It's Not the Pen

Its Not the Pen

As developers and tech-heads, we all have our personal biases. I dare you to estimate how many times you have partaken in, or broken up, heated debates over programming languages, frameworks, or perhaps the conflict that warranted personalization in a series of commercials: Mac vs. PC. We love our gadgets and software with good reason. After all, they can enable us to do some truly amazing things. Just think of all the bells and whistles in most modern IDE's compared to coding in VIM, yet they can both be used to accomplish many of the same tasks. At times, we are so impressed with the tricks our toys perform that we forget they are ultimately just tools designed to enable us to do what we do with increasing efficiency. But they still are not capable of doing our projects for us.

Years ago I had the privilege of studying life drawing under a living master. Okay, I'm not certain he would approve of that title; but if Glenn Vilppu, the man who trained nearly every Disney artist how to draw since the seventies is not a master of his craft, then I would be hard pressed to name another who is. In class, we spent several hours a day doing three- to five-minute gesture drawings of live models. Gesture drawing is not about details, it is about capturing the essence of the model using your whole arm to rough out the framework that the rest of the drawing will be built upon. In developer terms, it would be comparable to locking down the broad strokes and goals of a project before giving any concern even to which language you intend to code it in.

One fellow classmate was intrigued, or perhaps fixated would be a more appropriate term, on the pens that people were using. One day she took note of the elaborate pen that Glenn was working with. She watched in awe as jaw-dropping sketches flowed from the tip of the pen. Without a hint of restraint, she inquired about where she could find such an instrument. At first Glenn modestly deflected the repeated questions. This only seemed to harden her resolve to unlock the name of the magic pen that would bestow the power of artistic greatness; the tool that would elevate her work to that higher standard. The slightest flicker passed across the old man's brow, and without warning he abruptly rose to his feet and walked to the cabinet in the back of the room.

Of all the random objects one could imagine, he pulled out an old fashioned straight razor. He grabbed the closest wooden drawing bench and flipped it upside down. With a twinkle in his eye he held the razor out at arms length. All pens were down, all eyes were on him, then in one clean stroke he sliced off a long triangular wedge of wood. I cannot say with all certainty that it actually made the straight razor "schnit" sound; but as I remember that moment, it did.

He made his way over to the woman's drawing bench, oversized wood splinter in hand, and without a word gestured for her to move aside. Glenn settled comfortably and dipped his freshly shorn sliver of wood in her ink. For three minutes his wood splinter flew across the paper with a calculated precision that flowed from his shoulder down to the point where the wood and paper met. When the timer sounded, in front of him was what can only be described as a master gesture study. The most subtle cues in the model's pose perfectly portrayed in as much ink as one would use to write this paragraph.

He turned, he winked, and with a knowing smirk that only seventy years of mileage can fuel he said: "It doesn't really matter which pen you use."

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