Pen-and-Ink for a New Era

Pen-and-ink illustration is an extraordinarily versatile technique with a long and storied history. While artists use pen-and-ink for everything from fine art to political cartoons, many of the most enduring examples come to us in children’s books. It seems there’s something about the technique that lends itself to exploring the deep and often surreal realm of the child’s imagination. I spoke with our extraordinary illustrator, Adam McCauley, about his use of crow quill pen-and-ink for Mr. Dog.

Mr. Dog in Santa Suit in Front of the Mirror

Adam McCauley, 2014.

Two of the major sources of inspiration McCauley mentioned were John Tenniel and Maurice Sendak. Both used pen-and-ink to tremendous effect, but with contrasting styles. Tenniel’s illustrations for “Alice in Wonderland” have loose lines, and a more spare effect that focuses on the characters—in McCauley’s words, “Tenniel’s work is virtuosity in its looseness.” Maurice Sendak, best known for his classic tale “Where the Wild Things Are,” was likewise an expert with pen-and-ink. But his backgrounds are much richer, and every nook and crevice is fleshed out with value.

Alice in Wonderland Illustration 

John Tenniel, 1865.

Maurice Sendak Illustration

Maurice Sendak, 1967.

Though he drew ideas from both illustrators, McCauley’s work is very much his own. In his work as a professor at the California College of the Arts, he sees students struggle all the time to describe a space using pen and ink. “One of the fun things about the technique of crow quill,” McCauley notes, “is you make the marks in a volumetric way, and so you’re describing form and space with the direction of your pen stroke.”

Mr. Dog tells a story to the Hollow Tree folks

Adam McCauley, 2014.

Every mark has the potential to communicate volume and space. “It’s easy to block in value areas using straight-up hatching,” he says, “but it's when careful thought is given also to the forms within the value areas that a pictorial space blooms into a parallel reality.” Line weight and linear connection are equally important. Heavier and connected lines come forward; lighter and disconnected lines move back. “I try to teach my students this when they do it,” says McCauley. “It takes them a little while to grasp it but once they do they’re just like WHOA! This looks so much more spatial.”

Messrs. Dog and Crow share a pipe J.M. Condé, 1898.

Messrs. Possum, 'Coon and Crow hang stockings

Adam McCauley, 2014.

Albert Bigelow Paine published “Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn” in 1898, as the summation of a series of stories following the hijinks of the Hollow Tree people and their mercurial friend Mr. Dog. He worked with illustrator J.M. Condé, whose drawings are characterized by a spare and sketchy quality perhaps influenced by his work in comic strips. McCauley felt that although they demonstrate a nice gestural approach, Condé’s illustrations were a bit too generic, and didn’t do enough to capture the characters’ personalities.

Another big innovation over the originals that McCauley introduced is his use of color. Although Condé sometimes embellished his ink illustrations with watercolor, his work for the Hollow Tree series is purely black and white. For the color in the new illustrations, McCauley used Photoshop, aiming to evoke the look of ephemera from the Victorian era, which were often produced using lithographic printing techniques.

A chromolithograph Christmas card from the Victorian era

A chromolithograph Christmas card from the Victorian era.

The shift away from pen-and-ink in illustrations for children’s books tracks a broader thematic shift as well. Stories for children from the Victorian era often surprise modern readers with their darkness, surreality, and moral ambiguity. “I like the Victorian story,” says McCauley. “Compared to a lot of the other stuff that I’ve illustrated over the years it’s very weird. In a good way. It’s just strange. And for me [Mr. Dog] was an opportunity to make something that was charming but also had a bit of grit and darkness to it.”

Illustrators today have more tools at their disposal than ever before, but sometimes it’s an old-school, labor-intensive technique that best solves the problem at hand. There’s something timeless about pen and ink. Maybe that’s one reason Adam’s illustrations seem as if they’ve always accompanied this story. We couldn’t imagine Mr. Dog any other way.

The Hollow Tree folks arrive bearing gifts

Adam McCauley, 2014.

Share this post

Leave a comment

Note, comments must be approved before they are published