Tiny Pencil. Celebrating all things graphite, Tiny Pencil is an anthology zine and forum devoted to the lead arts. I speak to the lovely founder, Amber Hsu at her studio in Clerekenwell – which was really rather sweet!
What is the meaning behind Tiny Pencil – how did the name and the concept come about?
The name came about because I originally wanted to do one of those drawing a day sketch blogs. That was two years ago now and I never did do the sketchblog but I kept on with the name. It’s expressive and explicit, which suits the immediate nature of pencil, and it seemed to fit!
The concept came about after going to a couple of comic and artist book fairs. I loved the energy of the fairs and seeing the collaborative projects. This really inspired the collaborative format of Tiny Pencil.
And the pencil part is because I work a lot in pencil myself. Pencil can be used in so many ways, and what comes from it can be utterly magical when you realise it’s been made from the most simplest of tools.
So of course you’re a creative yourself! Did you study illustration?
No, no! I actually have a science degree originally. But I’ve always drawn. I used to have freelance jobs illustrating things when I was doing my science degree. So it’s just something that I do and have always done. Although I did also train in fashion design as well — which I think has been useful with Tiny Pencil.
How would you sum up Tiny Pencil in a sentence?
Well we do have a tagline: “Giving good graphite and carbon copy since 2013” which has managed to get a few giggles. It doesn’t try to take itself too seriously, which is really important as well.
How have you gone about collecting the artists that you showcase? There are some really beautiful artists online!
A lot of artists we either found online or knew their work previously online. If we saw artists online that we liked we’d get in touch and go from there. I think this happens a lot nowadays. We’ve also met artists from comics and artist book fairs as well. We’re also open to submissions and have found a few artists from that as well. Artists that we’ve worked with will also recommend other artists to us. It really comes from many avenues.
Talk us through the process of creating each issue of the magazine!
It really varies! Or it has varied. We’ve done three issues now, with two in virtually the same format but one of them quite different – the box issue with games and activities. Originally I thought it’d be great to do each issue as a different format. I started thinking about what a magazine is and whether it was something that needed to be in the same format. For example, I love McSweeney’s where the format changes, and the same rules don’t apply to each issue. So my thinking was to go along those lines. Of course it’s easier said than done! But we do try to make issue a little different. Issue 3 came with a pull out poster for example. And this next issue we are looking at doing postcards to go with the issues.
With a theme per issue you’ve covered a great range so far – what is the next theme and where does your inspiration for these choices come from?
Death and Resurrection, which should be out in the next couple of weeks. The themes come from a bit of brainstorming and a bit of gut feeling. Just seeing which one feels the most evocative and allows for the most scope for artists to interpret.
If an artist picked up Tiny Pencil who worked in graphite or pencil, how would you want them to submit their work to you – is there an ideal process?
There’s an email which people can submit to for the printed issues– firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always experimenting though with other ways of getting work around and having people participate. We recently ran a #Drawathon with prizes sponsored by Derwent Pencils. We ran it with Atlantic Press and 64 Killigrew Street and did it as a celebration of the upcoming release of Tiny Pencil IV: Death & Resurrection. It went really well! And it was a great opportunity to allow people to submit their work to us with a lot of free prizes in the end!
Where do you see this going in the future and how would you like to establish the magazine itself as well?
It’s an ongoing process of keeping on with the issues and developing other themed formats. There will always be a strong focus on the printed side but we’re also looking into ways to delve into other mediums as well — animation for one example. Coincidentally, I’ve just shot a short film which wasn’t animation – but I’m a huge fan of animation and it would be great to do something with artists working in traditional 2-D pencil mediums. There are a lot of areas and avenues to take it.
I like the idea of making it collaborative – where things can grow around. The #Drawathon stemmed from the fact that one of the guys who works at Tiny Pencil, John Kilburn, works in Falmouth with a lot of visionary space! We thought it’d be cool to do activities around it like a comic workshop with prizes involved, which led to the idea of the #Drawathon. I loved seeing people getting involved in it! This takes it back to going to the fairs as well, which I mentioned earlier, with seeing makers and people working directly with each other. There was a porous boarder between the viewer and the creator and I think this was something hat really appealed to me. A lot of the time the viewing experience can be quite static – stopping the participation of though of making my own things.
Of course you founded Tiny Pencil, but who else is on your team with you?
