In Defense of Doodling.

[This wonderful post is both written and illustrated by Pencil Hero Vivian Wagner. Many thanks to Vivian for allowing us to publish this fantastic piece!]

I doodle. I admit it. I doodle a lot. In fact, around a third of what fills my notebooks when I’m presumably writing is actually doodling. Drawing circles, squares, wine bottles, flowers, scribbles, bird silhouettes, random buildings, peculiar faces. Sometimes I just use whatever I’m writing with – often, lately, a pencil – to fill in an area with cross-hatching. It’s what I do. I can’t imagine writing longhand without doodling.

What I’m finding is that though doodling might seem secondary to the work of writing, it’s actually central to my process. It gives my brain a chance to pull away from whatever I’m focusing on, become a little daydreamy. And in that liminal, relaxed, seemingly unfocused space, I make connections. I have new thoughts. I imagine different directions. And I return to my writing refreshed, calm, and ready to think about it anew. Doodling is like a little vacation, but without all the hassle.

I’m realizing, too, that my affection for doodling is one of the main reasons I like to write longhand. Sure, there are ways to doodle on a screen. There are apps for that, and I’ve experimented with them, especially on my iPad. But there’s something vital about the visceral laying down of graphite, ink, or pigment. This, too, is part of the process. The physicality of writing and doodling on paper keeps me grounded and helps me remember that I inhabit a body, that I live on a planet. My hand’s movements across the page link me to the electricity firing in my brain, to the sound of rain and wind, to the feel of my chair sliding on the floor.

Usually, even when I’m composing on my MacBook Air – which I’m doing with this essay, in fact – I’ll have an open notebook next to my keyboard, along with a few sharpened graphite and colored pencils and pens. Every few minutes, I’ll stop typing, turn to my notebook – in this case Baron Fig’s Metamorphosis, which, by the way, has wonderful paper for both doodling and writing – and absentmindedly scratch out a few lines and shadings. Sometimes, too, I’ll flip back to earlier doodles in my notebook, looking for pencil drawings that I can fill in with color. In this way, my doodles become my own self-created, anxiety-relieving coloring pages.

I usually don’t show anyone my doodles. They’re not art, really. They’re not meant for any outside audience, any more than my unedited handwritten pages are. But they’re a record of a mind at work, and an integral part of my creative process. Nothing that I write and publish is ever done without the shadow world of my doodles behind it, and I’m grateful for all the analog tools that allow me to experiment, to assay my way through my thoughts and world.

Probably most people doodle, secretly, on the corners of to-do lists or the backs of envelopes. I’d like to just give all of us permission and encouragement to keep doodling. Keep making marks. Doodling is like doing yoga, meditating, vacationing, brainstorming, improvising, daydreaming, and even sleeping. It’s not secondary to our real work. It is our real work.

And, besides, it’s fun.


Vivian Wagner writes and doodles in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net.

Vero and Pencils.

"As a young man just out of the Army and attending Mechanical Arts School, the teacher asked for a detailed drawing (of a mechanism) and I felt like doing a self portrait.  I got an 'A' for the class." - Vero
“As a young man just out of the Army and attending Mechanical Arts School, the teacher asked for a detailed drawing (of a mechanism) and I felt like doing a self portrait. I got an ‘A’ for the class.” – Vero

Mr. Vero Ricci wrote to us recently, telling us about rediscovering pencils and asking about a good electric sharpener for use with colored pencils. Alas, I only own one, and I don’t think I’d recommend it. But I had to share this essay on a life in pencil. If you grew up in the 80s, you almost certainly encountered Vero’s designs of such things as coffin candy (which a semi-creepy kid like I was couldn’t get enough of) and burger boxes, which I really enjoyed as well. Below, please find Vero’s essay (and be sure to check out the site devoted to his designs set up by his son Steve here).

Pencils, I guess we can go back to early childhood, say about 4 years old. I’d watch my aunt Gilda sketch while she played cards with my folks. She had a way of making amazing things appear on paper. With my eyes reaching just above the kitchen table, I copied her every move. She taught me how to make a straight line without the aid of a straight edge. This aside, I became attached to pencil and paper. God’s gift of allowing me to draw was evident when we replaced wallpaper in my home. My parents constructed the house in 1938-39. I was then 5 years old. I couldn’t resist the fresh plastered walls that took a year to dry. I sketched a 1939 Dodge automobile in all its splendor with my trusty soft lead pencil, 4 feet above the floor, smack in the middle of the wall. Evidence of this act came when the old wallpaper was stripped off some 50 years later. There it was in all its splendor, for anyone to see, my 1939 Dodge. The most amazing thing to me was the wonderfully accurate detail made by a 5 year old. God’s gift came when I was very young.

