Sunday, February 17, 2013

Newsprint is My Friend

They say that newsprint contains the chemical compound lignin found in wood pulp, so it turns yellow, becomes brittle, and deteriorates in a short period of time.  I wish I could reply with the Noel Coward line, “How beastly of them to say that – it’s slander.”  But alas, it is true.  Newsprint has a short shelf life.

This is unfortunate, because there is no finer drawing paper for artists who sketch with charcoal than good old newsprint.   Don’t worry about its rapid decay, though.  You can make Giclee prints of your precious drawings on durable “acid-free” paper and sell them for a few bucks each on the Internet or the sidewalks of New York.  

The more-expensive acid-free and archival drawing papers are highly processed -- coated with a hard sizing and buffered to remove the bad stuff, making them last until eternity, but leaving them totally unsympathetic to the touch of organic charcoal and the human hand.  Newsprint, which is not subjected to any chemical processing to remove the bad stuff, is pretty much like it was when it was invented in 1844, just mechanically processed wood pulp.  It has a soft feel that is friendly and inviting to the touch. 

My Figure Drawing Arsenal

On smooth newsprint, you can smudge with your fingers and quickly get back to the tone of the paper with a kneaded eraser.  I’ve never been able to smudge or erase successfully on those acid-free papers during the 30 years I’ve been drawing short poses from the live model.  Many artists feel smudging and erasing is a very bad thing.  One 19th Century command was never let your hand rest on the paper.  But I got over that when I read that Rodin admitted he often got lazy and smudged his drawings with his fingers.

Some artists like to draw on smooth brown wrapping paper, tracing paper or bond paper, but I prefer the convenience of newsprint pads, and the handling properties and pale beige tone of smooth newsprint, which shows the darkest charcoal accents to good advantage.

Another very good paper for charcoal drawing is Rives BFK, a 100% cotton rag printmaking paper.  This acid-free paper is softer than the drawing papers and takes charcoal beautifully.  But when you are going through 100 sheets of newsprint almost every week and can barely pay the rent, Rives is not a practical option.

Because it is both cheap and satisfying to work on, newsprint is still the paper of choice for learning figure drawing at the art schools.  The illustrator Frank Reilly taught hundreds of successful illustrators over the years.  He had them drawing their highly structured Reilly lines and shading on smooth newsprint with Wolff’s carbon pencils, which are a bit harder than the compressed charcoal pencils I use. Former Reilly students continue to teach his drawing method. They sketch on 9x12 inch sheets cut from the 18x24 inch pads.

Albert Wasserman,Notre-Dame de la Garde,Marseille,charcoal and ink,1983
Albert Wasserman, a good friend who won the top Pulitzer Award for painting at the National Academy of Design in the 1940-41 school year, as well as the silver medal for drawing, still sketches the figure beautifully on 18x24 inch pads of smooth newsprint, often filling up both sides of the paper because he has neglected to buy a new pad!  He occasionally will switch to smooth brown wrapping paper, accenting his work with white chalk.  At 92, Al still draws and paints a couple of times a week at open classes at The Art Students League, while teaching two painting classes every week, one in his home borough of Queens and one on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The two of us are often told that we “should draw on good paper.”  But we both know that nothing is better than newsprint for doing these quick charcoal figure sketches, which can be looked on primarily as practice sessions for the hand and eye. Those who prefer to sketch with pencil, pen and ink, pastels, watercolors and such, have their own favorite surfaces to work on, of course.

I’m not much good at pure line work and I’m not interested in anatomical studies.  I employ a fluid, painterly style of drawing, working the long point of a compressed charcoal pencil to a sharply angled, flat side for broad strokes and shading.  I can turn this broad side on edge for precise, delicate lines.  The newsprint has to be smooth, though, not rough, because the rough variety breaks the charcoal stroke apart in an unpleasant way, and erasing is not as easy.

But now there is trouble brewing for us lovers of smooth newsprint.

As in every industry, the supplies you prefer disappear over time or are changed for the worse.  My friend Al laments, for example, the disappearance of a particularly good French charcoal he was able to obtain.  He still has a supply of that charcoal, and he plans to search New York Central art supply store's extensive inventory for the paper he remembers being most receptive to that charcoal.

When I first started using the paper-wrapped Blaisdell charcoal pencils I was very happy.  You could just peel away the wrapping with the embedded string and maintain a broad, flat side of the charcoal all the way down to the end of the pencil.  Blaisdell was acquired by Berol and the charcoal pencils got thinner, often broke at the slightest pressure, and 2b, 4b and 6b grades, from medium to extra soft, were so inconsistent that they were rendered meaningless.  Berol stopped making the charcoal pencils and the remaining brands of peel-away pencils were awful, so I was forced to switch to wood-encased General’s charcoal pencils.  The transition was difficult, but I endured it manfully, and have managed to cope, but just barely.  I’m back to whittling the pencils with single-edge razor blades, which are now made in China and hold their sharpness about a third as long as the old “Made in USA” razor blades.  What can you do but whine away the hours.

I fear that genuinely smooth newsprint for the art market may disappear.  The daily newspapers that use it in enormous quantities may switch entirely to online publishing in the near future.   Due to the declining revenue from the newspaper industry, the manufacturers seem to be settling on an unsatisfactory compromise paper for the art market – somewhere between smooth and rough finishes – not as rough and not as smooth as before.

Smooth newsprint pads for artists formerly came in all sizes, including my preferred 14x17 inch size.  In the art stores I frequent, you can now only get 18x24 inch pads of smooth newsprint, a size I find uncomfortably large for drawing in a crowded sketch room.  Cutting it in half leaves you with 12x18 inch paper that is too vertical for seated poses, and 9x12 quarter-size sheets are too small for my exuberant, trial and error technique.   It’s the same problem cutting down the 36-inch rolls of newsprint that are available from the art stores, unless I want to waste a lot of paper. Rough newsprint is still available in all sizes.  

I want my 14x17 inch smooth newsprint pads back!  I sent away for a few pads of smooth newsprint in that size from Seth Cole, the California paper manufacturer.  The product I received wasn’t real disappointing, but not worth the shipping cost to the East Coast.  I haven’t tried Blick’s “all-purpose” newsprint with a “smooth” surface yet.  I’ve sometimes bought folded sheets of very smooth newsprint used as packing material in the moving business, but the fold can’t be smoothed out entirely, so the paper doesn’t lie sufficiently flat on my foam core drawing board.

In the late 1980s, I took home a large roll of “newspaper” newsprint that had been discarded on the Lower East Side and got about three years worth of drawing out of this perfect material.  An artist I know who studied the Reilly method had a friend who worked for a Canadian paper company, and until his friend retired recently, he got unlimited supplies of smooth newsprint from him.  I was very jealous.

I could continue.  But despite all my complaints, a few of which I’ve addressed above, when I’m drawing with the broad side of my charcoal pencil on smooth newsprint from a good model posing under the proper “form” lighting, God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.