Friday, March 02, 2007

The Art of the Inked Line: Hank Ketcham

When I first became intrigued with drawing funny pictures, I used whatever tools I could find, which usually meant inexpensive ink-dipping pens, the kind you see in post offices and banks.

Louise and [Noel] Bud Sickles dropped by my Connecticut studio shortly after our mutual release from "active duty." I was just getting a toehold on the free-lance market in New York and was anxious to show them samples of my labors. Bud had always been most supportive...he always bolstered my confidence and made me feel good.

I recalled an early correspondence art course from the W.L. Evans School of Cartooning that suggested I start out with a Ladies Pen, the Gilotte #170, manufactured in England. It had a flexible and durable nib, a much different feel than the brush, but with a little practice I soon felt almost comfortable, gliding delicately across the two-ply plate-finish Strathmore. I wanted to show Bud how I was progressing.

"Looks as though you're scared of that pen." he chuckled. "You seem a bit tentative, afraid you might hurt it."

"Well, I guess I don't want to bear down too hard and splatter the ink all over." I wasn't quite sure what he meant.

That copper nib is perhaps the cheapest thing you've got in this studio; if you lose a few, it's no big deal."

He pulled up a stool, sat down, and rolled up his sleeve. "Now, here's what I like to do as sort of a morning warmup: put a new nib in the holder, rub it with a soft graphite pencil, dip it deep into the ink, wipe it clean, dip again, and then attack the drawing paper with a variety of swings, cross-hatches, swirls, and thick and thin arcs like this, bearing down in an effort to actually break the nib. See? Sure, it'll crack, but only under extreme pressure, probably much more than you're willing to exert."

All I could utter was a raspy "Wow!"

Sickles handed me the pen. "Here, give it a whirl. It's not only fun to be freewheeeling, but you'll discover a few new wrinkles and, more importantly, you'll know the outer limits of the pen's performance and not be afraid to vacillate between a lacy thin line and a gutsy swath that looks like a bold brush stroke."

He had me try holding the pen differently, even turning it upside down for a special effect. I was thrilled. Boy, the stuff they never teach you in art school!

From The Merchant of Dennis - The Autobiography of Hank Ketcham
©2005 Hank Ketcham Enterprises Published by Fantagraphics

All these images and several more can be seen at full size in my Hank Ketcham Flickr set.


  1. Anonymous11:20 AM

    "Boy, the stuff they never teach you in art school!"

    I'll say! Being able to overhear this conversation between 2 fine artists is golden. Thank you, Leif, for this week's lesson in the art of the inked line!

  2. Thanks so much for your encouraging words, kathryn! Its a pleasure learning about these things and sharing them with you!

    And for anyone who's interested, I highly recommend Ketcham's autobiography from Fantagraphics... its not only a fascinating and informative book, but attractively designed as well. A real pleasure!

  3. Leif, this is an absolutely fascinating story. I've always thought that Ketcham drew beautifully but I never suspected that he learned from the master.

    When I was young, I corresponded with Ketcham. I once wrote him a fan letter telling him how much I liked his linework. He sent me back a wonderful, elaborate drawing of him opening my letter and reacting to it. He was very kind to young talent.

  4. Leif, I could not draw a line if my life depended on it. But I have been reading your blog daily for months and I LOVE it! I even signed up with blogger so that I may tell you how much I appreciate your blog. I really enjoyed the Andy Virgil series. It just goes to show that you do not have to be an artist to appreciate learning about art. Thank you so much for all of your hard work. Amy

  5. David; What a wonderful story - I LOVED Dennis the Menace as a kid and would have died to have had the opportunity to correspond with Ketcham ... lucky you! :-)

    mac's mom; You have absolutely made my day - thank you so much for going to the trouble of letting me know - it means the world to me - thank you! :-)

  6. David, I, too, wrote a fan letter to my favorite cartoonist when I was about eigth. Needless to say I had to impress him with my own "phenomenal" cartooning skills and to tell him "I'll be seeing you in the funny papers soon!". Nothing can describe the feeling of opening that manilla envelope from the great Mr. Ketcham and to see a drawing of Dennis and Joey as they paint on the side of Mr. Wilson's house "KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK, BRIAN!". I immediately realized it was a print (although the writing was with a fat red marker) but I cherished that drawing like gold.

    Leif, it's so fascinating to read Noel Sickle tell Hank that he looks as if he's afraid of the pen because I've always considered Hank as having THEE most fluid and elegant and inventive ink line any cartoonist has ever posessed. Looks as if we have to thank Mr. Sickle for much of that.

    It's admirable to know Mr. Ketcham worked his tail off as an illustrator before reaching his great success with Dennis. As a testiment of that tooth-cutting period of his, I have an old bottle of shoe polish sitting on my shelf in its original box with an illustration of a running kid undoubtably drawn by Hank.

  7. Anonymous4:22 AM

    I used to write to Hank Ketcham as well and he was always a wonderful correspondent. He always replied with a very gracious hand written note, answering my multitude of questions concerning his technique and inspirations and thanking me for my fan boy adulation. Always included an originl drawing too. When I went to meet him at an art gallery in Los Angeles shortly before he died, they had tons of letters from his fans on display. Apparently he kept them as they meant so much to him. Thanx, Hank, for all that you did. I'll never forget it!! Scott