Eli Helman’s detailed pen & ink drawings are a real feast for the eyes. His tightly drawn pen and ink artwork contains so much visual information that you will discover something new each time you gaze upon it.
Working from his studio in Easthampton, Massachusetts (USA), Eli creates both small and large ink drawings using black ink on white paper, using a time consuming process to construct these pieces in his Maximalist style. To truly appreciate the intricacy of his work, you can click on each of his images on this page to be taken to a high res version of each artwork, allowing you to see close-up all the details in his intricate pen and ink art. Find out more about Eli’s working process and the things that inspire him in this exclusive interview!
How long have you been an artist?
I have dabbled in many forms of art since I was a child. Only since 2008, however, have I been drawing in ink and refining my style to where it is today. For years I drew what I called “Super Doodles” -- large-scale stream of consciousness sketches based on tightly woven, evenly spaced shapes and patterns. About two years ago I decided to take that style to the next level by adding nature elements and switching from pencil to pen.
What kind of pen and paper do you use?
What do you like about working in ink?
The thing I like best about ink, especially Micron pens, is that they don’t run, clump or smudge. In my work, where the desired effect is achieved by means of clean, uniform spaces between lines, shapes and objects, the ability to draw precisely is very important. Pens that draw evenly and dry quickly are perfect for this kind of art.
For years I drew with Bic #2 mechanical pencils. I liked the ability to draw very fine lines with them and they satisfied me enough not to seek out other materials. But they have their drawbacks such as smudging, breaking tips and virtually useless erasers. So when I decided to get serious about creating larger works with more defined themes, I switched to ink for its versatility and stability.
What are some challenges about working in ink?
Ink can be temperamental when it comes to shading. This is not something I deal with very often in my work, but sometimes achieving realistic shadows can be difficult when working with such a heavy substance. Also the slight deterioration of the pen’s precision can be noticeable in large ink-heavy works. This can make for an expensive endeavor, depending on how often you switch to new pens. I try to be economical with my pens, but there is only so much detail one can achieve with a point that is getting duller and duller by the minute. Generally I find ink very easy to work with, so the challenges are minor in comparison to the advantages.
Can you describe your working process from start to finish?
In most pieces I have an idea in mind at the beginning -- a central theme or basic layout of the focal points. However all of the tiny detailed pattern work is not planned. These are conceived as I go along.
I start each drawing by measuring a border space, usually one inch thick, around the edge of the paper. This helps me visualize the entire space I have to work with. It also helps me not to wander outside of the frame size I intend to use. Sometimes I will pick a pattern for the border and draw it first. Other times I will save the border until the end to best complement the drawing. Either way, once the empty space is ready to be filled, I draw the focal points and leave all of the pattern work until the end. That way if I am not happy with the major visual elements -- animals, plants, or the general layout -- I will not have wasted hours on the details. But if all looks good, I pick a starting point and work out from there, chipping away one line at a time until the desired effect slowly emerges. Generally this last step takes several long sittings -- often days or weeks -- depending on the size of the drawing. Once the drawing area is completely filled in and the border is finished, I sign it and name it. The title always comes last. My process is a practice in patience and endurance. In most aspects of my life I find myself rushing. This method of drawing forces me to take my time. I believe we all need to slow down every now and then.
Watch a time-lapse video that shows Eli's process in creating the drawing above, titled Variations of Kirby.
How would you describe your style?
I refer to my style as Maximalist. Having an emphasis on detail and an unyielding lack of empty space, my work embodies one of the many definitions of Maximalism. The goal in my approach is to fill every inch of a piece with a proportional balance of black and white giving an overall effect of grayness. While using this term may not be technically correct in some circles, I believe that, at the very least, it is an improvement on “Super Doodle”.
My work also touches on elements of surrealism, abstract art and outsider art.
What influences your artwork?
Having been an aspiring musician for years, I am heavily influenced by modern classical, avant-garde and experimental music. In most forms of art, and music in particular, I am attracted to work that crosses boundaries, transcends idioms and challenges the norm. Listening to music with complex relationships often gives me visual ideas. Just as composers do in music, I think of my shapes and patterns as a language with a finite vocabulary. They each have their own personality and their own way of filling space. The challenge becomes how to reconstitute and reorganize the shapes and patterns in order to create a seamless flow within large contexts.
Another major influence in my work is nature. I am humbled daily by the immensity of our world, the complexity of our being and the vastness of space beyond. In art, I find great pleasure in juxtaposing the intricacies of abstract design with the accessible universality of the natural world. For instance, we can all relate to the idea of a tree or an animal or a face or a landscape. My approach is to take these recognizable images and transform them through my own lens.
And last but not least, I must credit my mother, my uncle Gary and my aunt Katy as major influences of my artwork. Being self-taught, I’ve often felt certain limitations, but their impact on me in terms of style, ideas, attitude, respect and moral support have been the best education. I could not be doing this without them!
How long does it take you to complete an 8" x 10" drawing?
The 8” x 10” drawings generally take about 5-10 hours of work.
How long does it take you to complete an 18" x 24" drawing?
The 18” x 24” drawings take between 75-100 hours to complete.
Do you have any tips or advice for people who want to make ink drawings?
Get a feel for the materials. Experiment with different pens and practice drawing with varying degrees of pressure to understand how the pens respond. Keep trying new things until you feel satisfied with the outcome. And never be afraid to make a mess!
What do you like best about being an artist?
My favorite part about being an artist is stepping back and looking at the finished work. My process can be fun and exciting as well as frustrating and tedious, so a great result is the best reward.
Many thanks to Eli Helman for this fascinating interview! If you want to see more of Eli's detailed pen & ink drawings, check out his website, www.EliHelman.com. On his website, he has originals and prints for sale. His detailed pen & ink drawings can also be purchased on tshirts. For more time-lapse videos of Eli's detailed pen & ink drawings, check out his YouTube channel.
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