Why I Still Draw and Ink the Old Fashioned Way

June 22nd, 2010 | Posted in General

I get asked that question a lot because there is a perception that I am a fully digital artist because I deliver most of my work digitally. People are sometimes surprised to hear I still draw and ink on bristol board with a dip pen and brush just like cartoonists have been doing it since the dawn of time, and then scan my work in and color it via the computer and a tablet. It seems odd to some that I bother with the traditional media at all, when I could just do it all on the computer and save time, hassles and ink stains on my studio carpet.

There really is no mystery as to why I still haul out the pen nibs and the inks… the bottom line is I just like working that way, and I like the results I get better than the occasional times I have tried to work straight on the computer.

Why do I like it better? I guess I was probably born about 5-10 years too early to be a truly digital age cartoonist. I’m sort of a half-way mutant. When I started doing freelance illustration in the mid to late 1980’s, computers were still in their infancy when it came to graphics and illustration. I remember having a “Keylining and Paste-Up” class at my art college where we learned to layout text and screened images printed via photostats using waxed back stats or rubber cement, and terms like “leading” and “kerning” had not been replaced by icons and drop menu numbers. I used an airbrush as well as other media for my early illustration work, and of course had always worked on paper or board.

In 1990 I started doing comic books, and while I didn’t do much inking on those titles (David Mowry and the legendary Marie Severin inked my penciled pages) I penciled about 600 plus comic book pages over the next 5 years which went a long way to getting me ingrained in the pencil/bristol dynamic. Besides, at that time the Wacom tablet was still a pipe dream (there were some tablets but they were clunky at best) and drawing on the computer meant using a mouse… and that was impossible.

To be honest, I can’t really recall when I made the transition from natural media color to digital color work. I do remember doing a series of kids comic books for an educational company on topics like “Don’t Smoke”, “Don’t do Drugs” etc., and this client insisted I do them as vector based files. This was maybe 1992 or ’93. At the time the PC I had was way behind the Mac in terms of the version of Adobe Illustrator, so I went out and bought a PowerMac specifically for this series of projects. I scanned in my inked drawings and then used a program called “Streamline” to convert them to vector shapes. This worked okay to an extent, and I was able to click and fill with flat color and add some gradation effects, but it was a far cry from really coloring my cartooning on the computer.

At some point in the mid 90’s I bought a Wacom tablet, an ArtZ II if memory serves, and using PhotoShop started scanning in my work and doing grayscale and color digitally. I don’t recall my first digital illustration but I know when I was doing work for Cracked I was doing both grayscale and color for those parodies. By the time I made my move to MAD I was delivering 95% of my work digitally… but I was still doing the drawing and inking with natural media and I still do that today. I never took a class in digital art or in the use of PhotoShop or any other computer program… whatever I do I learned through experiment, trial and error (and error, and error, and…)

Maybe it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks, but I love the feel of the paper beneath my hand. I like the drag and friction of the pencil tip and pen point along the surface of the board. I like the imperfections and charm of the interaction between the fibers of the paper and the pencil and ink. Mostly, I don’t like the computer getting in the way between me and what I am drawing… when I draw on the computer I feel like I am looking through a window and it is separating me from the work. Coloring is different… that can almost be mechanical when you are talking about coloring line art. It’s the drawing that I need to feel I am a physical part of. The surface of the tablet/Cintiq is too slick and glassy… even using the replacement felt tip I don’t feel like I’m working the surface properly. Using the Cintiq helps a lot with drawing, but the tactile feel still just doesn’t work for me.

I do envy a little the artists who can and do work directly on the computer from a commercial standpoint. That must be a lot faster and more efficient than slogging through drawing and erasing and inking and scanning. I also think the results they get can be fantastic and very bit as good as someone who does it the old fashioned way… I am by no means bad mouthing doing everything digitally. Speaking strictly for me, I just don’t like doing it that way and don’t like how my work turns out when I attempt digital drawing and inking.

There is also one benefit to working traditionally that working digitally does not give you… I end up with a piece of original art instead of a bunch of 1’s and 0’s on a magnetic metal disk somewhere. There may come a day soon where there is no more original art from commercial illustration… original comic book pages and cartoons will become a thing of the past. That will be a sad day. There is something to be said for holding a piece of original art in your hand, knowing it started out as a blank sheet and an artist spent their time and creative talents turning it into something wonderful… that they physically interacted with the surface of the paper and left their art, and a little bit of themselves, behind on it. I like sitting back and looking at the physical evidence of the hard work I put into a job rather than saving the file and turning off the computer.

Call me old fashioned, but that’s just the way I like to work.


  1. Great post !

  2. john says:

    I think you have hit the nail on the head re all digital..there isn’t anything tangible to hold on to…an original!!

  3. Mark Engblom says:

    “I remember having a ‚Äö√Ñ√∫Keylining and Paste-Up‚Äö√Ñ√π class at my art college….”

    Yeah, so do I. In fact, I think we had that class together. While some of that stuff was certainly worth learning, there was a tangible feeling in the air that this era was quickly coming to an end. Yeah, the school’s lone computer only had “MacDraw” loaded on it, but even then, a sharp mind (or even OUR minds) could see where all of it was leading. We got into the field at a real “tipping point” in the commercial art biz (I recall getting Mac training at my first college internship), and we’ve been pretty lucky to not be TOO old to learn the new tricks.

    You know, maybe that explains why our “Keyline and Paste-Up” teacher was such a sourpuss. I think he also saw the handwriting on the wall and realized what a tedious waste of time much of his class actually was.

