It is our strength – your strength and mine – that we learn from our experiences. But this can also be our weakness: we are both blessed and cursed when we pick up a tracing brush.
Blessed – because we already know to grip it like a pen.
Cursed – because we expect it to function like a pen.
And it doesn’t.
Or so I thought until I learned about the pens which astronauts use to write in zero-gravity space: I’ve just discovered a helpful similarity …
Tracing – three mistakes
OK, so let’s float backwards for a moment. Consider first the harmful expectations which pens – normal pens – can can easily give us:
- We expect the same stability from glass paint which we get from ink
In particular, we have no conception of the amount of ongoing care that’s needed to keep our paint in prime condition from one stroke to the next.
- We’re unused to the sensitivity and spring of hair
Indeed, nearly all our tools are hard like brass or steel. Thus we’ve learned to continue pressing until we feel resistance, which is way too much for most hair.
- We imagine the paint will simply flow.
It’s a liquid after all. “So surely all I need to do is make it nice and runny …”
If you’re having problems with your tracing, just take time to consider these three points and the extent to which they inform your technique.
Tracing – three rules
Here are three good rules to take their place:
- You must assess your paint each time you come to load your brush
Will a few twirls be enough to maintain its balance, or must you now use your knife and take time out to grind down those ever-forming particles of dust?
- You must learn to discriminate between minute degrees of pressure, because this will put you in charge of how your brush’s hairs respond to you
For example, you will learn to slow down and pull back slightly when you trace a curve.
But you can only learn these fine discriminations if you choose to observe and respond to the differences between working with a tracing brush and working with a pen. (The frustrations are part of the journey, because they show you how you are learning.)
- Most of the time you don’t want runny paint – you want paint you can control
This means you don’t want to leave it all to gravity. In fact the paint must be dry enough so that it needs your force and energy to make it flow. Yes, dry enough, that’s what I said: one mistake a beginner always makes is they mix their paint so it’s too wet, and that’s when gravity takes charge. Certainly, the paint will flow, but rarely where you want it to.
Gravity – it brings me back to pens.
The ordinary ballpoint pen
Indeed, the ordinary ballpoint pen relies on gravity.
Inside it, gravity forces ink down the reservoir and onto the top-side of a rotating ball, which soon becomes the side in contact with the paper, thus dispensing ink.
The source of all our woe:
- Ready-made ink
- A hard tip
- Gravity doing all the work, leading us into lazy habits
So what’s the connection between your tracing brush and those pens which astronauts use to write in space?
The space pen
First up, the ink’s much thicker than in an ordinary ballpoint. It doesn’t just flow down or out. (If it did, it would be messy.) But it’s still just runny enough that it will flow under pressure …
So, second, the ink must be propelled. Not by gravity (we’re in space) but by pressurised nitrogen inside the cartridge.
I know you’ll know already how both these points are relevant to you.
Most of the time, your paint must be only just wet enough that, only when you apply pressure, it flows.
(The exception of course is flooding.)
A test for you
Here’s a test.
Mix some tracing paint. Load your brush. Now paint a straight line.
When you’ve done one, paint a second line, but this time stop and pause and start again.
Then stop and pause and start again.
Then examine the two lines.
Tiny wobbles aside (which only you will notice), if you can’t see any material difference between the lines, your paint is wonderful, and you’re in charge.
But if the arrested line shows blotches and bobbles, there’s something wrong.
Check the three rules above.
And you, what do you think? Do you stand or sit to paint? Do you only use a light-box or sometimes also use an easel? I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. I blame the light-box. In olden days, glass painters worked (nearly) vertically against natural light. (Some of us still do.) It’s clear that, whilst the paint is in the brush, the effects of gravity are much reduced: thus, the glass painter must force the paint to flow, because gravity is not much help. It’s also clear that, once the paint is on the glass, the effects of gravity are much increased: if the paint were runny, it would flow and cause an awful mess.