Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gerry Gersten

Tracing the lessons of tracing paper

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Caricature of G.K. Chesterton by Gerry Gersten

When you’re growing up, your life is filled with all kinds of paraphernalia that slowly disappear as you edge into adolescence and adulthood. All children are natural artists, both by instinct and because their inclinations are encouraged at least through the end of grade school, so a kid’s bedroom often looks like a Williamsburg studio: it’s cluttered with sketchbooks, colored pencils, crayons, watercolors, easels, construction paper, scissors, stickers, and the odds and ends necessary for collage or sculpture or origami. With schoolchildren, it’s taken for granted; for an adult, a house filled with these tools is the mark of an exceptional—or eccentric—personality, which is a little sad in itself. Half of creativity, I’m convinced, lies in remaining true to the values you had when you were eight years old, and it helps to have the right equipment at hand. (Even adults who don’t primarily work in creative fields seem to be getting the message: a lot of what Emily Matchar calls the new domesticity, with its emphasis on crafts like knitting and crochet, seems less about trying to replicate some vanished ideal of home economics than about recreating the mood of art class.)

And just as the materials an artist uses subtly shape the work at hand, the furnishings of a preschool art table carry messages of their own. Take the humble tracing pad. I haven’t seen or used tracing paper in a long time, and although I imagine it’s still used frequently in architecture and the fine arts, it’s another artifact that seemed to be everywhere I looked when I was younger, only to rapidly disappear once I’d left the playroom behind. Even in the professions that once might have used it extensively, its place has largely been taken by more mechanical forms of reproduction, assuming that the process hasn’t migrated exclusively online. Yet it’s still a fascinating medium. Anyone who has sketched on tracing paper—which is made of loosely spaced cellulose fibers, allowing the light to pass through—knows how appealing that surface can be: the page is finely toothed, so it’s perfect for taking a pencil line, and its translucency makes the image seem to float slightly above the rest of the pad. A sketch done on tracing paper simply looks a little more interesting than the same drawing on an opaque surface, and even if you’re just trying to replicate the picture underneath, you soon find that the version you’ve created takes on unexpected qualities of its own.

Strathmore tracing paper

It’s no accident that many artists use tracing paper as a medium in its own right, both for its textural qualities and for its ability to accommodate easy revisions. The great caricaturist Gerry Gersten, for instance, whose work I remember vividly from Mad Magazine, worked exclusively on tissue paper, as I once saw described in an issue of Step-by-Step Graphics:

Gersten works in layers of tissue paper until he reaches a point where he is satisfied with the relationships between characteristics—eyes to nose, nose to mouth and so on. He continually refines his sketch by placing a new piece of tissue paper directly on top of the previous one.

For a caricaturist, finding the right proportions between elements is essential, perhaps even more so than for a conventional portraitist, and tracing paper provides a convenient means for revision and refinement to take place almost in real time. Again, the physical properties of the paper itself inform the work in surprising ways: its translucency, which reveals a ghostly version of the original against the crisper black lines of the latest variation, allows different drafts to coexist without overwhelming one another, and the work in progress takes on a kind of layered beauty.

Which is why I hope tracing paper remains part of the standard toolbox of artists—and children—of all kinds, even if its place threatens to be taken by other forms of technology. It’s easy to make a scan or a photocopy, or to work in multiple layers in a painting program, but as with most transitions from analog to digital solutions, there’s a loss of tactile serendipity along the way. When you trace a drawing by hand, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, the result isn’t just a copy, but something that subtly complements the original. It has something of the same appeal as doing revisions in red pen on a paper copy of a story: both versions are still there, vibrating against each other, in a way that seems lacking when you’re doing corrections on the screen—and tracking your changes in Word isn’t nearly the same. Being able to create something new while keeping the old constantly in view is a skill that most writers learn to value: I’m reminded a little of how the novelist Kenzaburō Ōe describes his own approach to writing, in which he repeatedly revisits the same subject matter from different angles, a process he calls “repetition with a difference.” That’s what tracing paper taught all of us, and I’m starting to think that I should keep a pad of it handy.

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2014 at 9:26 am

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