Sunday Mailbag

March 30th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I was wondering what is a wash (in inking), and how do you do it? I know that it makes the ink turn grey, or maybe something like that.

A: Washes are areas of gray created by watered down ink that you “wash” into an inked drawing to add values of gray and turn it into a more “inked painting”. Washes can be used either as flat areas of specific values or as a more painted grayscale set of values like a monochrome watercolor painting.

Washes are more easily accomplished via the computer these days, and I often will use the computer to add the washes and values after scanning in the line artwork in the same manner I add my color when I am doing a black and white piece. Occasionally, however, I will do it the old fashioned way to take advantage of the more flawed and hand-done look it imparts… especially with respect to the texture of the board the washes naturally pick up.

The best way to create consistent natural washes is to set up a “palette” of gray values. Take small several plastic bottles and add water to them, then add drops of ink until you reach a range of values… say one at 10%, one at 30%, one at 50%, etc. How do you know what percent they are. You eyeball it, of course. It doesn’t really matter what actual percentage of black it is anyway… it’s all about how it looks. Once you have the these set up, you can dip a clean, rinsed brush into them to get a pure, consistent wash value. You wash over your linework to add the values where you want them. Be sure you used a waterproof ink for the linework… otherwise you will mess your lines up badly.

Washes work like watercolors, where if you place one on top of the other the overlap produces a darker value. You can paint an area flat or do some modeling and rendering to make a much more dimensional looking final result. Here are some examples of some ink and wash art, although I had a hard time finding anything at all using physical washes… it’s so much easier on the computer:

I added an actual ink wash to the seat and console of this
spot illustration for MAD Kids just to be different…

The washes on this ink sketch were added with
grayscale markers of 10%, 20% and 40%


These darker “washes” were done digitally on this
spot illustration for Fade In Magazine

Here’s a small spot I also did for Fade In before adding
some more subtle washes using PhotoShop

With the digital washes. More subtle than in the Pee wee spot…

“Back in the Day” at MAD the artists used a lot of washes to accent the inked artwork, but most avoided a fully painted look. They would use actual washes or often gray markers to add just a little value in the art, since the whole thing (pasted up lettering and all) was photostated as a line screen it all became a dot pattern and could be reproduced in print. Some artists, Like Mort Drucker, were old school and used “rubylith” to indicate percentages of gray for flat areas to add values. Rubylith is a sheet of a clear acetate plastic with a film of transparent red affixed to it like a peel off sticker. Mort would place this sheet over a portion of his art and tape into place. Then he would cut out and remove the areas of red that were not to be the gray value, leaving a red “mask” over the area that was to be gray. Then he would write what percentage of gray he wanted the red area to be:

Mort original panel with rubylith in place. Note the 20% indicated
for the printer. The other washes were done in markers. The foreground
character’s shirt has marker values under the rubylith.

The the printer would remove the rubylith and photostat the inked art using a halftone screen to create the dot patterns. Then he would “strip” the rubylith area into the “black plate” of the print film using the percentage indicated. The end result:

20% value in place where Mort wanted…

Thanks to Mike Kuznar for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here. I’m out!!!


  1. DShultz says:

    Having a trip down memory lane with the rubylith keyline… Nice Pee-wee BTW.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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