Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

A Matter of Perspective

Not long ago, Mrs. Sotto Voce and I made our first visit to Art Things, a real genuine independent arts-supply store in West Annapolis. While Mrs. Sotto Voce wandered the store, I not surprisingly spent most of my time in the pen and ink section.

While poking around in their well-appointed drafting supplies (or what used to be called drafting supplies, in the pre-CAD days), I found something that I haven’t seen in years — an actual bottle Koh-I-Noor Rapidraw India Ink, the choice of yesterday’s discerning draftsmen.

I unscrewed the top of the bottle and took a deep whiff, and was instantly transported into a pre-computer world of drafting tables, T-squares, long-legged fluorescent lamps, color-coordinated pen points, nylon vellum, and polyester erasers. For what makes Rapidraw India Ink special to me is not its superlative quality, but rather its unique odor. How do I describe it? Like salty wet plastic, with just a tinge of bitter citrus. It’s a cousin to the heady virgin-vinyl scent of a new LP, or of a freshly-opened Star Wars figure.

Along with the hot-rubber smell of fresh eraser dust, for me the smell of Rapidraw is the smell of art.

My brothers were draftsmen and surveyors. One of my uncles is an architect. I grew up idolizing their mastery of technical drawing, and admiring the tools they used. I loved watching them hunched over their huge drafting tables, scribing lines slowly and carefully with their pens and rulers, creating plans for things that didn’t exist yet. As a kid, I did the best I could with my yellow plastic ruler and ballpoint pens and graph paper to draw equally elaborate plans for spaceships of all kinds. I still have them.

So I bought the ink, of course. Then I went home and dug up the notes from my technical illustration class in college (I still have those, too, of course). Because I wanted to revisit how I learned not just the techniques of illustration, but the logic of visual representation.

The class was an independent study taught by an old friend of my father’s, Don DeGasperi, who was at the time a Senior Technical Artist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and also an award-winning aviation artist. Every week, I would grab my pens and vellum and drive over to his house where, surrounded by paintings of airplanes of every kind, I had another lesson in how to speak in three dimensions.

Don started me out with some basic exercises, rendering simple shapes from an old drawing textbook of his. Using the top and side views of an object, I had to render them in orthographic projection: (click on the images to enlarge)

Then came a more complex illustration, in which I had to intuit the arrangements of shapes inside a box. In the final image, you can see how Don has penciled in the all-important shading:

Next, it was time to try my hand at something realistic, like a tool jig. I did the components in pencil first, then rendered the whole thing in ink:

I remember how, at first, I would get annoyed when Don would scribble on my nice perfect little drawings as he explained things, but then I realized he was teaching me an important lesson there, too. Drawings are palimpsests, never really finished but rather abandoned. From Don I learned how to enjoy not leaving things alone.

Then it was time to learn shading, using pointillism. I was doing well, and I was becoming very proud of my work. I seemed to be getting this “technical illustration” stuff down cold:

But then it came time for my final exam: use three ellipses to represent a sphere. No sweat, I thought. Until I tried. Each drawing shows me trying to reason it out on paper, stretching my brain to try to think three-dimensionally — and coming no closer to getting it every time. I tried so hard:

Every week I would return with a stack of my latest futile efforts. Don would look at them and nod, but he wouldn’t give me the explanation, the key to unlocking it. He just kept saying, in that quiet patient baritone voice of his: go back and try again.

Finally, I just decided to try forcing the ellipses to fit together. If they weren’t going to cooperate on their own, then by God I was going to — literally — bend them to my will. After lots of patient scraping and fudging (erasers work on pencil, but you use X-acto blades to erase ink lines), I finally got them all to line up — but the end result just looked wrong, even though I couldn’t explain why. So I tried writing out what I was (and wasn’t) seeing:

And then, snap, all of a sudden I had it:

And suddenly I could draw, and think, in three dimensions. I know it probably sounds trite, but after that successful exercise, my head felt larger. I remember Don smiling in recognition as I told him about the experience.

After that, I did a couple more drawings in which I brought it all together (except for the penmanship, which we didn’t cover in class):

And then the class was over. But thanks to Don, the world hasn’t ever looked the same since.

* * *

P.S. — After the class, I still had lots of vellum and ink left, plus an idea that I really wanted to render:

I ended up using those drawings as blueprints for a plastic model a few years later. I’m in the process of cleaning up and rebuilding that model now, and when I finish I’ll post some pictures here.


  1. […] just published a short illustrated essay here on SV called “A Matter of Perspective” about how a college class in technical illustration literally changed the way the world looked for […]

  2. Richard P says:

    This is really neat. I can’t do technical drawing either on paper or on screen. Love the walking tank!

  3. Bill M says:

    Great essay. You bring back many good memories. I still have many of the tools I started (learned really), and even some Koh-I-Noor India ink. I wish I still had my drafting table. Like others though I must now rely on CAD. Real drafting is rapidly (if it has not already) becoming a lost art.

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