One of the most fundamental tools in the artist’s arsenal is the humble pen, too often relegated to doodling or note-taking, so outside of traditional comic book art it’s always refreshing to find an artist who champions it as their weapon of choice. Ben Tolman is one such artist. Living and working out of Washington DC, Tolman specialises in vast and mind-numbingly intricate ink works, using nothing more than a micron pen, a steady hand, and inordinate amounts of patience and imagination. He works on a large scale, building up his pieces practically dot by dot, and the results are such that you’ll be grateful there are tools for zooming built into his online portfolio.
There’s a remarkable precision on display here, with a classic style nestled neatly somewhere between Albrecht Durer and Hieronymus Bosch, and the viewer can zoom in to almost any section of any of the works on show and find a miniature masterpiece within the greater whole. For the most part these are black and white works, though more recent pieces use tasteful splashes of colour to highlight various elements. Found within are everything from slices of life – homeless bums living out of ragged tents made up of sheets and sticks; junk-scattered yards – to more esoteric weirdness – endless bizarre demons and monsters; nudists going about their business in suburbia; a rhinoceros encapsulating the entire taxonomical tree.
What’s truly fascinating is to watch the videos of Tolman’s process, full of long, engrossing close-up shots of pen on paper, something which we rarely get to see (except sometimes, perhaps, sped-up times ten), and which it would be nice to see more artists adding to their personal sites. Naturally nobody likes to give away their trade secrets, but in most cases – and certainly in this case – it permits an insight into what exactly is required to produce works of this scale and elaboration, and gives us added appreciation of Tolman’s great talent.
If his About page is anything to go by, there’s a great deal of modesty to Ben Tolman, who received a BFA in 2005 from the Corcoran College of Art and Design and then an MFA from American University in 2012, and in fact his whole website is relatively sparse, in direct opposition to the detail-laden works found there. This suggests to me an artist whose mind is constantly working, peppered with ideas, who prefers to let the ink-work do the talking without the distraction of fancy backgrounds or widgets. Then again, perhaps given how much detail he crams into each work, perhaps he simply doesn’t have time for anything else.