Plein Air Pen and Ink

Shannon Trail, deep in the rainforest of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Drawn from life.

I just did something I swore I would never ever do. I cut the drawings out of my sketch journal. I used a sharp blade but it hurt anyway and I could have sworn I heard that book weep. A sketch should stay in the book, period. Larry Barth, a bird sculptor whose wonderful sketchbooks I’ve been privileged to examine, once told me, “sketches are your tools”. And so they are. And so, in the end, that’s why I took them out of the book- so they would be useful.

Vine and bromelliad-covered tree, Lutz Ravine, Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Drawn from life.

I keep a hardbound sketchbook for a special purpose. It measures 81/2″ x 11″, is filled with white paper, saddle-stitched in a khaki-green cloth cover. It’s been going to the tropics with me since 1998, on my second trip to Panama’s Barro Colorado Island. It was there I began filling its pages with ink drawings of the intricate, glorious tropical rainforest environment. With nothing between me and the forest floor but a plastic trash bag to keep me dry and moderately chigger-free, I would spend hours cross-legged rendering tree-fall gaps, vine-covered buttressed trees, bromelliads, confusion and complexity. Sorting out the visual madness and chaos, I would edit, crop, relocate trunks and branches, and emphasize ferns, termite nests and lianas as I went. No pencil underdrawing, just plain ink on paper (with a number 0 rapidiograph), starting in the foreground and working my way back to infinity, and drawing until the afternoon rains began and the sketchbook was put away in a plastic bag. In the rainforest, ziploc is your friend. I could get wet, but the book had to stay dry.

Understory with hummingbird, Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Drawn from life after just about sitting on a medium sized coral snake.

Over the years, my tropical sketchbook has become more and more precious as it’s been filled, page after page. I had become a little nervous about even taking it out of the house. You know, when something is that precious it ceases to be useful. I have let a few drawings go here and there, one to be published and then given as a gift to the author of a book on BCI, Egbert Leigh, and another framed for the exhibition, “Focus on Nature” at the New York State Museum, and subsequently traded for an amazingly beautiful plein air oil by my friend James Coe. So I haven’t been exactly a purist about keeping the integrity of my sketch journal. And now I want to turn my drawings into etchings. To get them flat on my scanner, they had to come out of the book.

11 thoughts on “Plein Air Pen and Ink

  1. Jim Coe says:

    I, for one, am very happy you decided to sacrifice the integrity of your sketchbooks so that you could share your work! Glad to see some other pages from the Barro Colorado Is. book reproduced here. They are beautiful (and I’ve got one of the best)!
    Congrats on the new blog address, too.

  2. nacona77 says:

    Wow, this is truly amazing work. I love the depth in each picture. I have just started my own blog site, and I want to feature artwork that I really love on it each day. Let me know if you ever want any of your work posted on there. Once the site fills up some I will be exporting it onto my poetry & artwork PHP site online. If not that is ok to. Your work is really great, and I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing!


    Shawn Nacona

  3. Julie Zickefoose says:

    All I can say, looking at #2, is that your brain works in a very different way from most people’s. Thank God for that. I could no more sit down and figure out what was going on in that rain forest than shoot a duck.

    I share your pain on cutting sketchbooks up. Had to do it for my book. But, once you do it, you’ll be able to do it more easily the next time you need to. I asked myself: What is the highest use for this drawing? And the answer was: Getting in front of tens of thousands of people. NOT sitting in my storage room in a precious sketchbook. And then it was easier. But I did squeeze back a few tears.

    BTW this philosophy helps a lot when publishers lose or destroy your work, as long as it has been reproduced FIRST.


  4. Carl Buell (OGeorge) says:

    The drawings in this post are magnificent! I haven’t done much in pen and ink in a long time. It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve done an entire project that way, but you’ve got me thinking about going back at it again, at least in a limited way. There are good things that working this way teaches you and makes you do and perhaps I’ve been away from it too long.

  5. Sara Simoes says:

    I’m in love with your forest drawings! And that’s a very nice ideia to make etchings out of them!
    Congratulations for your wonderful work.
    Sara Simoes (from Portugal)

  6. Phaser 8400 ink says:

    I just have to say that them kodak moments I’ve been looking at brings back happy memories!
    I sit back with excitement and tears looking at this priceless art!
    These type of drawings take a lot of practice and a lot of patience. I just want to congratulate the master minds of this project! Hey guys thanks so much for sharing, sometimes people need an enlightment of visual beauty to uplift the soul, and this sure did do the job!

  7. Susie Ruby says:

    Debby, I agree with Julie. How in the world does your mind work its way back into infinity. I nearly weep when I look at them.I want to create that same thing on some level, but just looking at yours intimidates the heck out of me. Anyone else feel that way?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s