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Drawing in Wet Media | Drawing Techniques and Media

Updated on April 17, 2013

Although inks of many different colors have been used by draftsmen, black and brown inks have been the favorite choices throughout the history of drawing. The most important inks, varying in tone according to their primary ingredients, are carbon, iron gall, and bister. Black carbon inks, which date back at least to ancient Egypt and China, are prepared by combining carbon particles obtained from soot or charcoal in an aqueous binding medium. Such inks afford the most absolute graphic potential, making a jet-black mark. Diluted with water, they yield clear gray washes.

Iron gall inks, however, have been more popular in European drawing and especially in writing. Prepared from the acids of gallnuts, these inks are of a grayish purple color, but with age they turn a deep brown. The acidity of iron gall inks can have a corrosive effect on paper, so that in many old master drawings the paper has been eaten away along portions of the ink lines. Bister, even more popular with European draftsmen, is a lighter brown ink prepared from soluble tars extracted from wood soot.


Until the early 19th century the quill pen was the principal writing implement in Europe and the type most frequently used in drawing. Cut from the quills of geese, swans, ravens, or crows, these pens were versatile instruments that were capable of producing a varied, flexible, and graceful line. Although historically more ancient, pens made from reed or cane were not so popular with medieval illuminators or Renaissance and post-Renaissance draftsmen. The blunter nib of the reed pen makes a broader, less flexible stroke than the quill, and hence it is more suitable to a bold and vigorous manner of drawing.

The steel pen point, developed at the end of the 18th century and in mass production by the middle of the 19th century, displaced the hand-cut quill as the basic writing implement in Europe. By the end of the 19th century it had also become the favorite pen of artists. Convenient and available in a variety of points, the steel pen produces a crisp, clean line. Its sharp, hard yet flexible point, however, requires a paper of smooth and uniform surface, free of fibrous particles that might catch the nib.

Brushes are also used as instruments for applying ink. Varying in quality, they can be at once broader and more flexible than the pen. Occasionally they are the primary drawing tools, dipped into the undiluted ink and applied directly to the paper. But more frequently they serve to supplement an initial design executed with pen or pencil. The ink is diluted, and areas of wash are applied to the drawing, indicating middle tones and shadows.

The chiaroscuro drawing is executed in a variety of wet media—pen and brush, ink, wash, and opaque white watercolor—on tinted paper, either dyed in manufacture or specially coated. The ground provides a basic middle tone; the darker lines and washes and the white highlighting complete the monochrome spectrum. The resulting design is pictorially rich, approaching painting in the fullness of its effect.


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