The basic materials of his art didn’t seem to concern Shepherd much except for his choice of pen. On one occasion, in what appears to be his most prolific drawing period, the late 1950s and early 1960s, he drew while being interviewed for a newspaper interview, revealing the kind of instrument he used. The New York Post reporter wrote that, “While Jean Shepherd talks—an activity at which he’s a virtuoso—he draws pictures of a well-worn chair, a stylized Coke bottle, a Village pad, a typewriter,” and he notes that “Shepherd clutches a German-made pen with a tip like a hypodermic needle….” This seems to be a “technical pen,” quite popular with draftsmen and commercial artists at the time. Although a couple of brands exist, he probably used the German-made Rapidograph, whose trade name had become so commonly used to describe the type, that it had become the generic term.
Rapidograph, still available in art supply stores.
In my design career I frequently used one.
The ink in an internal reservoir is released at the tip through a thin metal tube with a tiny rod inside it. At least during the 1960s, as the ink would dry up in the tip when the pen hadn’t been used for a while (like for an hour or less), the pens were known for their difficulty getting started, so one can imagine Shepherd, anxious to begin, agitatedly shaking the pen up and down to unstick the tiny rod in the tube to get the ink to flow. (These days the manufacturer claims to have solved this with an ink that is “specially formulated to be non-clogging in technical pens.”) Despite the annoying problem back then, in contrast to pens that produce varied thicknesses of line depending on the pressure applied to the point according to the user’s inclination or even emotion, Shepherd probably decided that the consistent width of the Rapidograph stroke better served his more straightforward notions of objectively getting the subject matter down on paper. Interchangeable Rapidograph tips allow for consistently wider or narrower strokes, but the width he seemed most disposed to was probably a number 2, for a medium-stroke, neither very thin nor very thick.
For paper surface, he must have been happy with whatever came to hand. His sketchbooks of choice were not of a standard that, for purity and longevity, would better serve posterity. And nothing seemed to significantly affect the quality of his line—in lieu of a pad, with his obsession to get an image down with his pen, he’d draw a tiny sketch on a postcard to send to his wife, draw on a paper napkin, or, in one impressive example, on a length of paper towel.
When Shepherd sketched by himself or planned a sketching excursion with his best friend, cartoonist Shel Silverstein, or with Playboy illustrator of the current scene, LeRoy Neiman, or with watercolorist Don Kingman, usually he seemed to carry spiral-bound sketchpads of sizes from 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 to 14 by 16 3/4. On sheets from such pads we find drawings of his apartment, one of an artist’s easel in a room, sketches of the dressing room of the Morosco Theater where his wife, Lois, was appearing, of objects on restaurant tables, of an old car, many of building facades, and a couple of churches done while wandering the streets of Manhattan and touring Europe.
Sketch on a Schrafft’s Restaurant napkin.
I wanted an example of Shep’s work on a napkin!
Collection of E. Bergmann
Several ink drawings stand out. On a section of paper towel over sixty inches long, he precisely drew objects on a table including fruit on a plate and an artist’s paintbrush, and a few inches away on the towel he did a large, sketchy image of an antique Bugatti Royale limousine.
Table setting on paper towel roll, and a sketch of a Bugatti limo,
the halves now cut apart for framing.
Collection of E. Bergmann
One of his drawings shows the corner of an old building in Manhattan with a tall vertical sign, EXCELSIOR, obviously chosen because the word was his favorite, friendly battle cry that ironically suggests that idealism without a firmly grounded footing is foolhardy.
END Part 2