Saturday, 8 December 2012

Drawing with ink, some tips

It's been a while but when I used to earn cash as an illustrator I preferred to used what even then was seen as as a traditional medium, that being, ink applied with a dip pen or brush. The reasons for this were practical really, It was the easiest way to get a consistent black for repo purposes and I'd spent a bit of time in my amateur comic days monkeying with different materials and I just didn't like the flat lines that newer types of inking implements gave. Now a lot of people who've tried inkwork are a little surprised at my choice, probably because they've struggled with pen and ink and got a bit frustrated, well I did too but once you've worked through the problems it turns out that they're not such a pain after all. The main thing is that you've got to be aware of the pitfalls, once accomplished this you'll find that even under the crush of tight deadline, ink applied with a pen or brush is very productive.

I'm a avid fan of good inkwork particularly when applied with a pen, I love the inky quality of illustrators like Ken Reid and his contemporaries and I'd like a see a resurgence of that kind of draftsmanship. So to enchourage this ends I've decided to document a few tips regarding this subject, I'm gonna cover four topics, pens, brushes, inks and surfaces.

This one's pretty easy, you need a brush rather more slender and longer than you'd use to apply paint. The bad news is that brushes are expensive because they're made from sable, at least the ones suitable for inking are. The type of brush I used was the Windsor & Newton Series 3A Designers Sable, sizes 0 to 3. For god sake look after them, clean them immediately after you've used them, especially with indian ink. Don't let anyone else use them either, they'll ruin them. If you're working in a studio with other people, lock them away and then you won't suffer the problem I did when a particularly inconsiderate and arrogant colleague left an expensive brush ruined my in brush holder because she considered anything in the studio as communal property.

Gillott 404 pen with a William Mitchel No. 2 ink reservoir, the reservoir helps control the flow of ink as well as allowing you to load your pen with more ink. If the ink is getting a bit sticky, just open the reservoir up slightly. You can get a good variety of line with this pen, use it sideways for finer lines and normally for a thinker lines, you can apply a fair amount of pressure too to get broader lines, depending on the resilience of your surface. One thing you should be aware of when using pens, is that gravity is your friend so orientate your drawing board towards the flat and this should prevent any problems with ink flow.

I can recommend Winsor and Newton Indian Ink or Higgins Fountain Pen Ink too which is a non waterproof ink and can be easier to work with especially for a beginner. One problem with Indian ink is that is that it should really come with a sell by date because a lot of the stuff you get in the shops has been sitting around or years and its various constituents have settled out into two parts. A sticky goo that will gum up your pen and a anemic fluid that is quite translucent and useless for repo. You can buy huge bottles of W&N Indian and that's probably the best way to go, if you do, be sure to stop the bottle immediately you've decanted a quantity into a dip vessel, this will prevent evaporation which is a problem if you only buy small bottles of ink and you're working in the summer without  air conditioning. If you're indian ink is getting sticky, through evaporation, don't dilute it with tap water unless you're willing to throw the bottle away when you've finished your drawing. Indian that been diluted this way will solidify into a gel, usually overnight and will have to be thrown away. I have heard you can use de-ionised water to dilute it, this may be true, I don't know, I've never had to try it.

When I first took up inkwork the surface that was recommend to me was Frisk CS10, which was probably the cause of my initial problems, it's was awful, totally unsuitable for dip pen work, it had a toothed surface that was meant for mechanical Rotoring pens which does nothing but splatter ink everywhere with dip pens. You can use various grades of illustration board. Daler wash and line board takes ink quite nicely especially from a brush and it dries quite quickly, it's main disadvantage being that you can't apply too much pressure with a pen because it will tear up the surface. Anyone with professional experience would have told you that Letraset papers and boards where in class far superior to anything else that was produced, unfortunately they seem to have given up that part of their business, which is obvious of course, wouldn't that just have to happen? the best inking papers and boards disappear from the market, typical. Their 5000 line paper was a harder surface but it didn't take too long to dry either and you could erase small errors with a scalpel blade or sometimes a T20 eraser.

One surface that a lot of people don't consider is drafting film, drafting film is the hardest drawing surface and can take the most pressure from your pen. It's a polyester translucent material meant for use with mechanical pens again but the tooth is much finer and works well with dip pens. It's quite hard on pens though and will wear them out much quicker than other surfaces. It's main advantage is that you can trace straight off your pencil sketches and you can erase errors with relative ease with a T20 or, because it's plastic not paper, you can wipe whole drawings out with a suitable solvent for indian ink,  just water with water soluble inks. It's disadvantage is that, because it is totally impermeable, it takes an age to dry, especially with indian ink.

One point about all surfaces is that they need to be kept clean and the harder that surface the more important this becomes. When I say clean, what I mean is that they will acquire an oil film from your hands as you're working and this will be enough to cause the ink not take to the surface. To prevent this you can use a piece of paper to minimize skin contact with the surface but you will also probably need to clean the surface periodically with lighter fluid or a suitable studio solvent like Clean Art.


  1. This was very interesting. Like you I prefer proper old fashioned draughtsmanship requiring genuine talent. I couldn't work with pen and ink with much success though as I'm left handed so I end up smearing all my efforts.

    1. I'm glad you found it of interest, I knocked it out during a bout of insomnia, so it's a bit brief but I covered most of the points I think. One thing I think I might have mentioned is the vast array of inking styles you can adopt and how different surfaces and inks are betters suited to different styles but that needs a more expansive context I think. I would encourage you to give it a go if you're interested, it's a very productive medium if you like black and white and as I say a lot of the initial frustration is caused through poor materials or poor ink. A good quality non-water proof black is definitely the way to go if you're having problems with indian ink, which can be tricky. As you say, it does some time to aquire the skill and practice to keep in form but the technique itself has it's asthetic appeal which is well worth the effort.