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Recipe: David Smith’s ink drawings

May 4, 2011

David Smith. Untitled, 1959. Black egg ink on paper. The Phillips Collection, gift of Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan, 2004. © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

David Smith often used his drawings, paintings, and photography as a counterpoint to the relatively slow, laborious process of making welded sculpture. After a full day of sculpting at his studio near Lake George, New York, he would relax by taking a shower and spend the evening drawing; in the 1950s, he was making between 300 and 400 drawings a year.  In an article in Arts Magazine in 1960, Smith wrote about the joy of making a drawing each day. He made the following annotations on a photograph of his living room floor filled with ink drawings:  “Sometimes I draw for days I like it and it’s a balance with the labor of sculpture…to average a drawing for every day I live some form of identity.”

Intrigued by reading that David Smith had invented his own medium by adding an egg yolk to ink, I decided to try it myself.  I put an egg yolk in a plastic container and mixed it with black Chinese ink. When I dipped a brush into the mixture, it was thick and creamy. The oil in the egg yolk added a surprising amount of density to the ink and a slight gloss.  I experimented with five drawings on watercolor paper, adding white gouache on top of the black ink in a few of the pieces.

Two works by Librarian Karen Schneider using egg yolk mixed with Chinese ink, with other media, on watercolor paper.

The egg ink had a sensuous quality and flowed easily from the brush onto textured watercolor paper. To use it as David Smith did in his large, calligraphic drawings required decisiveness and a bold physicality. I came away from the experiment with a new appreciation of what it took to create Smith’s powerful drawings, informed by daily practice that led to a seemingly effortless fluidity of expression.

Karen Schneider, Librarian

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Roy Baugher permalink
    May 4, 2011 2:01 pm

    Great article.

    I visited the Phillips some months ago, and I saw this piece (which I like very much). I was intrigued by the medium notation, “black egg ink.”

    Later, I did a search on the Internet, and I found a black ink recipe that used egg yolk. This was devised by Anne Marie Helmenstine, and the source website is noted below.

    Lamp black is, of course, a dry pigment.

    I haven’t tried making it myself, but you all can have a go at it!

    By the way, can you send me the volume/issue number/date of the specific issue of “Arts Magazine” you reference? I wouldn’t mind reading the article myself.

    Cheers, Roy

    Black Ink Recipe

    Ingredients
    1/2 teaspoon lamp black
    1 egg yolk
    1 teaspoon gum arabic
    1/2 cup honey

    Directions
    1. Mix together the egg yolk, gum arabic, and honey.

    2. Stir in the lamp black. This will produce a thick paste which can be stored in a sealed container.

    3. To use the ink, mix this paste with a small amount of water to achieve the desired consistency.

    Anne Marie Helmenstine, PhD
    Source: http://chemistry.about.com/od/inksandinkchemistry/a/black-ink-recipe.htm

    • May 4, 2011 2:15 pm

      Thanks for the new recipe, Roy! The issue referenced in the post is the February 1960 issue of Arts. It is actually displayed in the exhibition in a case, two copies to show the cover, where Smith was featured, as well as pages from the article that include Smith’s annotated photographs, providing insight into his process. I’ve included a photo of the case below.Case material from David Smith Invents

  2. Hillary permalink
    June 4, 2011 7:10 am

    I’ve been trying to do an art project using the recipe listed above by Roy, but I’m not having much luck with it. Any chance any one has advice?

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  1. The Results of our Experiment « The Experiment Station

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