• Martha Iserman

What's Black and White and Big Red Sharks All Over?

I've been exploring this sun-bleached country with a steady stream of house guests over the past month so I haven't been able to work in my studio too much recently. We've done a lot of hiking, eating, and exploring and I have a greater appreciation for Australia because of it.

Turns out Australia has some pretty cool outdoors!?!



I did get to spend some time on my Red Locust project, (the little bug that I bought at the weird specimen shop and decided to illustrate in as many different art styles as I'm proficient in). This time I went back to my roots and rendered it in pen and ink. I'm happy with how it turned out and it made me remember how much I love black and white illustration!

(Specimen, Watercolor, and Digital Painting)

...dots and lines and dots and lines and dots and lines and...

The key to a solid pen and ink illustration is a steady hand and lots and lots of patience. It also helps to have a lamp with a magnifying glass to help ease the strain on your eyes with all of the tiny details.



For this image, I used micron pens, which allows for better control than the old school nib pens that dip into ink. It also allows for a more steady distribution of stippling (small dots that create shading).

(Here's a slightly sped-up video of me inking with guest appearances by my bangs, my toe thumbs and some sick jazzy jams.)



I was introduced to pen and ink as a child through the original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel

Nothing like a psychedelic trip down the rabbit hole to inspire a young girl towards a

well-rounded career.


Anywho, Alice In Wonderland was the best. Turns out, it's also the gold standard story for illustrators to try out their personal style. When I was a kid I found a hardbound copy of Alice in one of our bookshelves illustrated by Barry Moser and my world changed.

First off, the inside cover had a love note from my father to my mother (adorbs!), but beyond that, it was filled with the most beautifully weird, intricate and dynamic illustrations I had ever seen, and all of it was created only using LINES. Look closely at a Barry Moser illustration and you can see it's all about black and white and the play between the two.


Side Story: While in grad school for science illustration we were asked to do a presentation on an artist who inspired us and I decided on focusing on Moser. The night before my presentation I emailed his faculty address on a whim to thank him for inspiring me and, to my surprise and delight he wrote back the next day. Not only did he thank me for my email, but he also took the time to look at my website and comment on my work. He was incredibly generous and had the kindest words and encouragement. To go from being a child looking at his images in wonder to having him compliment me on my linework and call me talented was truly a highlight of my career and life.

Anyways, I also found other inspirations from old school pen and ink and black and white illustrations. The golden age of illustration was full of fanciful and detailed images that used patterns and lines to create super intricate images. From then on I was hooked on ink!

Aubrey Beardsley, Franklin Booth, Harry Clarke, and Arthur Rackham.


Of course, once I hit middle school I found the artwork of Ralph Steadman (like every teenager who's read a book from the 60s).


I think every kid who's dabbled in art goes through a phase where they are completely copying the style of a famous artist and trying to pass it off as their own. This usually comes after the 'Extremely Overworked Pencil Drawing of a Popular Musician' Phase and before the 'My Work Is So Deep I No Longer Need Representational Imagery So Here Is A Collage With Broken Glass And Splattered Paint' Phase. That's how you get something like my application piece to the Arts High School my Sophmore Year.


I'd apologize for the photo quality, but I think you get the idea

These phases are important. You need to get them out of your system so you can go on to find your own style and voice and decide what type of work speaks to you. Everyone is inspired by the artists that came before them, that's why I'm bringing up the artists who introduced me to pen and ink.


Doesn't make it any less embarrassing though.


But let's not forget that I was a pen and ink genius from an early age...

Eventually, I found my own style. It involved painting pseudo-realistic marine creatures with messy washes of watercolor and tons of compulsive pen and ink line-making.

Obviously to various levels of success...


Once I discovered Science Illustration (see my blog post My Life With Bugs for that story) I learned that there is a long history of pen and ink illustration being used to record the natural world.

I'll always love a good classic zoological illustration image


Let's just say, I really enjoy it when a project calls for the detail that pen and ink can provide. It's not a common request, but sometimes it's exactly what's needed to accurately record a subject. (The following are all my work from graduate school and beyond as a professional science illustrator).



Botanical Dissections and Botanical Illustration are classic examples of when clean linework and black and white can help articulate the forms in a subject.

Flower Dissection


'Mushrooms and Slug' and 'Mushrooms and Snail'

'Bromeliads with Tarantula'


Archeological and fossil specimens are another example of when the precision of inking can help capture fine details.


Cave Bear Tooth Specimen
Coral and Shark Tooth Specimens

While interning at the Smithsonian Museum's Entomology Department, I even used traditional pen and ink techniques in a digital format for a few images. This is a digitally rendered image of moth genitalia using Adobe Illustrator.



Technically this last one is a scratchboard illustration, which uses black on white and also white on black techniques. I wanted to end with this because it's so obviously inspired by Barry Moser and I'm pretty proud of it.



So that's my journey with black ink on white paper. I love that a medium that on its face is so simple, but can create some of the most dynamic and detailed images out there.


Now that my vacation is over and the houseguests are gone, I will be back to my Australian Animal Series so stay tuned for crazy critters and a more frequently updated blog!




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