Peter made thousands upon thousands of drawings, many of them small and very rapid sketches in pencil. Rarely depicting persons or objects physically present in front of him, they are imaginative projections, distillations of past experiences with a strong dose of fantasy. Working from the imagination made it easier for him to create a coherent graphic idea, to achieve clarity in the relation of form to content. The facile spontaneity evident in these drawings only comes with years of practice, and it reflects an understanding of drawing as a performing art. In sketches such as Mermaid Combing Her Hair, the texture of the individual lines shows how quickly the pencil was moved over the sheet, and the way in which the lines relate to each other suggests a very rapid process of composition, with each line responding to the one put down just before. The result is a rhythmically animated whole, a complete and intrinsically graphic thought. Other examples of his virtuoso pencil technique include the comically leering Pan and the poignant Old Man with Folded Hands, where the emptiness of the white sheet has been integrated into the composition to enhance the expressive effect.
Peter also used other techniques, such as marker and watercolor, to record his first ideas. Happiness amusingly captures a moment of unselfconscious abandon to irresistible joy, while Old Man Struggling with Death, made with black marker retouched with common correction fluid, uses the simple contrast of black and white to maximum effect in order to express the elemental struggle between death and the will to live. A brilliant watercolor portrait of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, while carefully finished, has all the fire and freshness of something executed quickly.
Drawings and watercolors were only the beginning of the creative process, points of departure for further graphic development. Peter’s usual practice was to photocopy the original, then rework the photocopy, making adjustments and additions. The reworked version would then be photocopied as the “definitive” form of the image, but the process of revision might be repeated many times before a satisfactory conclusion was reached. This method allowed the work to develop in stages, each rapid, thus to retain spontaneity while also producing a provisionally “finished” result. The process is illustrated in two images of a Dead Harpy: the original line drawing, in pen and ink , was photocopied and the photocopied versions reworked numerous times with marker, colored pencil, and correction fluid before arriving at its definitive form.
The obvious advantages of photocopying are that it is fast and easy. That Peter did not work in any of the traditional graphic media – engraving, etching, lithography – certainly has a great deal to do with the fact that they are slow and labor-intensive. Photocopying also allows for greater flexibility: the artist does not have to efface the first version of an image in the process of refining it, but can easily save each stage in the developmental process, so that each can potentially become the starting point for a new and different train of thought. Another attraction would have been its novelty, the fact that it was not a traditional graphic medium. The electrophotographic process on which it depends was invented in 1938, but photocopying did not become commercially viable or widespread until the 1960s. As a commonplace, déclassé form of graphic reproduction, it exists in a fundamentally ironic relation to traditional techniques; that relation becomes a source of meaning, and especially of humor, in many of Peter’s images.
Another of Peter’s favorite media was stamps, which he designed and carved himself. The images he produced by this means constitute about half of his entire graphic output and represent a truly unique achievement, an artistic language as original as it is amusing, expressive, and beautiful. Most of the stamps are made from plastic draughtsman’s erasers, but he used other common objects, such as the corks of wine bottles and the wheels of toy cars. He preferred a reddish-brown ink, similar to the color Italians call sanguigno, which also resembles the color of Greek red-figure vases. The style, too, exemplified, for instance by Fortuna (or, to be more precise, Occasio), evokes ancient painting, yet it is also modern and informal, almost cartoonlike in its simplicity: it is at once an updating and an affectionate parody of ancient style. Earthquake is a complex composition built up with a variety of small stamps, some of them simple geometric forms repeated so that their juxtaposition suggests real objects, while Tibetan Monk Going Home, one of Peter’s most inspired works, is extremely simple.
Yet another favorite technique involved painting with correction fluid on black paper. These images are usually very small: Mermaid, at five by five inches, is one of the largest. So concentrated are they that when photocopied in larger form they lose none of their impact, yet most were made small in order to be reproduced on a small scale. The Mermaid design was adapted by being photocopied, enlarged, and modified – the billowing drapery removed – then photocopied onto a sheet of transparent plastic, which was then mounted against a gold foil background. Peter produced many images of this kind: with their combination of graphic force and sparkle, they are among his most beautiful works. He also made many such mounted transparencies in miniature – each two inches square – and set them in plastic frames with magnetized backing so that the result resembles a common refrigerator magnets. The humor implicit in his effort to elevate such a banal object to the level of art – or to bring art down to the level of the everyday – is similar to his sophisticated play with the technology of photocopying.