Sunday Mailbag- Inking Tool Tips!

March 30th, 2014 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I’ve read several “how-to” articles on inking comics – including your excellent 2-part inking tutorial -¬¨‚Ć and there is great information out there. However, what I am having trouble finding is how an artist should care for their brushes and pens. Not only when one is done working with them for the day, but, also what to do with the tools during the actual inking process? For example: are you constantly swirling your brush in a cup of water in-between strokes? Does water work for cleaning permanent ink – or is something else needed?

A: Great question. You do have to care for your tools properly, both during and after use, so they stay usable and work well for you. I’ll cover the two tools I use the most for inking: dip pens and brushes, as well as inks.

Dip Pens- The quality control on pen nibs is not perfect, and I’ll find duds every now and then…nibs where the ink just won’t flow right. I toss them and grab another. That just means when I do find a good nib I like to keep it working as long as possible.

There is a long standing myth that putting a flame to your new nib burns off the film of oil that is on the nib to prevent rust, and that film of oil is bad for inking. You will see ink run off the nib quicker on a new nib, especially a crow quill like a Hunt 102, that is because the surface has that light film of oil. However putting a flame to your nib is a bad idea as it retempers the metal, makes it brittle and causes it to lose some spring. If you are dead set against using a nib out of the box without dealing with the light oil coat, use acetone or fingernail polish remover on a piece of paper towel and just quickly wipe of the nib and let it dry. This takes seconds, and removes that oil very effectively without damaging the nib. I don’t bother. In fact, I kind of like the way it works with the oil… makes for a quick and sharp first few lines.

Most of the trouble you have with a nib, at least until it either gets too loose and your line thickens up or you mess up the end with too much pressure, is old ink building up and interfering with ink flow or the closing of the two nib “tines” (the dual sides of the nib separated by the slit). Some people say a nib with ink dried on it is better for even flow, but I disagree. I can use a nib for 1/2 and hour or so before it gets too gunked up for the ink to flow well. I take an Exacto blade and scrape the dried ink off, then wipe it down with a wet cloth. It’s often really responsive right after that. I might do that a dozen times using a nib for 6 or 8 hours before it gets too loose for me to keep using, then I junk it and grab another. I usually go through a pen nib per big MAD page, but I am heavy handed when I ink.

I keep my nibs in old cigar boxes. They are metal and hard to store badly. I just don’t let them get wet or keep them anywhere it might be too humid, like near an open window in summer. Nibs I have used and are still good I just clean up and keep in their holder. They are pretty indestructible as long as they stay dry.

Brushes- These need a lot more care, especially real hair brushes. I use Winsor Netwon Series 7 red sables, a #2 and a #4 mostly.

The big thing with brushes is to keep the ink out of the base of the brush where the hairs are glued under the metal collar. Find a reservoir where you don’t have too much ink and can really see the brush end as you dip it… a big inkwell is no good for that. You will end up over-dipping at some point and getting ink into that glued area. Then it starts messing with the adherence of your brush hairs and separates those hairs, and everything goes to hell. Nice, careful dips… keep that ink on the lower two thirds of your brush.

While inking I clean my brush pretty often. Not after every dip but probably every 1o-15 minutes of using it. I have a big can of water next to me and I dump it and get clean water probably at least once or twice a day if I am doing a lot of brush work. I will shake the brush vigorously in the water and then blot it gently with a paper towel. Avoid splitting the hairs apart and never rub it on the bottom of the water jar. That also loosens the gluing. If your brush is in good shape, once you have the bristles wet from a rinse you should be able to slap it smartly against your hand (so that the metal collar of the brush is what hit the pads of your hand and the bristles “snap” in the air) and the hairs should snap into shape right away. There should be no splits in the bristles when you do that. If there are splits the brush is or is almost shot. Be careful you don’t do that snap thing over your work, as the brush has to be reasonably wet and water will fly.

When I want to put my brush aside and use a pen for awhile, I will rinse it and do that “snap”, or else when it’s wet I will hold it at about a 20 degree angle and gently pull it backward it against my palm or a piece of clean board while I rotate the barrel, so the wet brush is formed into a nice, sharp point, Then I lay it down ON ITS SIDE on a piece of clean towel. You don’t want a wet brush that is not thoroughly cleaned stored upright, as the water will drain down into the gluing and take any particles with it, gradually loosening up the bristles. The glue they use is waterproof but the weight of the water and gravity forcing it down into the glued area along with tiny ink particles will start the loosening process. Some brush water containers have inverted holders that hold the brush in the water bristle end down, with the bristles floating free in the water. That’s okay while you work but isn’t really necessary. . . as long as the brush itself is rinsed well and shaped into a nice point when wet, it’s okay to dry out. Just make sure it is thoroughly rinsed out, and no ink is in there to dry on the bristles.

You will want to clean your brush well when you are done using it. There are lots of brush cleaning cakes and stuff out there, most of it is just soap. It’d best to use any kind of soap that doesn’t have deodorants or other additives to it. Some people say hair shampoo is best, but it depends on what kind of hair shampoo. You don’t want to use something with conditioners or other chemicals meant to make your hair soft or smell like coconuts. Just a nice, mild, fragrance-free soap bar will work. Gently swirl the hairs on the bar and then on the palm of your hand, working up a little lather. You don’t need much soap. Rinse and keep doing his until you get nothing but perfectly clear water in your rinse. Look for little flecks of dried ink, like grains of pepper, in your bristles. Try and wash/rinse those out if you see any.

The key to storing your brush is getting that nice point with the “snap” method or the rotate and draw back method I mentioned before. Dry the barrel and collar of the brush with a paper towel and let the hairs air-dry in that pointed shape.

One thing I used to do was use “gum arabic” to shape and store my brushes. Gum arabic is a liquid medium that is used in watercolor work, and can be purchased in most art stores that sell fine art painting supplies. It’s completely water soluble, but dries into a hard, almost plastic form. By dipping your clean, wet brush into gum arabic (just shy of the point where the hairs go into the metal collar) and then shaping it into that nice point, it will dry into a hard form and keep that point forever. That is until you rinse the brush again, at which time the gun arabic instantly dissolves leaving your brush ready to ink. That’s a nice way to go but I do not think it’s necessary… just point your brush when wet and allowing to dry keeps the point nicely. Ink is a harsh thing to use on a brush and you will inevitably destroy brushes with it. A little care will keep them going for a long time, though.

Ink- I have a nifty little inkwell that only takes a little bit of ink at a time, and I clean it out after every job. Therefore, I use fresh ink every time I do a project, and my ink never congeals much since I have to “top off” the ink several times a day as I deplete the reservoir. I know some inkers like the ink to thicken up some. I don’t. I think it works best right out of the bottle. I know one inker who leaves his rather large inkwell open 24/7 and sprays the household cleaner “Fantastik” into his ink before each job. He told me it was something Wally Wood did, and that the chemicals in “Fantastik” (and only that one, stuff like “Windex” wouldn’t work) would loosen up the thickening ink to give you a perfect consistency. I never had cause to try that. I’d be concerned with the effect of the archival nature of the inks and the board. Anyway I always use fresh ink so I don’t have to worry about its care. Also, I will never run out of ink so conservation is a moot point.

Thanks to Greg Lunzar 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. lee fortuna says:

    Another great Mailbag! Thanks guys.

  2. Dave Curbis says:

    Thanks tom.. Best advice I’ve seen in care and maintance.


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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