When I first got serious about cartooning for a career, one of the things I was most concerned about was inking. That seemed to me like a skill and art that would take a really long time to master, and worse yet there seemed to be no good sources of learning the art of inking out there. I found one book I still heartily recommend, called The Art of Comic Book Inking by Gary Martin, which is to date the best book on the subject. There used to be a great website on inking with input from many great inkers but I think it’s defunct. Anyway, long story short I had a lot of trouble finding any sources of learning how to ink.
Inking is scary because it seems so permanent. Pro-white or some other form of white paint can correct mistakes, but the pure black nature of ink is intimidating. I would often feel I ruined the quality of the drawings I had done in pencil, or at least diluted any energy or pop they had with my tentative and unconfident inks. I tried looking at the masters of cartoon inking to learn how they did what they did… artists like Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Will Eisner, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Mort Drucker… the list is long but what I discovered was that each of them used an approach that was basically an extension of their drawing style, and emulating their techniques just made my drawings look like Drucker or Wood drawings (okay, BAD Drucker or Wood drawings). It was plain to me that, while I could learn about things like using ink to create volume and form from studying other artist’s work, it would be just plain old practice and trial and error to learn how to ink with confidence and effectiveness.
Unfortunately I was too impatient to just practice my way to getting good with the ink, so I pestered other artists I knew into telling me tips, giving me advice and some instruction in the art of inking. Most of what they told me was to practice, but I did pick up a number of useful mechanical tips, tricks and techniques and was allowed to watch over a shoulder or two and see some masters at work. I also have discovered a number of things on my own, as the years and the pages slowly piled up. I have put together a little tutorial on inking that I will share with you here. Just by way of a disclaimer, I consider myself a “passable” inker at this point in my career. I don’t expect to ever win any awards for my inks, or to ever be confused with true masters like Wood and Eisner, but I no longer approach the pen and ink with fear and loathing, and even occasionally find myself at a point in a job when all cylinders are firing and I am actually having fun with the ink… that is until I catch the pen point on the paper and I skrrriiitcccch a big splatter all over the page. Then the cursing begins…
Let’s Start with the Pencils
Here’s the pencils of the piece I’ll be inking for the tutorial:
Click for closer look
It’s a poster job that will eventually be in color. This will make a bit of a difference in how I approach the inks. If it was going to be in black and white, I would be working a lot harder with the ink to create volume and form. At it is, much of the value work will be done at the color stage, but for the purpose of the tutorial I’ll be doing a bit more inking to show some different concepts and techniques. You’ll notice the pencils are not very tight, but somewhat sketchy and only suggest some of the line variations I’ll be using.
Here are the tools:
I’ll be using a combination of brush and pen to ink this piece. The pen nib is a Gillott 303. The brushes are a Winsor Newton Series 7 #2 and #6 (for any big black areas). The ink is Pelikan’s Drawing Ink A for the pen and Dr. Martin’s Black Star for the brush. I use Black Star for brush work as it is more dense and doesn’t gray out with eraser quite as easily as the Pelikan’s does. Brushed ink lines are thinner layers of ink and tend to get lighter than a pen line does when erasing. For paper I prefer Strathmore 500 Bristol in either 3 or 4 ply weights and a kid (rough) finish. I prefer the quirkiness of the textures surface as I think it creates some charm and warmth with the lines, as opposed to a plate (smooth) surface, which is a little too slick for me.
Brush vs. Pen
There are pros and cons to the use of each. Basically it comes down to the look you want to achieve, and your own preferences in inking. I like both and use both together, but primarily I use a pen because I like the rougher, more imperfect line of a pen as opposed to the very smooth line of a brush. I think a pen has more personality. I use the brush for big, sweeping curved lines that a pen would not be able to accomplish in one stroke. I also use a brush to lay in solid blacks and for use in certain circumstances like long hair and feathering I want to look smooth.
A brush uses much less ink, and the ink lays lightly on the surface of the paper. Therefore the ink dries very fast and you have less of the waiting for inks to dry before you can work that area again as you do with a pen. Like I mentioned before, a brush has very smooth lines, and will carry more ink while laying down less so long, tapered stokes are more attainable. Brushes also allow you greater line thickness variation, going from a hairline to a thick line, even in the same stroke. The bad things about brushes are they demand a great deal of concentration and attention… if I am tired or getting unfocused my inking will unhinge quite quickly. Also, you cannot change direction at right angles with a brush, so sharp corners and multidirectional lines are hard or impossible. Mostly, however, using a brush is very different from the actions you use when drawing with a pencil, so it just never feels like I am drawing with a brush. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love good brushwork in inking. There are cons to everything.
