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Pen and Ink and Saul Steinberg. Found at Ah Magazine

The art of the line is ancient. It is often instant and permanent. It is seductive. It is everywhere. It is drawings, it is maps, it is documents, it is cartoons, it is a record of our heartbeat, of our brain activity, of earthquakes. It is tattoos. At its sharpest, and at its best, we think, it is ink and pen..

This extraordinary drawing in pen and ink was made by a scientist trying to understand the complexity of the brain. Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) left more than 2900 drawings mostly of brain cells mostly in pen and ink of what he saw through his microscope. The process of drawing what he saw through the lens led to new theories about how the cells of the brain worked. He earned a Nobel prize. His theories have held up well under he scrutiny of much more complex instruments developed in the last 85 years.

1904 drawing by Santiago Ramón y Cajal of cells in the cerebral cortex of a child. New York Times Article has this and more

PENS, Real Pens >>Dip Pens

Just a few of the metal pen nibs available today.  These found at Pendamonium

If you want to make impressive lines in pen and ink sometime this week, you have two good choices– pens with nibs that are dipped ink (dip pens) and fountain pens that carry their ink inside.  This is somewhat equivalent to an acoustic guitar versus a synthesizer for making music, and beautiful though they often are (we have a few), we will leave fountain pens for another time.  (As for ballpoints and felt tips, we will leave them alone entirely. Iif you are a genius you might make something agreeable and lasting with them, but for the rest of us, these are best reserved  for jotting down grocery lists or “notes to self”, etc.)  

Metal nibs have been manufactured on a commercial scale in a wonderful variety of styles for at least 200 years.   Once you have one or two, find yourself just the right holder (consider weight /shape /material, as if you were selecting a tennis racquet or pool cue) to hold the nib securely and a bottle of  ink, most often brown or black.  Those of us who care about the quality of the lines we produce in pictures or prose will at some point find themselves in possession of nibs, many nibs, several comfortable holders, and a bottle or two of real ink.

Making your mark. It’s quite addictive. A nice presentation can be found here

And if you spill some ink, it often makes its own magic.

Indian Ink From Winsor/Newton

Whatever your pen, whatever your ink, whatever your goal, this combination of sharp instrument and strong dark fluid will serve you like no other combination.

For a very long time these simple materials and methods were all that was available.

Now there are dozens (hundreds!) of possibilities for making words and images visible to each other. Yet many artists in our time still rely on pen and ink to make their mark. One artist working right here in the 21st century has been drawing maps. Of cities. With pen(s) and ink.

This is a hand-drawn ink map of a section of Inverness Scotland, 6 and a half feet wide, completed by artist Carl Lavia and photographer Lorna Le Bredonchel found here Their goal is to render 68 cities in the UK in this meticulous beautiful fashion. You have to admire not only the outcome but the determination and effort.

OK back to work. If you want to make the most out of your dip pens and your collection of metal nibs, you will need to do some thinking about INK, about Drawing inks.

Fortunately, as with the nibs themselves, we still have available INKS that are essentially the same as what were used by artists and scribes an calligraphers of the past.  The packaging has changed a little as have a few ingredients, but their quality and qualities remain high.  Some will make marks that will outlast their makers. These and more to be found at My Modern Met.


We’d like to finish this exploration/lovesong about Pen and Ink with the reason we started it in the first place: our deep and lasting love for the images generated in this medium by a few of our favourite pen-and-ink artists.

Arthur Rackham R Crumb

We hope some of those above are already familiar to you.  If so, treat yourself to a reunion with one or two.  And if some are new and unknown, do check them out.  Making so much happen with simple lines is, we think, one of the miracles of our species.  Here are some links to those above to get you hooked.

JJ Sempe    Ronald Searle   Aubrey Beardsley    Len Norris   Len Norris_2  Arthur Rackham  R Crumb 

Mitsumasa Anno  James Thurber

The final line, rightly so, to Mr Steinberg,

From the cover of his book Steinberg at the New Yorker

Maybe I’m not using the right pen….

The above are hand-coloured engravings of cities engraved in 1597 for a book called ‘Viaggio da Venetia a Constantinopoli per Mare’ (Voyage from Venice to Istanbul by Sea). They are maps as well as illustrations and things of beauty. Done by Giacomo (Jacomo) Franco (1550-1620). Presented by the amazing BibliOdyssey here.

Sailing west a beautiful map of the Americas inspired by Nicolas Visscher in 1658. The map follows previous depictions for the interior of North America with open-ended Great Lakes and the island of California. More here.

