Sunday Mailbag: Hesitant to Ink?

November 26th, 2017 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Do you still ever hesitate when you start inking a freshly penciled piece? Or is it old hat by now?

A: I would not say I hesitate to ink anything, but I’m never thrilled to do it because it’s an exercise in controlled chaos for me. However I am long over the “my inks suck all the life out of my pencils” phase. That only happens when you try to slavishly reproduce every nuance of a pencil drawing with ink.

I am not a great inker. In the 18 years I have been doing inked illustrations, and to be honest I didn’t do a lot of actual inking until I started trying to break into MAD in earnest in 1999, I’d say I’ve become competent but not exceptional. This is partly because I don’t do it enough (only 4-6 pages an issue for MAD and various single images for other clients a month) and partly because I ink intending to color the image, so I don’t need to add values or establish a great deal of contrast if I don’t want to, which I consider a skill true inkers have to be masters of. It’s faster and easier to do that in the color stage.

That said, it is no secret how to do good inking. There is one indispensable key to it that applies to any style of inking or drawing. It’s the same line of advice any veteran inker will give to anyone who asks “how do I ink?”: Don’t just trace your pencils…DRAW WITH THE INK.

It really is that simple, but it is very hard for people to let go of the fear of screwing up and really draw with the ink. Pencil is a malleable and easily reworked medium. Ink is not. Inks are rock solid “there it is and it’s not going anywhere” lines. Pencil is something most artists have been working with their whole lives, since they were kids. Ink, especially the old school way with dip pens and brushes, are unfamiliar tools and very unforgiving with their strict physical limitations. This causes people to freeze up and try to reproduce their fresh and lively pencils with tedious, meticulous, exacting lines. This sucks the life from your drawings very quickly. You must use the ink brush or pen like you use the pencil, with confident, fluid and seemingly effortless strokes to get that life and kinetic energy to your lines.

I use an analogy about airbrush t-shirt artists to describe how this works. Most people have seen airbrush artists at work at some state fair or theme park. Most of these artists have several designs with a sunset and palm trees or some such background art, and then do this sweeping, beautiful (at least the good ones do) script lettering with “Bob Loves Sue” or whatever over it. The lettering is fluid and smooth with big, sweeping curves, fantastic thick and thin elements and perfectly tapered ends to lines. Watching them do this is fascinating. They use these exaggerated arm movements, with quick, sweeping strokes moving close and away from the shirt surface as they complete the line. They do this fast and smoothly, with strokes that are so quick you wonder how they can be so accurate with the placement.

I learned to airbrush on T-shirts back in the mid 80’s. The first thing I learned was that you CANNOT create those fluid and smooth script letters by doing it slowly and meticulously. That results in bumpy, clunky letters that look terrible. You can only create that look by fearlessly doing those big, sweeping movements. At first the lines go everywhere, but after some practice you start to get control of them, and soon your lettering is singing along.

It’s the same with inks. You have to create your lines with confident, fluid, and quick strokes. You must be aware and “into” the line itself and the subject you are drawing, NOT exclusively the pencil drawing beneath it. It really works best if your pencil drawing is sketchier and rough so you have no line sensibilities you are trying to reproduce, but use the pencils as a basic foundation for a new drawing… but in ink. When I work over a pencil drawing I use a kneadable eraser to “knock down” (lightly partially erase) the pencils so they are lighter. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of my inking with pencils printed out and then put on a light table with my board over top. This creates an unfocused line that is naturally lighter, and I am forced to draw more with the inks. Either method helps you draw more with the ink and trace less.

The bottom line is you have to stop fearing the ink. You cannot approach a line worried you will screw it up. Confidence is a major key. Remember, even though it’s ink there is always White-out to fix mistakes. Ink like you don’t care how it turns out, and fix things that need fixing later. The more you ink like that, the less fixing you need.

Thanks to Corbett Vanoni 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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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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