Making Art

Bringing Art Making Into Your Life

Drawing 6 – Get inked. No, not a tattoo. Pen and ink!

Have you ever tried drawing with a pen and ink? You should try it, it’s fun, easy and cheap and your good results will probably surprise you.

Most of the drawing posts I have done have been about techniques that help you with one of the specifics of learning to draw. Focusing on proportion, or edges and shapes. This one is more about loosening up. If you have never tried drawing with pen and ink, it can be very freeing : surprisingly so for what might seem a rather fussy and old fashioned medium.

The type of pen we are talking about here is a dip pen: a pen that unlike a fountain pen uses no ink reservoir. Various versions of the dip pen have been around for thousand of years. The ancient Egyptians used reed pens and feathers have been used to make quill pens  for about 2000 years.


Above: my pen, ink and wash Kraken.

The equipment necessary for pen and ink is marvelously minimal and cheap. The most expensive element tends to be the paper.

  1. Pen and nib: Most artists today use a 2 part pen: with a body made of plastic or wood and a nib that you can exchange for other nibs of various sizes. I tend to stick to a fine pointed nib but if you use a wider nib, you can get both a fine line and wide one out of the one nib, like a calligraphy line. I had the good fortune to find a small jar of nibs about 20 years ago in a thrift store and have never needed to buy more. If you have trouble find a pen  and nib, make your own [see below].
  2. Ink: the most versatile inks to use are water resistant. The type of ink you use for a stamp pad isn’t suitable. So buy something like India Ink. I like black but sepia [brown] is nice too.
  3. Paper: Many artists like a nice smooth paper; if they are doing lots of details, they ask for hot pressed in the art shop, as it has a nice smooth finish. I like a paper with a bit of texture but not too absorbent. I like it to keep a good crisp line. If your paper is too absorbent you will know it because the line will bleed straight away. And if you are going to use it with a wash, then a watercolour paper is probably best, so it doesn’t buckle too much. The last one I really liked was a watercolour paper, 210gsm and specially sized for wet mediums, [to sop it buckling.] Don’t use anything too fibrous as it will collect in your pen nib. Do a bit a of experimenting, with a small block of paper first before you go and spend a fortune. If you are on a tight budget normal old office paper actually works ok for ink, but not for wash.


Above: a wooden pen [holder with nib] and ink.


Above: my little jar of nibs, found in the thrift shop.


Above: a variety of nibs will give different lines.

So why pen and ink? It allows for a lovely range of marks, from scratchy, blobby, smooth, splashy, splotchy. It’s very easy to use. I tend to use it as a line tool, but the other day when my child was doing some ink I noticed she was treating it as both fill and line. I tried it and couldn’t quite get her approach. [As usual the seven year old is doing better than I am].


Above: ink is great for lots of different marks: blobby, scratchy smooth. My seven year old’s drawing of various rusty items.


Above: a rusty nail, using ink as a block colour.

The basic technique: dip pen into ink about 1/2 inch [1.25cm] or a touch more and remove excess on side of the jar. Start drawing quickly or you will drop a blob of ink on your paper [don’t worry if you do, the splashes are all part of it]. For a smooth line, try to be pulling down towards you or going sideways on your paper. If you push up with your pen, you are likely [as a beginner] to get a shuddery line or a line with no ink, or a spattery line [which can also be super nice.].  For example if you are drawing a large circle, most right handers would probably go anticlockwise and by the time you get to about 4 o’clock you are now going up the page.  So think about whether you need to do big moves in multiple dips and coming down from both sides or not. I don’t mind messy bits but if you do you might need to plan ahead.

If you are doing a drawing going across your page [say lots of crosshatching] rights handers should start on the top left and work their way down and across other wise you risk seriously smearing your work. Lefties start at the top right.


Above:  for lots of crosshatching, work across the page.

You would think  that if you are going in hard with a semi permanent medium, like ink, that you might want to draw a sketch first  but  generally I don’t. Something about the strength of the medium gives you confidence. Just plow right on in there. You end up with a fresh line, full of energy, not a dead, passive line.  I am a bit too controlled in my art making generally, and would love it if I could go a bit more out of control, so ink is a lot of fun for me.


Above: ink is great for quick sketches like this little chicken.

I also like to use a wash with my ink. They go so well together. Generally wash is referring to watercolour. But I prefer to use gouache: its cheaper and goes further. I also love the way the pigment starts to separate when you use lots of water. Let your ink dry for a bit and you can easily  fill in forms within, and the ink acts like a barrier to the watercolour [or gouache], giving a nice crisp edge. If you paint water all over the whole thing after the ink has dried you can let your paints run over the ink, by putting wet paint onto the water, it will flow over the ink. [This is called wet in wet].  If you don’t wait a few minutes for your ink to dry  it will lift and dissolve a bit, which can look good too, but not if you want that crisp line.


Above: wet in wet. The flowing colour is a nice counterpoint to a crisp ink line.

I like to use mostly black gouache wash watered down to a very light grey. Then I build it up slowly adding in shadows. But there’s no reason you can’t use coloured wash, [or ink for that matter].


Above: in the back ground, a flat grey wash applied over line.


Above: using grey wash to build up shadows.


Above: my Making Art website banner image was done with pen and ink.

After you’ve finished don’t forget to wash the excess ink off your nib so it doesn’t dry and clog it up. Dry it with a paper towel.

You can make a reed pen using bamboo or a quill using a feather very easily. Using a sharp knife slice the end off  in the shape of a nib, with a slight curve to it.  Don’t forget to add a small cut  [like 2 mm] down the centre.  The  stiff bit of the feather [ called the quill… surprise, surprise] holds a nice supply of ink, and its very pretty too. You do need a decent sized feather maybe 4 mm across the quill shaft . I think this one’s a sulphur crested cockatoo feather. If you are anything like me you might have about a million feather’s you’ve already collected in case you need them for an artwork. [Hello fellow art stuff hoarders.]


Above: start with a decent sized feather.


Above: slice the end into a nib shape, with an art knife.


Above: make a small cut into the flat end of the nib, seen here after I have used it.


Above: This quill I made in about 60 seconds is really good! It gives a nice smooth line.


Above: This home made quill also holds a good quantity of ink.

Pen and ink used to be a very popular drawing tool but seems to have fallen out of favour. However I did find some excellent drawings on the interwebs.


Above: I found this delight on Spekkle, oddly for a site about buying freelance art I couldn’t find the name of the artist.


Above: this absolute cracker  is by Brandon Phoenix, and apparently took about 40 hours.

So what can I say? Except my usual, go and make some art. Get covered in ink, its nice.

One comment on “Drawing 6 – Get inked. No, not a tattoo. Pen and ink!

  1. Pingback: The Fountain Pen | euzicasa

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This entry was posted on April 14, 2013 by in Drawing, Exercises and tagged , , , , , , .
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