The Enlightened Descendant of the Index Finger

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading, the pencil is described as the “enlightened descendant of the index finger.”

Clouds by Donna Levinstone, pastel painting.

Clouds by Donna Levinstone, pastel painting.

That sounds about right, especially considering the pride of place that artists often afford their pens, brushes, and pencils. For many artists, however, the jumping-off point for creativity can also be the surface on which a subject is rendered.

Canvas, linen, panel, and paper—each has its own unique appeal. All have distinctive textures and appearances, and they respond differently depending on what is applied to them. Oil painter Sonya Sklaroff swears by birch plywood and Masonite panels. “I love a smooth, slick surface,” she says. “Even a bit of give drives me crazy. Panels allow me to apply paint vigorously, juicily.”

But sometimes it isn’t the qualities of the surface itself that ignite artistic visions, but the mutability of the material. In that context, paper is leading the charge. This would make sense given its affordability and accessibility, but many artists find it appealing because it can be so easily transformed.

Paper can be cut, painted, torn, burned, inked, shredded, built up into sculptures, and pared down to intimately sized silhouettes. Even if an artist works with drawing basics and in traditional media, paper manipulation can be an intriguing prospect. It offers the opportunity to think about process and how treating or layering paper can affect a final artwork before ever making a mark. Also, painting and drawing on paper can result in so many different art objects: collages, books, prints, dioramas, sculpture, puppets and dolls, and even sets for the theater. This knowledge makes me remember that all art forms talk to one another, and that snippets and ideas from one form can be translated and incorporated by artists who work in other media, or take on different subject matter.

Are you drawn to one particular surface when you paint or sketch? Do you manipulate it to achieve certain effects? I’d love to hear about it, and I’m sure other members would, too. Leave a comment and let us know. If you are interested in exploring the intersections between drawing of all kinds and in various genres and formats, a subscription to Drawing magazine makes good sense. You'll hear directly from working artists and instructors on new techniques and Old-Master methods that can propel your work in new directions and inspire you to get into the studio. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “The Enlightened Descendant of the Index Finger

  1. Nice article. I tend to find myself more and more attracted to working on rigid surfaces now-a-days, simply because you can really work back into areas and bang it up. I tend to work on the same linen or canvas I would normally paint on stretcher bars, but adhered and mounted to ‘gatorboard’ a non warping, archival panel surface resembling foam core, about a 1/4″ thick. However I really don’t mind that much, as long as what I’m working with is getting the job done without a headache.

    What I’m really picky about is my palette – in all of my training I’ve tried different surfaces: palette paper, glass, plastic wood etc. And wood is by far my favorite. My mentor gave me one of his handcrafted palettes for my birthday a year or two ago, and having seasoned it and worked on it’s surface so many times, it’s built up a beautiful and smooth patina. It’s like mixing buttery oil colors on water (if water could stay still of course) ! Nice and slick. I can’t imagine going back to palette paper or glass!

  2. As a colored pencil artist I find surfaces can be a source of inspiration and experimentation. I generally work on all rag mat board because the surface lets my pencil glide in a very relaxing sort of way. However raw wood (furniture or dry-mounted veneer) is also a good surface for colored pencil with endless possibilities. My latest experiments have been with colored pencil on gessobord by Ampersand. The texure is quite different but it also allows me to effortlessly add gold leafing. I have also tried sandpaper and various pastel surfaces. The results are great but the tactile sensations are not so pleasing to my hand.

  3. I prefer stretched canvas. It’s what was the surface I worked on years ago and I love the bounce as you press on a well stretched surface. But admittedly, I found watercolor and pastel paper to be as responsive. I love the textured surface; feels like a battle to force it to bend to the media I apply at the moment. This was a great article and has me thinking more about the hard, unforgiving surface. What will happen with one of those, for me?!

  4. Materials has always been the source of my inspiration and is always where my story begins 😉 Recently I’ve started to create my own surfaces with acrylic mediums for all my drawing and painting. Sometimes I do just use the support as is…from wood to paper to canvas (anything of quality)…but for me, acrylics have opened a whole new world of possibilities and inspiration! I shared my discoveries on acrylic grounds for mixed media in my blog not too long ago :