Do you know what a ballpoint pen is? It’s a writing instrument that dispenses ink from an internal reservoir through the rolling action of a metal ball at its point, hence its name, ‘ballpoint pen.’
Over the course of its fascinating history, ballpoint pens have been twirled by restless fingers, thrown at annoying opponents, ripped apart and thrown away in disgust when empty. Additionally, countless users find them ideal for doodling and, of course, writing–the longhand, cursive style writing that one does while holding an instrument like a pen or a pencil in one’s hand.
Sadly, few people display cursive writing skills in this high-tech age. So, perhaps it’s surprising to learn that some people actually still know how their ballpoint pen works, how to hold it and how to use it.
But ballpoint pen as an artistic medium? Consider all of those frustrated and bored listeners over the years that have doodled and etched away with their favourite ballpoint pen, making endless images, both abstract and realistic. Today’s doodlers may sit through a lecture playing solitaire on a laptop, but there are still the versatile, creative individuals who prefer the ballpoint-pen-on-paper type of doodling.
The Creation of the Ballpoint Pen
Well, actually, there is more than one ballpoint pen story. The first began in 1888. People quickly tired of dipping into the inkwell to write; making it a messy and tedious method. John Loud, an American leather tanner, patented a roller-ball-tipped marking pen, using a reservoir of ink and a roller ball that applied ink to leather hides. It wasn’t very functional as the pens either leaked, clogged or worse, depending on the weather.
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The story continued in 1935 when two Hungarian brothers, Ladislas and Georg Biro, worked together to create a better pen; one that wouldn’t leak and wouldn’t tear up the paper on which it was used. With the outbreak of World War II, the brothers fled to Argentina where they found investors to finance their invention. They started producing ballpoint pens in 1943, but their creation was just another failure as the brothers depended, like others before them, on gravity for the ink to flow to the roller ball at the point.
According to Ballpoint Pen, the first great ballpoint pen success came in 1945 at New York’s Gimbels Department Store, where 5,000 people jammed the store’s entrance in the hopes of being among the first to acquire this “fantastic…miraculous fountain pen… guaranteed to write for two years without refilling!” Gimbels sold 10,000 pens in one day, at $12.50 each.
Unconventional Choice for Artists’ Medium
The price of a ballpoint pen has come down considerably since the Gimbels’ sale in 1945. You can actually buy a box of 12 for under $2, making this an example of de-inflation at its best. These ballpoints may not last for two years of constant use like the reputed Gimbels’ ballpoint.
However, considering that many people probably don’t use ballpoint pens as much due to increased electronic use, perhaps the current make might last two years (or even longer) due to lack of regular use.
Curiously, the ballpoint pen is gaining popularity, and not for its use as a writing utensil, but rather as a medium of choice for contemporary artists. Now, instead of defining the medium as watercolour on paper, or charcoal on paper, artists are recording the medium as ballpoint pen on paper- and it’s not just in the western world, either. It’s interesting to wonder if the creative geniuses of the first ballpoint pen ever conceived its product as an artist’s tool.
Using the Ballpoint Pen to Create Art
Paint, charcoal, pencil–you get the idea. These are classic media for making pictures, for creating art on paper, cardboard, canvas, even plywood and other flat surfaces. But a ballpoint pen? Why not! It’s permanent, non-erasable, unforgiving of errors, but, so too, are other media like paint. Artists work errors around and over and these initial mistakes sometimes even embellish the finished work.
Nigerian born artist,Tovin Odutola (b. 1985) is best known for her portraits and self-portraits done primarily and exclusively in black pen ink. The artist recently performed her artistry in public. She purchased a stack of ballpoint pens and took her artistry tools into the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco where she proceeded to draw a portrait.
Four hours later, Odutola had completed another one of her portraits for which she is so famous. This particular portrait was a densely lined portrayal of an Asian woman with golden hair and eyebrows, the skin composed of sinewy ballpoint lines with blue, green and flesh tones underneath–typical of Odutola’s style. Her audience consisted of museum-goers who continually interrupted her work, asking questions like, “Is that really a ballpoint pen?”
The idea of using ballpoint pens is not as new as we might want to believe. In fact, artists have used ballpoint pens since they appeared on the market–and not just for idle doodling. When Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), an Argentinean-born artist and theorist living in Italy, fled Europe at the beginning of World War II and returned to Argentina, he took with him the art theories that he had shared with the Italian Futurists. He embraced the machine age of the 1940s and conceptualized his ideas, uniting art and science in his works.
Biro was also in Argentina during the war, creating his ballpoint pens, promoting his product as the pen of the future. In 1946, Fontana started drawing with ballpoint pens, making preliminary drawings for works that would later be completed in various different media. Fontana used the ballpoint pen with a kinesthetic energy, the new medium providing him with a kind of freedom to express a continuity of line and speed.
From Doodling to Art
The name ‘Bic’ is well-known in households that continue to use ballpoint pens. Marcel Bich (1914-1994) and Edouard Buffard (1908-1996) manufactured their own version of the ballpoint pen in Clichy, France, in 1945, at the same time that Gimbels marketed theirs. In 1950, the name BIC CRISTAL (later shortened to Bic) became a trademark for the ballpoint pen in France. By 1958, Bic entered the North American market.
The 1950s accepted the Bic Cristal ballpoint pen with great enthusiasm. It was both inexpensive and practical. The 1950s and 1960s comprised the era of Abstract Expressionism, a time when artists sought spontaneity in the artistic production, spontaneity in the unconscious thoughts and the artists transmitted feelings into visual expression. The Abstract Expressionists did not accept the ballpoint pen as being an authentic artistic tool. It wasn’t a painterly medium and the artists considered the tools as soulless.
There were exceptions, however. The Italian artist, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), started using ballpoint pen later in his life, particularly when constructing his figure drawings. His abstract, almost surrealistic works reflected the artist’s interest in literature. In fact, his ballpoint pen drawings were primarily done on top of found texts, almost in the style of doodling, quickly scribbled clouds of linear marks highlighting the ballpoint pen’s inherent fluidity.
Doodling art became a style, not just a restless time-filler, for many artists, including Martin Kippenberger (b. 1953) and Joanne Greenbaum (b. 1953), who experimented with the ballpoint pen’s ability to express idea-driven images with rigorous graphic-like energy.
The Artistic Style of Ballpointism
Is it an artistic style or a fad? Or, is it mere doodling? Ballpoint pens might no longer be the instrument of choice for writing letters, but its use as an artist’s tool is definitely on the increase. In fact, even some of the classic styles of artistic expression, ones that have venerated ink traditions for generations as in traditional Asian ink drawings, are now favouring the ballpoint pen as the tool of expression. This very linear medium is very time-intensive and it often involves hundreds of ballpoint pens just to complete the work.
The ballpoint pen has been a part of the western world’s consumer-based society for over fifty years. It is an instrument with which many of us grew up. As Klein writes for the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s exhibit on ballpoint pen art, “For those born after the beginning of the 1950s, the ballpoint is ubiquitous; a reality that is ever present and practically invisible. For many artists, this state of affairs has created a situation where the ballpoint has become the vernacular go-to tool, which despite its supposedly limited nature can be coaxed into performing a seemingly unlimited range of aesthetic roles, becoming in many ways the pencil of our era.”