  4. David says:

    I’m not a professional artist. But it has occasionally occurred to me that during these digital days, traditional illustrators of note who work the old fashioned way could have a second source of income selling their original artwork at conventions, or the original art could be donated for a charity auction. Do people buy original art so rarely that this is not a significant factor?

    This question just occurred to me: Are there caricaturists working parties who draw on their Cintiq tablets and then print out the results? I wonder if this would have an “ooh cool high tech gadgetry” affect that could justify higher rates, or if there would be a “that’s lame my kid brother has Photoshop too” reaction that would make it unpopular.

  5. Wes Rand says:

    I work pretty much the same way you do (and actually did physical paste up and run the photostat camera to size cartoons & photos for print at the paper I worked at.) I’ve tried doing inking on the computer but still find it faster to ink on paper. I find it tough to get a good line using a Wacom — not sure if I need to revisit the ergonomics of how I set up the tablet of it its just the disconnect between the tablet & monitor. I wonder if using a Cinteq would fix that problem.

  6. JB says:

    Yeah,your’re right!If you’re making the entire things digitally, u wouldn’t have an original artwork…and to me i think no matter how beautiful a digital paint/drawing is ,it pretty worthless even compare to an ugly orginal art !

  7. Connie Nobbe says:

    Tom, I am your age and I majored in graphic design in college. The terminology you used and processes you described took me back in time. It was the end of the drafting table and comps era. The year after I graduated, the university brought in computers and began offering classes in the programs of that time, but I was already out in the world trying to find a job. All jobs of any interest demanded that applicants already have “computer experience”. And I was too broke to afford a PC to teach myself on. I eventually changed careers but I really enjoyed my memories of art school. Now I paint and draw, for fun and for commission (my drawing teacher was really good and my training continues to serve me well).

    I love drawing for the reasons you describe. And I love other artists’ original work (when it’s good) because, like you said, it’s “something wonderful”. No need for me to restate what you said, but I was nodding in agreement while I read it.

  8. Jules says:

    I hear ya, Tom. I hear you all the way down my career history to that little boy who enjoyed drawing during class, feeling the ink and the paper and the marriage between them. Hearing the subtlety in the motion and moving the paper around to that perfect new angle to draw from, tongue out of one corner of the mouth in concentration.
    People talking to you and not hearing, lost to them as you pour it out onto the page; your heart, your expression, your very being.

    It’ll never work for me, doing it on a computer. I love getting my hands dirty with ink. It’s a tattoo from my soul spattered on my hands. It’s how artists have done it since that first caveman scratched that first wall with charcoal. It’s ethereal and hard-wired into our psyche and it’s where it belongs – right there on the page, just as the Artist held it.

    Imagine a Da Vinci drawing in your hands, scanned at ultra-high resolution and printed out from a soulless computer. Any one of hundreds of thousands that could be printed and look exactly the same. And imagine holding Da Vinci’s original chalk art in your hands, the parchment curled and brittle beneath your fingers, the smell of the paper and age and history. Knowing the great man once held this as you do, lovingly, reverentially, and putting his essence into the work, into the very paper itself for all time.

    A computer will never do that.

  9. Jules says:

    That being said, I do agree that there’s no disparagement intended for computer artists. It’s just not for me.

  10. sandy says:

    I completely agree with you. I learn drawing now (I am 40 years old) and I draw for pleasures. I like the computer and a day can be, I shall draw in the graphic tablet. But frankly, the best cartoonists still use pencil, ink and paint.
    Very interesting article.

  11. Andy Simpson says:

    I enjoy the feeling of drawing on paper WAY better than a wacom tablet. On paper I can visualize my drawing in my head and translate it to paper. Through the computer there is to many things in the way. Get rid of the middle man. Traditional Media for me any day.

  12. Oscar Solis says:

    I own a beautiful page by Tom Sutton, from the Planet of the Ape series he worked on for Marvel’s black and white line. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it has the added value (for me) of my knowing his hands were on that page as he drew it.

    It’s like CGI in films. Yeah the ships are cool, but they’re still 0’s and 1’s (as you wrote), but somewhere out there in a glass case is a miniature model that was actually filmed. It exists.

    I work digitally for clients, but not in my personal work. Maybe I’m out of step with the times, but I’ve learned to embrace it like you.

  13. One benefit I didn’t see in your post or any of the comments is that you have the entire piece right in front of you, instead of on a small monitor that requires you to zoom in and out. Until high-resolution monitors with accurate colors get to be the same size as a drafting table, you’ll have to zoom in on a small part of the artwork and not be able to see it in full context.

    That said, I do prefer working with a tablet(well, in lieu of a Cintiq), mainly because I don’t have to worry about storing the originals, which aren’t worth much to a virtually unknown artist, and can’t be backed up. I’m also 28, so that’s a pretty big factor. Each method has its own pros and cons, so the biggest factor is what you’re most comfortable with, because it’s the artist that makes the art, not the tool.

  14. Another thing that you have when you do a physical piece of work, is something to sell. And while that is not the motivating factor behind my working analogue, its nice to know that when you’re done, you have a piece that not only means something to you, but may be of value to someone else. I’m thirty-three, so I remember working non-digitally, and was a late comer to the digital movement. It surprises me when I hear of a young artist going nuts over having to physically ink a piece. And it angers and worries me to think that the mundane techniques are being shunned by the younger generation.


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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