This was another idea that was similar to the snappy gator from Topps Chewing gum.
This was another idea that was similar to the snappy gator from Topps Chewing gum.

From that day on I sketched quite a bit, but it wasn’t the most important thing in my life. Baseball, football, basketball and the Cowboys and Indians lead the way. In High School my teacher pulled me aside and taught me to paint with oils. She taught well because I won 1st prize two years straight in the Philadelphia Gimble’s Art Exhibit.

Most of my work was done when it was expected from me. While in the Army they nabbed me and I ended up drawing and painting just about everything imaginable. By profession I became an Industrial Designer. The tools that earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for me were my creative mind, a soft pencil, an eraser, a 3-inch triangle and a white 8 ½ X 11 pad of white bond paper. I prefer, to this day, soft lead. Most of the time I used the No. 2 Dixon Yellow Boy pencil with the endless aid of a rubber eraser. I enjoy simplicity and well-thought-out drawings that possess intelligent use of line.

In recent days I joined an elderly group of artists that holds drawing classes every Friday afternoon. I embarked on the use of colored pencils and have not yet come to terms with it. The points break too often, and sharpening the things breaks the points just as well. I know there are good answers out there and I’ll eventfully find the solution. Great pieces of fine art have been made with colored pencil. So hopefully there is a chance for me to enter the arena. Unfortunately, colored pencils don’t result with the contrast I seek. The black pencils are not dark enough. As a result, I started to use a 6B lead pencil to achieve the desired darkness. Unfortunately, the soft dark lead smears the soft pastel color work.

Boy, do I remember these?! Candy out of a trashcan was pretty fun.
Boy, do I remember these?! Candy out of a trashcan was pretty fun.

My life can be defined by drawing, painting and product design. All being inter-connected into a single 80-year-old human, and distinguishing one from the other is not possible.

Read more about Vero Ricci on the website created by his son here. If those little plastic coffins are a design by Mr. Ricci, then I have eaten my own weight in sugar from one of his creations.

Review of My First Ticonderoga.


My daughter is a lover of all things pencil, pen and crayon. I mentioned a few weeks ago that she’s been using “big girl pencils.” Her pencil box is beginning to burst with the interesting pencils therein, and I thought it might be time to write some grown-up reviews of them.

I know that pencils such as these are really meant for smaller hands, but perhaps as a Dad, I feel a little less ridiculous owning fat pencils meant for kids. My First Ticonderoga is a surprisingly good pencil, especially given Dixon’s few years of disappointments.

My first experience with this pencil was when I was brainstorming a project at work — before stay-at-home-daddom began early in 2011. I filled several pages with large, garish letters and barely put a dent in the point. One of the reasons that I like pencils (in general) is that sometimes, only large and thick letters will do. A lot of pens that can produce letters like this bleed, feather or otherwise make a mess (the medium Sharpie Pen and Pilot G2 Bold are notable exceptions, along with the relatively new Bic Cristal Bold). Very soft art pencils can produce such lines. But they tend to smear and dull quickly. Enter large-diameter pencils.

The My First Dixon pencil is a smooth writer, reminding me of a combination of the newer/softer Chinese leads from Dixon and the last generation of leads in their American pencils from 7-8 years ago. Sure, these beasts are difficult to use in Field Notes, but on large-format paper, they glide and seem to almost yell with large block letters. The shape and size make this pencil very comfortable to write with. It feels much larger than it is, in a good way. The finish is pretty good, especially compared to other pencils in this price range, and the eraser is what we’ve come to expect from Dixon — I like them, but I know some Comrades do not.

The secret about this pencil that I have found lately is that they are superb for sketching! With their size and relative softness, they easily feel like a light 4B. If one puts a long point on the pencil, the thick core allows for a variety of line thicknesses with a single sharpening, through angling the pencil. And they are pretty inexpensive and easy to find. (I’d venture that this is the easiest kid’s pencil to find in the US, since they are at Walmart, Target, drugstores, etc.)

There are some quality issues. At least 1/3 of the MFT pencils I’ve seen have off-center leads, some pretty badly so. Some of paint is often chipping/pealing around the ferrule, but this is honestly better than the regular diameter Dixons coming from the facility in Mexico where these are also made (the Chinese stock is much better, in my opinion).

These are certainly interesting enough, affordable enough, and easy enough to find to try out if you happen across them. At the very least, they make an excellent addition to the pencil cup, for times Comrades might want their words to scream on the paper.