Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I'm a bit of a pen snob. Even if I'm just making a list, I look for a pen that grips well, flows well, doesn't put too much or too little ink into the paper, is responsive-but-not-too-responsive to pressure, and doesn't suddenly stop working mid-stroke.
In other words, the average cheap ballpoint pen is out. (See? Snob.)
However, Oscar Ukono is making me reevaluate my pen snobbery. Because while I'm over here turning up my nose at the basic Bic, he's using them to create things like this:
Ukonu is a self-taught artist from Lagos, Nigeria, who creates hyperrealistic portraits using just a Bic ballpoint pen. And not the fancy kind—the super simple clear ones with the pointy lids you buy in a 12-pack because you know you're going to lose half of them around the house anyway.
His drawings look like blue-washed photographs, but they're all hand-drawn with a Bic. (Or more accurately, with around 10 Bics, since the nubs start to wear down as he uses them.) How he makes the most average ballpoint pen strokes do what he does seems like nothing short of magic—even when you watch him do it in real-time.
The techniques he uses are pretty standard—hatching (parallel lines), crosshatching (perpendicular lines), and scribbling (basically what it sounds like). But he uses them on a minutely detailed level, working from multiple photos of the same subject, and the result is portraiture that looks so real it's almost surreal.
Artist Draws Hyperrealistic Portraits Using Bic Ballpoint Pens youtu.be
Ukonu began his journey with hyperrealism when he was in architecture school and fell in love with ballpoint after feeling unsatisfied with the ink pens he was using. "I spent a lot of time looking at different mediums and drawing tools," he told Vsionvry. "But the first time I tried the ballpoint pen that was in 2014, and it just clicked..."
According to his website, Ukonu "explores black identity and pride in an increasingly globalized world, as well as ideas surrounding Afrorealism" in his art. (Afrorealism is a movement that straddles optimism and pessimism about Africa, with a genuine acknowledgment of the difficulties facing the continent and the placement of Africans in the central role of its development.)
Ukonu calls his work "a practice in time and patience" with an average piece taking him somewhere between 200 to 400 hours to complete. That time and patience pays off as prints of his work—not the originals, just prints—can sell for up to $600.
That braid he's working on in the video? That was this. With a Bic ballpoint. How?
And the newspaper wrapped around the woman's head? He has a whole series of pieces that feature that concept, which he calls "THE DISINFORMATION OF A REPUBLIC."
If you're new to hyperrealistic art, it's similar to—and has its roots in—photorealism, a style in which someone draws exactly what they see in a photo. But instead of drawing a direct copy of a photograph, hyperreal artists use photos only as a reference. That's why the video explained that Ukonu used around 20 photographs (out of hundreds taken) to draw one of his pieces. Rather than an exact replica of a single photograph, the final product is a wholly unique image, even though it looks like it could be a photograph.
It's common for hyperrealists to evoke emotional, social, cultural, and political meanings in their works, which shows clearly in Ukonu's art. And the fact that he can create such beautiful images with a cheap, disposable Bic ballpoint is proof that the talent of the artist is more important than the quality of the tools. (A truth that I will keep in mind when I reach for a pen for any purpose after seeing this.)
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