Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies

Unforgettable Art Supply Moment No. 3: Robert Zimmerman

January 5th 2012

"My Most Unforgettable Art Supply Moment" is a series of short interviews with seasoned artists who have survived substantial combat in the great war of the graphic arts. Each participant was asked the same five questions.

After ditching his job in 1984 as creative director for a company programming games for the Atari 800 and Commodore 64 computers, armed with xeroxes of only three scratchboard drawings, Robert Zimmerman walked into the New York Times art department on a Friday afternoon. The AD sat him down and handed him an assignment which the AD needed finished in an hour. That Sunday, his first published illustration appeared in the New York Times real estate section. From that chance beginning came a successful 25-year illustration career – which was dramatically changed when a bad fall on a patch of ice shattered the bones in his right wrist into a lot of tiny pieces.

Despite two years of surgery, and realizing his drawing days were greatly compromised at best, he decided to return to his old software roots and take a plunge into writing internet code, doing business as Bug Logic because, in Zimmerman’s words, “… the domain name was available and because I was perhaps still taking a lot of Percocets at the time.”

In 2006, he and his partner wrote the program for, an exclusive invitation-only blog site for top illustrators. The following year, they wrote the exceptionally popular illustration portfolio site, "They both keep me connected to illustration, which I will always hold dear to my heart... if no longer to my wrist."

1. Can you recall for us your worst most unforgettable art supply experience?

My favorite art supply moment actually involves Mark Matcho, back when he first arrived at the New York Times in the late ‘80s. These were the bull-pen days: if you worked at the Times you lived at the Times. Mark came in on a Friday night on an assignment for Week in Review, and had arrived carrying a huge sheet of black Esdee scratchboard. The job needed to wrap by 11 pm, so he was over in a corner, laboring over this thing, scratching away all that black for hours with an X-acto #16. Finally, around 10:45 he had a nice little drawing with very little black left at all. But there was this black dust everywhere, and he's half covered with it himself. Towards the end, I wandered over and said, "You know that Esdee makes white scratchboard? You just put the ink down and scratch away what you don't want". We were great friends after that.

2. Other than your first answer, is there an art supply that you’ve hated having to use more than any other?

Rubylith! Insanely expensive and unnerving to work with, it was a required art supply for print production during the dark years of cheap newspaper color. If you didn't know how to use the miserable crap, you didn't have a job. Art supply tyranny at it's best.

For those unfamiliar with such a dreadful art supply, the term rubylith is a generic name, and in it's heyday, the popular brand was Ulano. It consisted of a peelable (hopefully!) layer of thin red lacquer bonded to a sheet of clear acetate. The red film acts as a mask, and is carefully cut away with a blade, then painstakingly pulled away from the clear acetate. The rubylith rule was: no matter what, do not fuck up! The knife slips a fraction at midnight, the registration is off, and your dollars sail away while you come off like an idiot besides. You miss the tiniest corner cut and end up pulling off the entire mask. Goodbye sleep, goodbye rent money. I heard that they still make it. Why would they do that to anybody?

3. On the other hand, can you think of an especially favorite art supply that you miss the most that has unfortunately left us for that big art supply heaven in the sky?
Back in my doodling-for-dollars salad days, when I needed to get in tight and make it right, my detail brush of choice was always the Windsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II, 101 # 2, a fine soldier of art that you could count on to deliver the good fight for a solid year, maybe two.

Today? The brush often arrives DOA by mail. If one in ten is a challenger, count yourself fortunate. Lately, I've taken to hand-picking them from art suppliers, trying to find a single one that is correctly shaped and crafted. Even then, the best might last three months before surrendering. Perhaps an all-purpose requiem for those forgotten art supplies, once steadfast and enduring. Or, maybe I'm waxing nostalgic for art supplies that never were.

4. Are there any other art supplies that you’ve just plain thrown away that you wish you still had?

I never throw away art supplies, so I don't have any regrets in that department.
5. At one time or another, a lot of us have purchased something that we thought was soooo cool when we saw it at the art supply store, then we ended up never ever using it. Has this ever happened to you?

Back in high school in ‘76, I was strictly using nibs for ink work and the Gillott 170 was my go-to nib of choice. There was a wonder-boy art prodigy in our school that convinced me that these new Rapidograph pens were the future. I was young, naïve, and in awe of him, so, the next day I spent gobs of newspaper delivery money on one. It was a double-zero KOH-I-NOOR -- pristine, delicate and looking very NASA-like. After carefully riding it home on my bike and reading the manual forwards and back, I loaded it up with ink. It clattered back and forth as I gave it a tentative shake. A surge of power rushed to my hand. It sure sounded like the future to me! Then, just as I poised myself above a sheet of fresh coldpress Arches that I had carefully transferred a sketch to with Saral Transfer Paper, the pen suddenly slipped through my fingers. It fell and fell for what seemed like the longest time and planting itself like a post deep into the forth finger of my left hand just above the first knuckle. I looked at it for some time. It didn't hurt. But all my ideas about the future of pens drifted skyward.

The Rapdograph scar left a small dot of a tattoo there on my finger forever. It stills stares at me like a little cyclops finger puppet, a constant reminder to never use one of those high-tech fandango deals ever again. If pen and ink is called for today, I still dip the trusted Gillott 170. To heck with the future.

comment by Judy K
January 17th 2012
I'm sort of boggled by the number of y'all who hate(d) Rubylith/Amberlith. That would be the bygone "supply" I'd love to have back. I used to love to do hard-edge illustrations with the stuff.
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