Sunday Mailbag

July 6th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: You make cross-hatching look so easy. Mine always ends up looking like a messy patchwork quilt. What’s the secret to good cross hatching?

A: Well, thanks for the compliment but I don’t consider myself much of an expert on crosshatching. With me it’s an exercise in controlled chaos. If you want to see a caricaturist who uses crosshatching to great effect, check out the work of Jan Op De Beeck or Vin Altamore.

Here’s a basic crosshatched pattern one layer at a time:

Some History- Crosshatching is a technique for adding values to a drawing by layering intersecting lines together to create the illusion of gradating tones. It was used a lot in the days of engraving and etching, when some form of hatching was almost the only way to achieve any kind of value in the artwork. It was used a lot in the good old days of photostat cameras, especially with inked artwork and cartooning/comics. Photostating was how artwork or photos got transferred to film/plates for printing in the days before everyone had a scanner on their desktop. It was a large machine with a mounted camera over a flat mounting surface and even, bright lighting. The camera took a picture of the artwork and outputted it on either bright white photostat paper as a positive or negative image. The result was ‘camera ready art’ that could be pasted up onto a layout with type and other elements and then reshot for printing. Photostat cameras could use various “screens” that would create dot patterns of various densities to make photos or value based images “camera ready”, but using crosshatching eliminated the need for screens and kept linework unaltered by the camera. Well done it is a treat for the eyes, but overused it’s a mess.

Here are what I consider some very important points about crosshatching:

  • Do Not Overuse It- It’s tempting to try and capture every change in value from an object but that usually results in an incomprehensible mess. I will sometime indicate lesser values but in general only hatch in values that are maybe 40% gray or darker. Basically I will only do the really important values and leave the rest out.
  • Don’t Use a Ruler- There are certain styles that can get away with using a straight edge to do the lines for crosshatching, but in general it makes for a mechanical look with the life sucked out of the drawing. The natural imperfection of hand drawing adds charm and warmth. Use that. I often allow the lines to curve and arc, especially in the second or third layer
  • Stick to Three Main Layers– More than that and it gets muddy fast. I add all sorts of smaller areas with fourth or more layers, but I usually only use three big ones.
  • Don’t Use Right Angled Lines– I.E. lines that are at 90 degree angles to each other. Very boring and again sucks the life out of the drawing. Using lines that are too close to parallel will create a weird moire sort of pattern, which can be cool if you want that effect but that’s also not the best approach.
  • Vary the Length of Your Lines– Again, your drawing will look mechanical if all your lines end at the same length.

It’s difficult to describe in words how to crosshatch. Here is a quick step by step of a partial drawing:

Here’s our subject: Hal Holbrook

Basic Sketch

The beginning layer of hatching, mostly one direction. Notice in different
areas I have used different line angles. It’s not the same across the whole drawing.

Added the second layer. Usually smaller in area, meant as the
next step in darker value.

Third layer. Further establishes the darker values. The “shapes”
created are not even or mechanical in any way. Notice I also
use the direction of lines to indicate planes, like the upper right side
of his nose…

Thanks to Jason Crocker 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. aardvark says:

    Thanks Tom. I almost thought you’d forgotten about it. 🙂

    The step by step you’ve included has made things a lot clearer. I’ll see how I go!


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

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: