Sunday Mailbag: Using an Inkwell?

January 3rd, 2016 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: As an artist that still uses the traditional method of pen and India ink, I still get very frustrated with ink blots and I find that my ink gets extremely blotchy in its inkwell due to paper scrap build-up at times. After all these years, I still have my good days and bad days with the ink cooperating and there’s really not much on the topic out there beyond calligraphy pens (I use a 513 EF for the majority of my comics) on how to maximize the efficiency of using a dip pen. I’m curious how you keep your inkwell clean and how do go about daily business using ink? Do you get these regular frustrations and is there a simple solution beyond cursing at the ink out of frustration?

A: Inking is an art not a science. There are too many variables for anyone to have total control over the process, IMO. Not all brushes or pen nibs (and I mean of the same make and model) are created equal, the surface you ink on isn’t 100% consistent, the ink you use begins to thicken and congeal the moment it is exposed to air so its consistency changes, your level of alertness and dexterity change throughout the day, etc. I consider inking an exercise in controlled chaos. You roll with the punches and occasionally have to fight with your medium to get the results you want. At least that has always been my experience. Cursing most definitely in play.

That said, I do make attempts to level the playing field as much as I can by controlling those variable to the best of my abilities. To wit:

I prefer ink that has had a chance to thicken up a bit from its “right out of the bottle” viscosity, especially when I am using a dip pen. The slightly thicker ink has a tendency to behave better for me, and I won’t have the problem of a really heavy line “running” to the bottom of the line itself, as the wet ink rolls along the just-drawn line to the bottom with gravity and then beads up there. It also just comes of the end of the pen better. Not too thick, though… then the pen point just splits and the ink does not flow on to the board.


What I do is fill up my inkwell the day before I am going to be inking, and leave it to thicken up overnight. 8 to 12 hours is about right, up to about 24. After that it’s too thick, and I will have to either dump it out or, if I have been using it and the inkwell is getting low, just add fresh ink into the mix and stir it up. In this way I can keep an inkwell open and working over the course of several days on a job.

Once it’s thickened up properly, I cover the inkwell up with cellophane wrap and a rubber band at the end of the day to keep the thickness consistent. I unwrap it and start again the next day.



Eventually it all goes to hell and I have to clean out the inkwell and start over. Fortunately I have enough ink to last me several lifetimes.

As for the nibs themselves, I will not fight with a bad nib. I can usually tell within a few strokes if a new nib is a dud or not. Frankly these are not made very well anymore, and I will find one of of every four nibs just plain doesn’t work right. I toss it and grab a new one. I also usually have two nibs in play at once. One will be a Hunt 102 crow quill, and the other a Gillott 303. I swap back and forth depending on the kind of line I want, and how much effective I am with one at the time. If I get into a groove with the 102, I might ink the entire page with it. I will use a brush whenever I need a brush-like line. Lately I’ve been using brushes more and more.

Wish I could tell you more. My inking tutorial covers things like where I hold the pen barrel and how I move the point on the board. This answer is more about function than execution.

Thanks to Nate Fakes 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!


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