Sunday Mailbag

December 20th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Is there any way you could explain the way you apply line weight (when inking) and why you would do it in a particular place?

A: You can find out a little bit about line weights and variations in my tutorial on inking part one and part two, but I don’t touch on it too deeply. I do say the following:

You add weight to a line to make something seem heavier or more substantial, or to place it solidly in front of another object, or to emphasize a light source.

. . . which really is 90% of the concept of line weight. Basically the idea is that the variation of the weight of inked lines adds visual interest, life, movement and volume to your drawing. Lines that are all the same thickness become flat, lifeless and boring. The inker must not consider their lines nothing but contours that define the edges of forms and objects. These lines also help define the volume of the objects drawn. The question here is when and where do you apply line weight differences?

1. Establishing a light source– Traditional thinking is that comic book inkers treat line weight as a way to suggest volume by using the line weights to describe the lightsourse on the object being inked. In its simplest form this means keeping line weight thin on the side closest to the light source (the part being “hit” with the light) and thick on the side away from the light source (the “shadow” side). You can quite effectively indicate light and volume using this basic approach:

Line weight isn’t that simplistic, though. There are other instances where you might make a line thicker or thinner.

2. Create depth of field Heavier lines attract the eye more than thin ones, and objects inked with heavier lines will usually be read as closer to the viewer than ones using lighter, thinner lines. You can create depth of field or atmospheric perspective by using thinner, lighter and less varied lines in objects in the background than those in the foreground of your drawing:

3. Separate objects from one anotherSince bolder lines are more noticeable and “stick out” more you can beef up a line to make the object it defines be more separated from the objects around it:

4. Place focus on an object– Using the boldest lines of your drawing on a single object or area with draw the eye to that area, and will help place the focus of the viewer on that area. The inker can use this to emphasize the most important part of their drawing.

It’s also important to understand that choosing to make lines thinner is also using line weight. You can create a wispy or fragile look to an object by using thinner lines to define it.

Personally I don’t over-think using line weight when I ink, but rather begin using a simple but consistent approach. I start by inking the foreground and most important elements of a drawing and establish a consistent light source and use nice bold lines in the “away” areas. Then, as I go farther and farther into the background of the image, I use lighter and less varied lines. Once I am done with the main inking, I go back in and beef up lines I feel need to be bolder in order to make things pop out here and there. I can also reduce the thickness of a line with white out (which these days I do digitally after scanning) if I feel I need to.

I’ve learned over the years with inking that you cannot approach a drawing being timid or too analytical. You need to look it over once, get an idea of what you want to do and then attack it with the ink, using confident pen or brush strokes and knowing that any mistakes or missteps can be corrected later.

Thanks to Reggie Ferguson 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. Ernie Kwiat says:

    Thanks for this concise and useful explanation. As a side note, how, and at what size, the art will be reproduced will effect an artist’s decision on what line weights to use.

  2. Mike Wade says:

    I am amazed, and grateful, for how much useful info you have given us for such a simple question. Thank you for all the instructions. You can add me to the list of those who will purchase your book, when it comes out!

  3. Mark Engblom says:

    You look like Billy Batson’s beefier older brother in the masthead!


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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