Tiny Pencil is a brand new, all-graphite, comic and art anthology edited, produced and bought to life by artists and creators, Amber Hsu and Katriona Chapman. It is also, quite simply, one of the most exquisite publications you will see this year. As comics and arts appreciators, there’s a vast amount of publications out there vying for attention, but it’s clear from Vanessa Foley’s spectacular opening pages that Tiny Pencil is genuinely a cut above the rest.
It’s not even the idea of going back to basics in an increasingly digital age, or the concept of getting something that’s less manufactured and more real, but the outstanding quality of the work contained here which comes together to make this 70-page book of graphite gorgeousness a composite special. Perhaps it also had something to do with reading so many comics on that same scale of good, that when Tiny Pencil dropped onto my doormat, it just felt gloriously fresh.
I was pretty taken with it (in case you couldn’t tell) so I got in touch with co-editor and contributor Amber Hsu with a few questions as to how the whole idea and project had come about (interview followed by my review, so keep scrolling!):
Where did the idea of doing an all-pencil work anthology come from?
I work a lot in pencil and had originally started a personal sketchblog called tinypencil some time ago. It was going to be a rigorous daily posting of all pencil drawings and general carbon gratification. It’s still up somewhere, and has all of zero entries! I’d never been able to work on it because of other commitments, but I never let go of that idea of doing something graphite focused.
Then last year I went to a couple of comics and small press fairs. And I just fell in love with the kind of creative energy that was going on. I often feel with art, particularly in many gallery situations, the artwork always feels a bit off limits, like it’s speaking in a monologue at the viewers. This felt very different to me, very collaborative, like there was a constant dialogue between creator and viewer.
And I felt a connection between the creative spirit of those fairs and pencil – maybe because pencil is such a democratic instrument. It is a medium totally without barriers, yet capable of very extraordinary things.
So, I realized then that the pencil sketchblog idea and that kind of creative energy needed to come together. So one day over a trip to a small publisher’s fair, I roped Katriona in. She and I had always connected over a love of graphite illustration and I’d long admired her (mostly all pencil!) handmade books. Then it just grew from there!
How did you go about curating contributors?
Well being generally huge fans of all these artists, that part was (almost) easy. We already spend a lot of time just nosing around the web, in books, or at book fairs just looking and admiring stuff. We already knew the work of many of the artists for Issue 1. But we also found some new ones along the way. There are loads of things to love all over the web, on twitter, instagram, tumblr. We’ve also been getting some great submissions, and have found a few artists that way.
Most importantly though, we looked for work that spoke to us with a strong personal voice—work that was evocative and imaginative, fantastical, or even a bit unsettling. Tiny Pencil is definitely less about realism, and more about personal, artistic visions expressed through a graphite lens. I’m generally a big fan of work coming from its own imagined place, because those things usually have really strong voices that are kind of compelling it into existence already.
Now that all sounds very serious – but Tiny Pencil can also be about fun and we do have a really fun summer project coming up so stay tuned!
I really like the idea of giving different artists the same tool and seeing what they come up with- a level playing field of sorts. Is there a lot of different types of pencils and graphite tools that people use now to achieve different effects, or is a pencil a pencil ?
You’d be surprised what a heated argument that question could start! A pencil is definitely not just a pencil. For instance, do you go hardcore old school with wood and lead? Or opt for a mechanical? These are pressing questions! Plus there are great subtleties with graphite in terms of varying hardness which can really affect depth and tone. Then there’s also charcoal and graphite powders to consider. And coloured pencils too…
Then there’s the approach as well. For example, Issue 1 contributor, Yoko Tanaka who hasn’t really worked in pencil much, used a rather novel approach. Being a fabulously talented painter, Yoko used leads of varying softness and worked it into areas of the paper with a cloth like a paint. The result was really quite haunting and extraordinary. It was incredibly inspiring to see someone try something new and really push the medium to such great effect.
I love the forest theme for the first issue, it’s very rich in association and folklore. Some anthologies have themes, others don’t- is the decision to give contributors a theme a way of having a unifying thread in the work, a cohesion or something else?
Yes, having a theme definitely helped bring all the work into a cohesive whole. I think it also helped give the project a more collaborative spirit. We also wanted each issue to have it’s own unique flavour — so that each one would have its own personality and be something you could really get into and want to come back to again and again.
TP could quite easily have been an art publication with beautiful illustrations. Where did the idea to include comics come from and what do you think they add?
We are great lovers of story and work that has a sense of narrative. So comics fit in beautifully with that spirit. Plus we’re just huge comics fans, and as so many comics have beautiful and distinctive illustration styles, it just seemed natural to put them in. Like I said, Tiny Pencil is really about the worlds the artists inhabit. Some artists bring that viewpoint to life in a single image, and others do it with multiple panels and some words.
We also get lots of messages from readers saying how much they like the comics and telling us which ones are their favourites. I think the comics are also great for readers because you are asked to engage in a dialogue with the pages and really enter into a story – and that can really make something worth coming back to again and again.
The woods and forest have long been fertile ground for the imagination, for magic, mystery and the mystical- that whole concept of an enchanted forest, and Tiny Pencil sees its contributors take that theme, infuse it with their own singular vision and interpretation to produce pieces at once haunting and dreamy, powerful and evocative, funny and engaging. In the interview above, Hsu talks about looking for artists with a voice, with something to say or convey, their own sense of story and their own individual way of getting that across through their art, and that has, I think, lead to some bold work here.
Beginning with Vanessa Foley’s extraordinary renderings of birds, the term photo-realism is a disservice to what she manages to achieve, imbued as they are with life- in the softness and sheen of their feathers, the texture of their claws, their plump breasts and beady, and not unfriendly eyes. It’s painstaking, beautiful work. Similarly, there’s a world of detail in Rachel M Bray’s stunning forest landscape, seemingly normal, but the more you look at it the more you see: a lost kingdom, visible to only a few- is that a person lying forgotten entwined in in leaves and vines, or is it simply a mound of leaves and wood.
Wonderland references are two-a-penny in pop culture, but the ones that work best capture Caroll’s mix of the innocent, caustic, and the trippy, and so we have Amber Hsu’s suited, booted, stressed white rabbit standing over an axe embedded in a wood-cutting block, arms wrapped around his head and peering back at you with a strenuous, bulging eye, while ominous looking flies occupy a ream of creamy space overhead. The composition and spacing of the sparse elements is well thought out: making the 3 elements the focus and leaving plenty of space for the imagination to connect and fill.
Even with the use of various graphite tools, it’s amazing to see the difference in effects achieved from piece to piece- it makes you realise and appreciate more than ever how personal art is to the creator and how much they bring of themselves, their ideas to every work. Alexandra Higlett’s comic explores another folklore tale: the legend of the selkie. Her thick, dark pencils and smudgy lines and shading lends it the sense of atmosphere to which it aspires, while Lisa Evans had me gazing in befuddle awe as to how she manages to gain such luminosity and lighting. Yoko Tanaka’s hazy, post apocalyptic landscapes somehow amalgamated both beauty, destruction and a quiet hope.
When I first came across Nick Sheehy’s illustrations and comics, I found them a bit samey, his figures a bit stiff, but the taxidermy effect -particularly in his chicken head characters- is deliberately disconcerting, and I’m now a fully converted fan. I like that he’s established this world or setting with characters and a narrative of sorts- one which is equally impactful in colour or black and white.The animal heads protruding from one another’s mouths always gives me a cannibalistic feeling (an interpretation, not an urge to eat people, I should clarify), and it’s interesting to see the combinations he chooses and pondering the reasoning and meaning behind those.
It’s curious also, to see Luke Pearson’s work minus colour and technology- what would be almost unrecognisable if it weren’t for the signature Pearson character features: rounded heads, noses and eyes. It has a totally different feel to it- a lot more shading and texture going on to try and give it more oomph. I hope we get to see more comic artists trying their hand at this: it’s fascinating to see the ‘raw’ work, and the differences bought about by changing tools.
To be frank, I could continue writing about the contributions in Tiny Pencil for a while- it is a hugely impressive body of work, but instead I would like to simply urge you to get hold of a copy and experience it for yourself. It’s lovely to welcome another great comics and art anthology onto the block, and if future issues continue to maintain this level of excellence, I, for one, look forward to them eagerly.
You can buy Tiny Pencil here.
Many thanks to Amber Hsu and Katriona Chapman for their time.