The Art of Whitespace

by Matthew E May

Matthew E May DrawingBeing a sometime pencil sketcher, I’ve been a fan of the Wall Street Journal pen and ink stipple portraits, also known as a hedcut (that’s not a typo) since I started reading the journal in 1982. I love the fact that the portraits are most whitespace with artfully placed dots and dashes — pure black and white — and the brain fills in the rest and essentially creates the gray tones. I’ve tried the technique myself, and it ain’t easy. Much easier is pencil shading.

I decided to track down the originator, Kevin Sprouls. You can find his work at Sprouls.com. You can read about the evolution of his technique and how he creates each sketch on his “Ink Rhythm” blogsite. And if, like me, you doubt the Wall Street Journal will ever do a feature article on you worthy of a hedcut, you can hire Kevin to do it for you for a few hundred dollars. Which is exactly what I did.

Not only is the art terrific — I sent him the blog photo to the right so you can compare — but the service he provides is outstanding. I sent him a request, he responded promptly, I emailed him the photo, and in two days received an overnight delivery (included in the cost) with the finished portrait along with a digital file, also included in the cost.

Make no mistake, you cannot replicate this technique with Photoshop masks and filters. I know because I’ve tried all the tricks available online. It’s gotta be done old school by hand. And that makes it all the more special, somehow. I can even see small whiteouts here and there on the bristol board where a dot was not to his liking.

Over the years Kevin’s mastery has enabled him to crank one of these out in a few hours. He emailed me four hours after I sent him the photo telling me he was done. To me, that’s an amazing talent and skill.

Based on the experience and outcome, I intend to have Kevin do portraits of my family members (including the dog) as holiday gifts.


Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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  1. Thanks for your kind words, Matthew. It does seem you can't replicate the look of artwork by hand with
    even the sleekest computer programs.
    Also, thanks to Darla for the comment and Squidoo (I'm not hip to Squidoo yet!).

    -Kevin Sprouls

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