A pen allows me to use movements more like I do when I draw. The 303 does not catch on the paper like a crow quill would, so I can draw almost as naturally as I do with a pencil. I can change direction and even do squiggles or zig zags if I am careful. I can get a fair degree of line variation with a pen, and a good working 303 gives me a sharp, fine line when I want it. The bad things about pens: the nibs don’t always work the same. Sometimes I will draw two lines with a nib and then toss it and get another. Other times I’ll get a good one and go for hours. I am hard on nibs because I am heavy handed, and will probably go through two working ones on this job. Pens also lay down a lot of ink, especially for thick lines. It takes time for this ink to dry, and there is always a danger of smearing or tracking hand prints all over your board. It takes some time to get used to working on different sections at a time, and sometimes you just have to take a 10-15 minute break or so to let the wet ink dry sufficiently. Pens run out of ink a lot and you are constantly dipping them.
Each tools has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Both are effective and what an artist settles on is just what he decides he’s comfortable with. Interestingly enough, an artist’s style of inking can be as much a part of the limitations of his chosen tools as his artistic skill. Mort Drucker, for example, uses a lot of squiggles and curly lines, scribbles and other loose effects. His pen nib is a Gillott 1950, which is one of the few pen nibs that allows you to do that kind of movement. What would Mort’s inkwork look like if he had used a Hunt 107 instead, which only allows for straight or curved strokes, and cannot change direction like a 1950? Who knows. Maybe Mort found the 1950 and maybe the 1950 found Mort.
Watching several inkers at work demonstrated to me that a lot of what goes into good inking is confidence. You cannot be timid when inking, or you will lose any chance of spontaneity or energy in your final work. You have to have the confidence that your stroke is going where you want it to go. If you are too deliberate and slow, the final effect won’t have the bounce and pop a confident ink job will have. It’s a little like riding a bicycle… you can use training wheels (slow, timid ink lines) if you want to, and with them you’ll get where you want to go but it won’t be graceful or pretty. If you take off the training wheels you will fall down and skin your knees a few times, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it and you’ll be off! Don’t rush your inks, but don’t labor over them with slow, awkward strokes either. Try and establish a nice rhythm to your inking, and above all try to DRAW with the ink. If you just trace your lines you’ll end up with a tracing. Draw them again with the ink. Think about the form you are drawing and it’s place in the image as you work.
I always begin with whatever is the focal point of my drawing and work my way back to the less important elements. I find this naturally causes important elements to stand out and others to recede, which is what you want. Usually the objects you want to focus on will have the boldest and heaviest lines, and also have the greatest contrast and detail, whereas the less and less important an object is, the less bold and less involved the lines are. That isn’t always the case, as sometimes you can achieve focus on an object by causing it to be the lightest and simplest part in an area of darkness. In our case, in a scene outdoors in daylight, the former is our approach. The old lady in the foreground is obviously the focus of the image, followed by the two ladies behind her decking the big guys. The rest is just extra fodder, except the guy on the ground in the lower right is too much in the foreground to be ignored, so he’ll be part of the mid level focus.
The next thing we need to do is start thinking about the light source. It’s daytime outside, so the sun will be the light source and it will be above and slightly in front of the figures. One simple approach to this would be to make all the lines that define an edge away from the light source be thicker than those that are nearest to it… a reasonable and consistent approach. There are others. Some inkers prefer to create a heavy outline around the entire figure, using thinner lines in the interior areas. This creates a flatter and more stylized look, but is an effective approach. Personally I don’t try all that hard to follow the light source with my linework… I think it’s more important to establish depth in an image than making sure every away edge is thick and every close edge is thin. Sometimes you have to beef up a line to separate your object from another in the drawing, regardless of the light source. Still, I use light source considerations as a basis when I start.
As much as I have been preaching “just draw” with the inks, the reality is that we are working with tools that have limitations and mechanical considerations we have to respect and work within. Some of the things you just don’t learn from books on inking are the mechanics of actually doing the work, which is really what I am going to focus on here. Inking itself is, again, just an extension of an artist’s drawing, so it is not very helpful to someone trying to learn to ink to show them how I’d ink a drawing. It’s more productive to show them how to use the tools, suggest what I’d do with the inks on a particular drawing and then they’ll be able to make their own decisions when they start inking. As such, here are a number of tips I’ve learned from trial and error and from the advice and instruction of such accomplished artists as Sam Viviano, Joe Rubenstein, Tom Nguyen and Doug Mahnke, to name a few.
