use that strip as a guide to follow throughout the passage.
- If you?re inking over a pencil drawing, remember that the values will appear darker over the pencil marks than they will after you?ve erased the marks.
- If possible, complete an entire section of same-value dots in one sitting, as your speed and intensity invariably affect the appearance of the dots and will change slightly with each sitting.
- Rest your eyes often by looking away from the drawing or getting up for a while. In addition to relieving eyestrain, this helps you evaluate the larger value pattern.
- If you plan to draw a building, realize right from the start that it?s virtually impossible to achieve architectural accuracy with stippling. If a precisely accurate rendering is what you want, stipple probably isn?t the right method for you.
- Choosing to stipple doesn?t mean you have to give up detail. Keep your dots small, and they?ll be all you need to create the realistic detail you want.
- If your drawing will be reduced for reproduction, making a photocopy at the desired reduction will help clarify which areas may fill in or drop out when the piece is printed.
Gretchen Huber Warren has been creating and selling fine art in several media for more than 15 years. She received her bachelor of fine arts in illustration from the College of Visual and Performance Arts at Syracuse University. Her work has been published by several card, calendar, print and book companies. Her original paintings are available at The Wright Gallery (Cape Porpoise, Maine), The Smith-Klein Galleries (Boulder and Broomfield, Colorado) and at the Copley Society (Boston). She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.