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Ballpoint pens: redefining fine art

Ballpoint pens have been used since the 1800s as a simple device for drawing on leather. It wasn’t until 50 years later when Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro (hence the Biro pen brand) went in search of an alternative to newspaper ink -- something that would dry quickly where the ink flowed evenly. Thus, the ballpoint pen was born. Since its introduction to society, the ballpoint pen has become an overlooked staple. Most of us don’t realize we need one until we’re scouring the bottoms of purses and pockets to sign grandma’s birthday card or make out a check. But, in recent contemporary culture, many artists have been partaking in a ballpoint pen revival, so to speak, where the utensil is embraced as a serious art making tool.

Ballpoint Pens take over the world of fine art
Toyin Odutola's beautiful ballpoint pen portraits

Take 28-year-old Toyin Odutola, for example, who makes beautiful, anatomical portraits using black ballpoint pens. In an accidental drawing performance, Odutola, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, sat down to draw a picture when a large screen projected her process as she created a portrait of a woman in a little under four hours. According to ARTnews, Odutola was approached by countless individuals visiting the museum, astounded that she was only using what many of them probably had buried in the folds of a planner or tucked behind an ear.

“One lady was like, ‘Is that pen? I don’t believe it!’” Odutola recalls. “I was drawing, and she took the pen out of my hand and looked at it.” (ARTnews)

Odutola’s small but beckoning works have been displayed in such places as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. She was also featured in the “Ballpoint Pen Drawing Since 1950” exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. Other featured artists included the renowned Alberto Giacometti, Martin Kippenberger, Joanne Greenbaum and Rita Ackermann.

But Odutola isn’t the first person to use a ballpoint pen to create fine art. Affordable and easily accessible, artists like Joo Lee Kang and Renato Orara have become known for their dreamy and ephemeral portraits of every day life -- animals, intimate objects, landscapes, and the like. And artist Il Lee, who, since the 80’s has been drawing abstract, transcendental portals on canvas and paper. Lee is said to use over 100 ballpoint pens on a single piece. For a solo show back in 2007 though, Lee used an unprecedented 600 blue ballpoint pens on a 50-foot-long drawing.

Though cheap and found almost everywhere, the ballpoint pen may very well be the most revolutionary drawing tool of the last six decades. But, like any other medium, it does come with its drawbacks. Artist Marlene McCarty has been working with ballpoint pens for a long as she can remember. In a recent interview with ARTnews McCarty explains

“For the scale of my drawings, it’s a horrible, tedious, painful medium... ballpoint is unforgiving. It can’t be corrected. I draw on the wall. Unless the pen is held at just the right angle, it stops working. The pressure required to keep the ink flowing causes shoulder injuries.” (ARTnews)

With that being said, it doesn’t seem like the ballpoint pen will be disappearing from the art scene any time soon. Illustrator Peter Saul, whose drawings have been featured at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, has used ballpoint pens for over half a century.

“I only use black, and I never pay attention to the brand” (ARTnews) says the artist.

Ballpoint Drawing since 1950 (visit).

Check out the slideshow for more images.

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