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About a month before the 2020 lockdowns I received an Axidraw pen-plotter, a wonderful machine I had been eager to experiment with for some time. I am quite terrible at hand-drawing, but I had a number of ideas that seemed better suited for paper rather than a screen. I also had countless other concepts eager to be revamped into illustrations. Overall, the pandemic’s timing worked in my favor – the creative outlet it provided was so liberating that I almost regretted returning to social obligations. I exaggerate, but for one brief moment in my life most of my energies could be dedicated to rapidly learning a new medium – and it was great.
Like with many interesting modes of expression (cough- haikus -cough), the allure of pen-plotting derives from the constraints imposed by the medium. There’s no obvious control over stroke hardness, using multiple colors is a pain, shading is not subtle. Short of bending the medium itself, the artist is essentially limited to lines and dots.
And yet, entire worlds quickly materialize from the robotic hand’s precise movements. Watching the plotter doing its work has an oddly soothing quality. Once the plotting job starts, there’s no intervention – all you can do is watch if you did your homework right, if the code you wrote translates well to the picture you envisioned, if you chose the right pens and paper for the job. The difference between the digital version and the final product is always remarkable.
An additional aspect that was new to my practice was the community centered around pen-plotting, aptly named #plotterTwitter. And even if normally I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member, I felt humbled to be part of this cohort for some time. It served as a safe space for exploration, where everyone was supportive and helpful to one another – a stark contrast from the world the media portrayed during those days. Hannah Twigg-Smith excellently captured the essence of the community in her paper Tools, Tricks, and Hacks: Exploring Novel Digital Fabrication Workflows on #PlotterTwitter.
I wish to never fall out of love with this medium. The passion of my pandemic honeymoon with the pen-plotter is over, but there’s a lot, so much, that I still want to express through those automatic arms.