Holding the Pen/Brush
One thing I learned right away is to make sure you hold the pen or brush properly. It’s not good to grip it too far from the tip… that leads to instability where the slightest lean or bump will throw your line off. Grip it near the tip, for both a brush and pen.
This is more stable and allows better control. Interestingly enough the angle you have the pen at also makes a difference. You would think, with gravity being the main force that pulls the ink from your pen**, it would be better to have the pen at a steep angle to the paper, but it makes for better and more consistent ink flow to hold it as parallel as possible to the page. (** It was pointed out to me that it’s actually surface tension that pulls the ink from the pen, and at a shallower angle there is a greater surface area to the ink “droplet” that is created when the pen point is split. Makes perfect sense!)
Obviously your hand gets in the way, but keeping the end of the pen low makes the pen tip more responsive and less jumpy. Finally, work at as flat an angle with the paper as you can comfortably do. Pen ink especially will run down the line and bead up at the bottom if you draw a think line, and the flatter the surface the less that’s a problem.
I use a lap board and back up from my drawing table a bit to get a less angled surface.
Dipping the Pen/Brush
This is underrated as an issue with inking. It’s best to always start with a consistent level of ink on either a pen or a brush. If you start with a very wet pen, you’ll have beading or too heavy an ink flow at first. If it’s too dry, the tip with just split and leave you with an interrupted line. The brush is all a matter of feel, but with the pen you can control it precisely. I do this by taking my ink out of the bottle and putting it into an inkwell at a consistent level. Then I dip the pen until the tip hits the bottom, and I have the same ink level every time. I like a level that is just above the opening in the nib. I’ll add small amounts of ink as I go to keep it at the right level.
The Inking Motion
Most people have their greatest amount of control with a line when they work away and to the drawing side of their body. Meaning if you are right handed like me, you work best pulling up and to the right. Pulling down your arm bangs into your body if you pivot at the shoulder, and your wrist has to twist backward to keep your pen square if you work inward pivoting at the elbow. At least for big, sweeping lines try and work up and away from your body. This is especially the case with a brush… try and do a big, sweeping curve up and way from your body and then try one coming down toward your body… moving toward you is more awkward. The shorted lines matter less in this regard. I will often turn my paper every which way, even upside down, to get the lines to work in a comfortable direction, particularly early in the process.
Use Your Arm, not Your Wrist
Believe it or not it’s easier to get strong, consistent lines if you use your shoulder and elbow to ink, not your wrist. Once you get to doing the little details you can use that wrist all you want, but if your line is longer than an inch, try and use your shoulder or elbow as the pivot point. It’s just more stable and fluid.
Let’s Get Inking!
Okay, first off I’ll be doing some brush work. Again, I am starting with the old lady in the center. When I dip my brush, I soak the brush up to about 2/4 of the bristle length. Keep the ink from going high enough to touch the metal barrel, that ruins a brush quickly.
You can see I am rotating the paper to I mostly work up and to the right.
I am using my arm and shoulder to draw the lines, so I get nice smooth curves. I’m keeping the thickest lines to her right side (our left) and underneath, with respect to the light source. I’ll keep on with the brush here for a while and then switch to the pen to work in her interior details. The pen can transition well from the big brush strokes and take me to the thinnest of detail lines.
I am not moving slowly with the brush, but in smooth, even and somewhat quick stokes. It’s important to remember that mistakes can be corrected, so don’t sweat a bad line or three. Just keep pressing on.
Also, don’t worry about getting the perfect line thickness at this point. Try and vary the line thickness with respect to the light source at this point, but know what it’s easy and likely we will be going in to beef up lines here and there at the end… no line is an island and what looks bold right now may need a boost when the background is added. It may be ideal to create each line in one bold stroke but the reality is most inkers will go back and add to or beef up lines constantly. It was shocking for me to learn that Al Hirschfeld, the King of elegant and smooth line drawings, creates all his beautiful linear art with short little hairy strokes. Up close his lines are quite rough and imperfect… he creates the feeling of elegance by slowly building the lines one short stroke at a time.