Still Slinging Ink?

July 25th, 2013 | Posted in General

After spending a lot of time chatting with folks at the San Diego Comic Con, it seems I am being asked more and more why I still draw and ink traditionally…i.e. with pencil, dip pen and brush on bristol…rather than just going all digital. In fact, I am getting more and more puzzled looks of incredulity over this question as opposed to casual interest, especially since I do all my coloring via the computer and many people therefore assume I am completely digital.

There is an easy answer to that… I like working traditionally.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against anyone who works entirely with pixels as opposed to pigments. In fact, I couldn’t care less how any kind of artwork I enjoy is produced… I am all about enjoying the final product. If you are a digital artist and never get a single smudge of ink on your fingers when you are cartooning, then more power to you. I see incredible work produced using nothing but digital tools all the time. The tools an artist uses to produce their work are only tools. It’s the skill and vision of the artist that creates.

I started working professionally in early 90’s, just when computers were starting to become a force in the world of publishing and media creation. Desktop computers were still the exception rather than the rule, and software like PhotoShop was still in comparative infancy. Back then computer-based artwork was very rare and really nothing but a novelty. At that time there was no such thing as being able to duplicate the fluid lines of traditional inking for comic work, so I took to the traditional media… dip pens and brushes on bristol board.

However by the mid 90’s it was obvious to me that computers were the future of media creation, and illustration would not be an exception. Pen/tablet technology became usable and affordable, and software features began to enable digital artists to emulate what was previously only possible with physical media. I took to coloring my art on the computer because it not only saved time in the creation of the work, it also eliminated the need for the client to have to send the physical artwork out for color separations, something no clients wanted to waste time and expense on anymore. However, I never did switch over to digital inking, because I liked the process too much.

It would be hard to defend that statement if you were to sit in my studio when I am inking a MAD parody or some other illustration. I get frustrated if things aren’t going smoothly. I curse when I smear some bit of wet ink I thought was dry enough to work over. I have been known to smash a misbehaving pen nib into a bent ruin and yank it from my penholder in disgust. Yes, I still like the process. There is something about the surface of the paper, the tactile sensation of the pen or brush dragging on its surface, the magical quality of a blank sheet of pulped wood no one would spare a second glance at being transformed into something that can grab someone’s attention and entertain or move them, that still keeps me reaching for the ink well.

It isn’t only my enjoyment of the process, though. I do think the paper surface and the ink create a certain warmth to the line that is very hard to get with digital media. The imperfections might be miniscule, but there is an overall feel that I still like better than the slickness of all-digital inking…at least with my own work. I also am a long way from being a master of the craft, and that gives me goals to reach for and experiments to try… although that is true with any media, including digital. Maybe it’s more that my heroes of cartoon illustration, giants like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Mort Drucker, etc. WERE masters of the craft, and I’d like to master it, too.

Last, but not least, I like physical artwork. I like being able to hold a piece I did in my hand and feel like the hours and hours I spend slaving over it left me with something tangible rather than a bunch of 0’s and 1’s on some magnetic disk. Even if the actual finished product ultimately is very different, it is nice to have something “real” as a byproduct. If there is anything that is bad about the proliferation of all-digital comics, it is the sad lack of actual original art that is the result. It is incredibly cool and inspiring to hold a piece of bristol board in your hands that an artist like Wally Wood physically worked on, scraping his pencil and pen over it until the amazing art he does appeared. Imagine if Wood had done all his work digitally, the only thing we’d ever have is the printed product. It’s worth noting there is a secondary market for originals as well, so there is a tangible reason for producing originals, albeit a small one in my case.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up the traditional route for my drawing and inking. If that makes me a dinosaur, so be it. Some traditions are worth preserving.


  1. Gerald Carr says:

    ‘ I get frustrated if things aren‚Äö√Ñ√¥t going smoothly. I curse when I smear some bit of wet ink I thought was dry enough to work over.’
    Despite smart computers, I wish some geek would invent a device to instantly dry ink and a light to erase pencil lines without rubbing out.
    tradition can be improved, these curse free innovations should be invented soon before the market dries up. 😉

  2. Hutch says:

    Tom – You shouldn’t have to ever justify the process of your work when the end result is so impressive. Doing it your way is a very positive thing combining traditional expertise with modern technology. Every day of my life I look up at your line work (I have four framed pieces hanging in my office) and marvel at your technique. It serves as an inspiration and would not be there to see if you were totally digital. Keep on doing it your way Tom, it works perfectly.