The Russians had there own view of the rest of the world, and they showed it, in part, here. With the help of someone from TIME magazine, apparently. Found at Dark Roasted Blend

Nice piece of recent typographical mapping from vlad studio here.

Above is a map of Iceland long ago with depictions of a couple of local men and some whales with floppy weird antennae. Both now extinct it would seem.

This lovely, lovely map by Millo Antonio from an isolario (island book) of the Mediterranean. In the collection of Britain’s national Maritime museum.

Antoine+Manuel produced this joyful depiction of the RATP (Parisian Metro), Carte Intégrale, 2005

above 3 from

Map hearts/heart maps made by BOMBUS found here

Above is Halloweenland, which is not far from NeverNeverLand. Work in ink and watercolor on paper by Alison Murray Whittington, found at her site paintandink

This is the underground map of the world from Transit Maps of the World by Mike Ovenden. All aboard, doors closing. Next stop Tashkent. See here.

Maps are one of the most wonderful inventions of humans. They have a real and practical value for getting where you want to go, they are often beautiful objects in themselves, and they inspire the imagination. Blessed are the mapmakers–they’ll tell us where we are and where we aren’t.

We need to know where we are, and where we aren’t. Maps help. In providing that basic information, some maps manage to be beautiful. Here’s a map of a place you didn’t want to be in late December 2004.

The map of the eye of the 2004 tsunami and the places most affected is a portion of a painting by graphic design legend Paula Scher who is a member of Pentagram in NYC. Image from here, for e.g.

Above is a detail of another Paula Scher map painting. She has pretty much covered the whole world. This from a map blog called cartophilia.

Also based in New York is Maira Kalman, responsible (with Rick Meyerowitz) for the map above of NYC that was the cover of the New Yorker magazine for Dec 10, 2001. Image from here which shows more of Maira Kalman’s smile inducing illustrations.

San Francisco and surrounds got this imaginative mapping in the 1930’s. Image presented at strangemaps.

Christoph Nieman has a blog at the New York Times called Abstract City that has some nifty whimsical road maps in a post called My Way. He now lives in Berlin and is a multi-media (e.g.paper, Lego) artist. Thx to K in Portland for the tip off.

From a map of the Mediterranean by Diego Homem about 1560 shown on the BBC website.

A map of Philadelphia drawn and coloured in 1781 by Louis-Alexandre Berthier, image from Princeton University.

Maps of old–at least the ones that have survived–are almost always beautiful. The idea of conveying practical information with grace and artistry seems to have been with is a long time.

A visual guide to some places in well known nursery rhymes.

Some writers invent imaginary worlds for their characters to inhabit, places like Oz created by L. Frank Baum in 1900. A 1908 edition of the book included a map of the Wizard’s world. Both of the above from a blog called
full table

Hand drawn maps have their own charm. People put in what is important to them, not necessarily to anyone else. There are sites entirely devoted to this urge such as this and other sites that have requested hand drawn maps from their followers, such as this.

The above map is one I did. I opened the atlas at random and just picked places whose names appealed to me. Then I gave each one a colour and shape that seemed to fit. There was no earthly reason for me to do this.

Maps seem to make us feel safer. They tell us we are somewhere. It isn’t just motorists and explorers who need maps. We know, for e.g., that dolls need their own maps. This Atlas was made for Queen Mary’s Doll House at Windsor Castle (BBC).

Mr Harry Beck thought that riders of the London Underground needed a map that showed only what they needed to know. It was a revolutionary concept. As described on the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) website for a 2006 exhibition: MODERNISM–DESIGNING A NEW WORLD 1919 – 1939: The iconic London Underground map, which has been in use continuously since 1933, is in fact a diagram of the network. It shows relationships rather than distances to scale and uses only vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, with different colours for each of the Tube lines. The map has become a design classic, implicitly demonstrating the importance of simplicity, economy and utility – all key values promoted by Modernist design. Yet it was devised and produced by an engineering draughtsman, Harry Beck, after he had been made temporarily redundant by London Underground.

Since then (and before then), creative people aiming at showing people where they are and where they might want to go have produced some beautiful maps. For e.g. the image of Manhattan shown above posted on a blog called Aardvaarks (“burrowing through the world of images”, active until July 30, 2008)
Quoted from Strange Maps. The work is credited to Alexander Cheek, Assistant Professor of Design, Carnegie Mellon, and is called Neighborhoods of Manhattan.

And then there are the mapmakers who go beyond the limits of physical geography. Saul Steinberg, a New Yorker from Romania, via Italy, was the artist who, over and over, showed us what we already knew but had never seen.
These examples from Accuracy and Aesthetics.



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