Armed with just ink and a pen, Eliza B. Askin has documented Richmond’s architectural landmarks for nearly four decades, often with photographic precision. Her annual calendars have been popular gifts for years that many locals have come to love and wouldn’t want to miss.
A color image of a freight train crossing a bridge over the James River adorns the cover of her latest work, with monthly black-and-white drawings inside, depicting street views and easily recognizable dwellings from Grove Avenue to the Boulevard.
Askin will show 32 of her works at the RTD Gallery that opens Friday, Feb. 3, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“It’s more like I’m recording Richmond than it being inspiration. I feel the need to make note of it all,” Askin said.
Askin hails from both sides of Virginia, the Eastern Shore and Rockbridge County in the west. She cites both areas as influential to her work because of their natural landscapes. Her mother has nurtured her artistic streak since early childhood, encouraging her to draw and paint with charcoal, conte crayons, assorted pencil and papers, taking her to museums and galleries.
“My mother was my biggest influence; she made sure that I had good art teachers in school, and privately. She would make me set aside some time at a certain part of the day to do some work,” Askin said.
Although not an artist, her father loved wood, stone and architecture, pointing them out on their many drives across the state.
Maybe it was her father’s more rational approach to life that inspired Askin to major in both fine arts and math when she enrolled at Lynchburg College, a small liberal arts school known for its large endowment for a new arts complex that was completed during Askin’s second year at the school.
“I sort of started out in math, but I knew that I was going to take as many art courses as I could because I was thinking I could probably not make a living of art,” she said.
Eventually, she dropped the math major, graduated with a fine arts degree and moved to Richmond, where she took additional classes at Virginia Commonwealth University while waiting tables to pay her bills.
It was around this time that Askin began to draw passionately. She drew everything in her new neighborhood, the Fan District. She drew while on her balcony; she drew while riding the bus. She drew all the time, noting the rows of rooflines, the alleyways, the doorways and awnings.
Then her father got her a job as a draftsman of bridges at the Virginia Highway Department, now the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“He called one day and said they hire people with arts and math background, and he said he knows some people,” Askin said. “I went for an interview, and it was just a when-can-you-start kind of thing. It had all been set up for me.”
Immersing herself in her work, Askin used the department’s equipment to draw during lunch hours.
“They had all this stuff that I never had learned to use in fine arts, like penograph pens, triangles, T-squares and soak stones for the wax paper,” she said.
Working with the tools of architects and engineers influenced, if not changed, her own drawing style for good.
“Most pen-and-ink illustrators use any kind of marker, but I can only use a pen vertically, it has to be perfectly perpendicular to the paper,” Askin said. “And those penograph pens have to be vertical to get the line exact. They are a metal sheet with a steel rod inside. I’ve tried other things, but this is pleasing to me because I have a lot of control that way.”
Throughout 1980, Askin set aside a dozen of her best works for a calendar that she would self-publish in 1981, with the help of a loan from her mother.
The calendar sold close to 500 copies on the first day. Askin knew she was onto something.
“I only did one round of printing because I was terrified,” she said. “I didn’t know how to sell; I had no marketing experience; they didn’t do that in art school.”
After her first calendar’s success, Askin quit her job and has lived off her art since. She does 50 to 75 drawings a year, mostly 11 by 14 inches in size.
Although she does commissions for other people, her annual calendar has become a Richmond staple, selling about 10,000 copies a year, peaking at 17,000 copies sold in the year 2000.
Askin has stayed mostly true to her style, but it has changed somewhat since she started selling calendars, evolving from contour drawings to more detailed depictions of the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks.
“My drawings were free and loose in the 1980s, but I have gotten more technical; I can’t seem to help it,” she said.
Askin begins a project by taking a series of photographs in an area and then looks them over and decides what interests her.
“In general, it’s the light or a particular architectural piece. Or it’s a place where people in the particular neighborhood go a lot. Sometimes I just use vignettes of the buildings,” she said.
Askin starts out by loosely placing her object on paper with a soft pencil to get her perspective points. She then establishes a main vertical line to work from, using two triangles. The most difficult areas, usually between 1 and 2 inches wide, draw her attention first.
“That gets me going and then I know I can complete it,” she said. “It really is more like a puzzle; I do pieces at a time. It’s not like a charcoal drawing or big sweeping circles; it’s more like writing.”
A standard piece takes her about five to six hours to complete. More complex motifs can take up to 20 hours.
When her three adult children were little, Askin used to work late at night, often until the early morning hours. It’s at her drawing board where she feels most at peace.
“It’s relaxing to me. It’s the only part of the job that I really love,” she said.