  3. I found that using a Cintiq to do it all has doubled my output at a minimum. Which means my wages doubled. And sometimes tripled, especially with huge, complicated projects… I still prefer paper and the real world of making lines and tones, however, I cannot afford to work that way any more – I simply have too many deadlines and never enough time…

  4. Tom I am right there with you, in the fact that Inking is the way to go traditionally! I admire your work ethic and the attention to detail in your comic work! I am gearing more and more away from linear studio work when ever possible, but when the work budget calls for I still do my inking traditional and coloring digital. Keep it up my friend and do not let others look at you different, DO WHAT YOU ENJOY!

  5. Hey Tom, I greatly appreciate your skill in traditionally created work. Something I work to adhere to myself. The work that new animation artists
    are creating for Disney as an example, is truly astounding, but I find not as warm somehow. It’s difficult to put my finger on, but looking at the faces of the newly created characters, they have almost doll like eyes. Whereas the earlier animated characters seem to somehow have a kind of life within.
    It’s like the more hands on created art has a special human warmth to it that isn’t imparted mechanically. I guess that’s why I appreciate the more traditional types of illustration. It has that human touch that can be felt when viewed. It may be that tactile thing you mentioned that is somehow sensed in the observation. Anyway … Keep on, …

  6. Derrick Fish says:

    Great blog. I learned using traditional media: dip pens, sable tip brushes, etc. Then I spent 10 or so years working on a web comic that I “inked” using photoshop and was quite happy with the overall process.

    After a while, I too found I MISSED having physical pages. I MISSED being able to draw wherever I could find a place to sit with a lap board. I MISSED the feel of the board and all those tactile things that make the process of creating art so pleasurable for me.

    Now I’m back on board, but inking with Faber-Castel PITT pens and a refillable Pentel Brush pen. I LOVE the new tools but also love inking a page again. It’s the closest thing to meditation I’ve even known.

  7. Peter Emslie says:

    Tom, I just love reading your posts! I too shall remain a traditional pencil, brush and ink guy. As you say, there is a “warmth” to the resulting line art that is missing from the more technically perfect, yet sterile digital inking. I also remain unconvinced of how one can work digitally without first investing a small fortune merely for an adequate starter kit. I’m estimating here but, the computer is going to run you upwards of $1500, Photoshop CS about $1200, and I believe it is essential to now have a Cintiq (as an Intuos tablet does not allow for complete control of the line) at a going rate of about $2500. Again, the exact figures are not important (so digital artists need not correct my estimates) as the point being is that one can’t get started without paying a huge amount of money when compared to the cost of a few pencils, brushes, pens, and paper/illustration board that traditional artists can start out with.

  8. cbrubaker says:

    Spot on, Tom. I use brush myself.

  9. Zeb says:

    I used to use pen/brush and ink, then moved on to brush pens and now, do all my final art in vector on the computer. My original sketches are still pencil and paper and I try to preserve the human touch and subtleties of my pencils in the vector lines that I draw. Vector is so precise and “lifeless” in that precision, but I like the vector lines because I can tweak and adjust them to exactly how I want them. My inked lines were never “that good” and my hand was not as steady as I wanted so to be able to get my lines just the way I want them in vector has been nice.

    I’ve tried doing my initial sketching on the computer but it’s just not the same as a real pencil on real paper. There ain’t nothing like it!

  10. Willie says:

    I used to ink everything traditional, since I did not like the way Photoshop implements inking, until I found the software “Manga Studio”. Now I work 100% in manga studio. The results are fantastic and it looks exactly like when I ink traditionally.

  11. Bob Almond says:

    Tom, can we post the link to this article at the Inkwell Awards website’s Inking Resources section?

  12. I for one prefer the traditional method of creating art with the exception of digital coloring and digital lettering. Nothing like a pencil scratching on paper or a sable hair brush on bristol board, to me there is more of a connection with the draftsmanship when using traditional tools for the first 2 steps in the creation process


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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