Pen & Ink as a human powered visual compression algorithm

I really love writing and drawing with fountain pen. It is classic example of putting yourself under restrictions to achieve something special. Especially when drawing with broader nib you need to omit significant level of detail. The artistic process then consists of image simplification that is done by human brain in such a way that another human brain can understand the image and recreate the inner representation of objects in the drawing. What I mean is that our brains are trained or designed to interpret visuals in certain way. A good artist then (either intuitively or by learning, or by both) finds a way, how to keep necessary amount of information and a right kind of information that the receiving brain can extrapolate the missing parts and recreate the whole scene / object.

In this process the artist first creates inner interpretation of the object / scene, then compresses the information by applying pen drawing techniques and the viewer then “unzips” the visual back into the inner image interpretation. As we often see in mathematics the model that fits the data well can reconstruct the missing pieces reliably. Similarly skilled artist creates the model = drawing in such a way that the viewer recreates quite similar inner understanding of the object / scene to the one of the artist. Another interesting aspect of this process is that the understanding of the artist may not fit very well to the objective reality of the scene. Those of you who are familiar with the way neural networks can be used for cleaning noisy or blurred images, or even remove watermarks from images etc. can see a clear parallel to that too.

The whole process can be described by the following scheme:

Objective reality => artistic interpretation => drawing => viewers interpretation => viewers perception of reality depicted by artist.

I am no artist myself, I am a mathematician that does data science for living. However recently I decided to take an online class on fountain pen drawing by excellent artist and architect Andrea Deng. When you look at his urban sketches, you will understand what I mean when I speak of artistic interpretation and deliberate simplification.

Andrea Deng’s Instagram

Though the class does not break the creative process into the very parts I have described above, you can identify certain parts of this process, that can be taught. What I have found the most interesting in the class apart from the technique itself was the part on how to crop the scenery to actual image (= how to select the part of the reality that you will depict in drawing). It basically means to rank order objects in the scene according to their importance for what you want to communicate with your drawing. Then you position virtual frame around them in such a way, that all the important objects are visible and they are aligned to lines that divide the image in thirds. Then comes the work with contrast – the level of shading you assign to different parts of the image to create atmosphere or tension in the image. But this is Andrea’s field, not mine...

Andrea’s Class (Ink Your Day and Make it Special)