My friend and fellow graphite enthusiast Katriona Chapman helped out immensely in the initial stages. She’s no longer actively involved though now as she’s working on a full-length graphic novel. But there’ve been quite a few people helping along the way. Right now John Kilburn, a freelance comics artist down in Cornwall has been helping out on the production side, as well as Nick Sheehy — an Australian-born, London-based artist and designer, who also created our very first cover. There have also been a couple of people dipping in and out to help with the blog and interviews as well.
How have you found the balance between working both with a print and a blog?
I think my initial reaction is to say that the primary focus is the print! But I think the two complement each other in different ways. Certainly there’s a really nice manual process of working with pencil that is something I want to preserve in a physical format. It’s a bit like sculpting on paper and you’d lose the tactile nature of the pencil and graphite with an online format. But the printed matter wouldn’t really exist without the online blog because that’s where the publication also finds its voice and personality. And it can be a kind of lifeline to other activities too — like the #DrawAThon and who knows what else in the future!
Coming into the studio day to day, what do you find are the three main motives and constraints?
The biggest constraint is time, so that’s definitely an obstacle. Deadlines are also an obstacle, but they’re also a huge motivator as well. It’s quite important to have those in place to force myself into some kind of structured time schedule. But time can also be a huge motivator! Both of these things transition between motivation and constraint really. You’ve only got one life to live and so little time so I guess you ought to try and do something you love. I put a lot into the things I work on so every project becomes this it’s own motive, hopefully pushing you to create the best you can. Putting everything into something is really the best thing – even if it’s something that may not work in the end. Even with Tiny Pencil I wasn’t sure if it would work in the beginning but I put a ton into it and thought that at the very least we would have a really nice pencil-orientated gift to give out!
In your studio, just from looking around, there are a few quirky objects so what would be the three objects you’d chose that mean the most to you and what’s their story? I can see a few skulls there!
Yes, there are a few quirky items on my shelves. A small collection of skulls, some little toys. They just kind of live there. I’ve also got this rabbit head, which I made myself from an air-drying clay. Every once in a while I like to sculpt things, even if just little rough items. I find it quite meditative.
It’s nice to do something unusual as well – as a creative you’re so prone to work with that one medium that you get used to, but by exploring other routes I find it helps bring a new inspiration and opens many doors into the creative sector…
It’s great to try a range of mediums. I think it’s also important to keep an emotional relationship to working creatively. In a way that was how I wanted Tiny Pencil to be as well. Speaking to artists I came to understand that some didn’t have the freedom to work between commissioned and personal work. The brief for Tiny Pencil is mainly about the experimentation and personal response, with the only restriction being the theme and to work in pencil.
I know it helps me on a therapeutic level to try new mediums and to work in a tactile way. Incidentally, one of the objects I was going to point out is a collage tray here! I love collage and have been gathering up bits for it when I finally have a moment. I also love the idea of collage – it’s the beauty of potential randomness, and the re-using of objects and that tactile factor again.
What is one inspirational quote that you’ve heard that remains with you?
Well one just popped into my head, so I’ll say that. It’s from Jean Cocteau who said: “Film will never be an art until its materials are inexpensive as pencil and paper.” This is almost the philosophy behind Tiny Pencil. I love that with pencil anyone can pick it up and have a go! And the hopes are that people looking through the publication might then go and experiment for themselves.
Another quote also popped into my head as well. It’s from my great grandfather whose books I’d only just discovered a couple years ago. He’d written several books on studying language and literature, and also one book on how to start a library! It was in the 1930s in China, after the fall of the dynasty, when everyone was concerned about the rebuilding of the nation. It had been his hope and dream for the whole nation to be filled with libraries. I was amazed by the way he spoke about them, especially about the importance of them not only being free (because you could also go to school for free) but libraries were invaluable because they were spaces where you could go in and no one would tell you what you could and couldn’t look at. It’s a beautiful notion about the freedom of knowledge and curiosity, and the things fundamental to a love of learning.
As a creative yourself, do you still find the time to dabble in your own work?
Yes and no really. I find I’ve drawn a lot less since starting Tiny Pencil. But then I’ve also been working across other platforms as well such as the short film I recently shot. It’s always tricky trying to find that balance.
As a final question, if you were going to go and visit the Amazon on a trek for a month whom would you take as a team to help support you?
Someone from my film production team! My First Assistant Director was amazing to work with and a total drill master for scheduling time so I would definitely take him! He’d keep things on schedule and make sure to keep us moving so that would help!
Then I think I would have to take my mum and then of course another creative to document the journey – but picking one would be the hardest thing. I really don’t think I could pick just three actually… Either go it alone or take the world!