Sunday Mailbag

November 11th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I’m trying to get the hang of inking the old-fashioned way, with a dip pen and brush, and I just can’t seem to get it to work for me. My ink lines never seem to make the drawing look like the pencil did, no matter how much I try to match the drawing. I also have problems with the link pooling up or smearing, especially with the dip pen. Is it really just practice I need? Would going digital be better for me?

A: Join the club. I go through the same problems every time I pick up the ink pen. Sometimes the ink seems to roll right off the end of the pen and I am flying along thinking “wow, I am really getting the hang of this inking thing”, and then I struggle over something or the pen and ink start seeming to fight me. It happens.

A lot of it is practice, becoming more comfortable with the materials, but not all. Pen nibs can be inconsistent in quality and ink tends to thicken up in the inkwell after exposure to air, so the materials you use are changing under your hand. I probably throw away every third Gillott 303 I take out to use after one or two lines because I can tell it’s a dud and it will fight me all the way. Some work fine and then once and awhile I find one that is perfect. I’ll use that one until it’s so sprung I can’t get a thin line at all anymore. The materials you are using will affect your results somewhat.

The beginning inker’s biggest obstacle is to stop trying to copy the lines they have drawn and start drawing with the ink. I know that is a cliche when in comes to advice on inking, but it is a real truth. Your drawing skills are based on your hand producing what your brain is asking it to produce based on what it is visualizing. That is a brain to hand to paper dynamic. When you are “tracing” lines with ink rather than drawing them, you are adding a barrier between your head and your art…the pencil drawing itself. You are no longer creating a drawing of your original subject, but you are doing a drawing of a drawing, creating a disconnect with the original visualization. The result is something that is often missing life and ‘spark’. The original drawing is robbed of its vitality.

This practice of tracing lines rather than drawing them is a double whammy of evil. Not only is your original drawing sapped of some of its life, the over-cautious nature of trying to recreate something as opposed to creating it causes many other problems like the pooling ink, lifeless lines, etc. The reason for this is because the permanency of ink often causes the beginning inker to be too careful and timid with their lines…moving slowly and meticulously. That’s not the way most people draw, which is with confident and energetic strokes. If you draw with the ink, you are using confident and quick strokes, and that leads to lines with bounce and life. There is less of the pooling of ink or the other issues that happen with slow and overly-deliberate inking. That is mostly about trust in your abilities, and allowing yourself to really let those lines fly.

Developing that trust does take practice. I am still working on that myself, after about 12 years of doing a fair amount of inking with my illustration work. Keep at it, and it will come. Don’t limit your inking to just finished pieces. Do ink “sketches” on scrap pieces of board, both with VERY loose pencil drawings as a base and just drawing with the ink without a sketch at all. Let the lines fall where they may. Stop thinking about the ink and just look at the drawing you are creating. Time and practice will develop that trust in your ink line.

As for digital inking…to each their own. I hate doing it myself, but I know many artists who are fantastic at it. It’s all the same in the end, of course . . . it’s about the drawing.

Check out my inking tutorial if you have not already. It’s not comprehensive but might be a good place to find some ideas.

Thanks to Bob Fitzpatrick¬¨‚Ć 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!


  1. Istvan says:

    It never ceases to amaze me what a surgeon can do with a scalpel in his hand, or an artist with a piece of charcoal or fine instruments in hand.

  2. Peter Davis says:

    I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with a technique that combines hand and digital “inking” … pencil! Once I’m satisfied with my rough sketch, I tape a piece of matte drafting film (Denril for me) over it, and “ink” it with graphite. I have a wide ranges of lead thicknesses to choose from, ranging from 0.3mm up to 3mm, plus graphite sticks, woodless pencils, etc. While I’m working, it feels free and expressive, like pencil drawing, without the constraints of either ink or digital. I don’t have to erase any of my original drawing, since the finish is on clean Denril. Then I scan it into Photoshop and use the Levels control to darken the darks, lighten the lights, and generally make it more ink-y looking.

  3. sugumarje says:

    Thanks for Wonderful Detail Tom!


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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