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Traditional Inking Tools & Techniques

Updated on April 5, 2014

Traditional inking tools for cartoonists, illustrators and calligraphers

Even though digital software applications have largely replaced traditional techniques, some of us still enjoy doing things the old-school way. If you're one of those people, welcome! I hope the information and resources you find here will be helpful to you.

NOTE: Images and texts presented here are my own original copyrighted creation, unless otherwise noted. Please do not use them without my permission.

Introduction to ink

Ink comes in many flavors: bottled india ink you can use with dip pen or brush, disposable or refillable ink pens and brush pens, markers, "microns" (also called fine-liners), fountain pens... these are explored in detail on this page.

Ink is best for high contrast drawings. it's generally used for contour drawings where shades are made by hatching and cross hatching, but you can achieve delicate shading with stippling technique.

Ink can be used along with water to create shades of gray - this is called ink wash, and techniques used are very similar to watercolor.

Nowadays ink is available in many different colors, including white.

Advantages of ink

- Excellent for high contrast, detailed illustrations.

- Dries very fast

- Reproduces well in print, even cheap photocopies

- Combines well with different kinds of media

Shortcomings of ink

- All marks are permanent, and fixing mistakes is difficult

- Since it dries so fast, you have to work much faster with ink washes than you would with watercolor paint in order to achieve smooth gradients

Permanent, waterproof, lightfast..

Most ink today is light-fast. This means that it won't fade over time by being exposed to light.

The word "permanent" found on markers and ink bottles usually refers to light-fastness. It means the color won't fade, but it doesn't mean it won't wipe off very smooth materials like plastic or porcelain, or that it's waterproof.

Only ink that explicitly says it's waterproof can be considered waterproof. If it doesn't say so explicitly, it probably isn't - keep this in mind when shopping online.

Always test if your ink is waterproof on a scrap piece of paper before applying water over your important drawings. Some inks will have to dry for a couple of hours before they're fully waterproof.

Wash your tools right away after using them

Metal nibs and glass can be washed or scraped even after the ink has dried, but brushes, plastic containers and other tools can't.

Make it a habit of keeping your brushes wet at all times when using waterproof media.

Bottled india ink, metal nibs & brushes - The most basic tool, and cheapest of all

Bottled india ink, brushes and pen nibs
Bottled india ink, brushes and pen nibs

Ink stored in containers is the oldest way of using ink - it's been used for thousands of years, since Egypt and China. Writing instruments were sticks at first, and then developed into brushes in the East and bird feathers in Europe.

In the 19th century steel nib was invented, and became a dominant writing and drawing instrument that is still popular to this day.

Advantages of bottled ink and brushes/nibs is that they're cheap, and you have a great flexibility in choosing the perfect combination of ink and tip to suit your taste.

Bottled ink comes in a huge variety, as do brushes and nibs. You'll learn with experience with ink works best for your style of art.

While some illustrators and comic inkers like to dispose of their nibs often, they can last a very long time, and each costs less than a dollar. Nibs should be replaced when you've noticed they've become blunt, or that they're scratching your paper.

Nibs vary in size and flexibility. You will probably want to have a few different nibs.

Inking brushes can vary depending on what you wish to do - round fine-tipped for illustration, or different kinds of brushes for calligraphy. I don't know much about Japanese calligraphy, so I'll focus on drawing.

Invest in the best brush you can afford - cheap brushes that lose shape and drop hairs on your drawing will only frustrate you. Two brushes are enough for a start - a fine and a medium one, and if you move onto larger surfaces you might get another larger one.

Ink is aggressive to brushes, so you will have to replace them more often than for example, watercolor brushes. It would be better if you didn't mix your different media brushes for this reason.

You can combine all these tools, so if you prefer doing thin lines with a nib, and thicker lines with a brush, you can do that too!

Sheep skull drawn using pen, brush & bottled ink

Sheep skull drawn using pen, brush & bottled ink
Sheep skull drawn using pen, brush & bottled ink

Tip to keep things clean

I heard this great tip from a comic artist: Pour a bit of ink into a small container (bottle cap for example) and use adhesive putty to stick it to your desk. Better yet, put it into a shallow bowl, like an ashtray. If you accidentally tip it over, you won't spill it over your desk and your drawing.

Fine-liners and markers - Clean and portable

Fineliners and markers
Fineliners and markers

For those who love consistent lines, a clean desk and the practicality of pens, fine-liners (also called microns, ink pens, pigment liners) are the best choice. They come in a variety of thicknesses, from 0.2mm to 1.0mm and can also come in color.

Markers are thicker, and the tip varies from 1mm to a couple of centimeters wide. They come in a huge variety of colors and effects, such as metallic colors. Some are completely opaque so you can draw over dark surfaces and the marker will cover it completely.

They're very convenient for street art, embellishing household items or accessories and a variety of different uses.

Markers work well with fine-liners when you have to cover a large black area, and don't want to use a brush.

Some of the pens and markers are waterproof, but others aren't so pay attention to what it says on the pen when you're buying it.

There's a variety of brands such as Uni, Sakura, Rotring, etc.

Fine-liners and markers on Amazon

Sakura Pigma 30062 Micron Blister Card Ink Pen Set, Black, Ass't Point Sizes 6CT Set
Sakura Pigma 30062 Micron Blister Card Ink Pen Set, Black, Ass't Point Sizes 6CT Set

Sakura Microns are one of my go-to markers because they offer the finest point I've ever seen, plus they come in different colors such as sepia, which may suit your style of art more.


Sci-Fi monster made with a fine-liner

Sci-Fi monster made with a fine-liner
Sci-Fi monster made with a fine-liner

Brush pens - Versatility of a brush with a practicality of the pen!

Pentel brush pens
Pentel brush pens

Brush pens have become my absolute favorite inking tool since I've first discovered them.

The flexible brush tip can provide a varied line that depends on your pressure, and it creates wonderfully expressive drawings (compared to sometimes stiff and sterile drawings made with fine-liners).

Since it's a pen, you can put it in your purse and pocket and ink anywhere! I always carry mine with me, along with the thinnest micron for details.

There are two kinds of "brush pens" around - one is the real brush pen with actual brush bristles, and the other kind is a felt-tipped marker that is somewhat flexible so it's sometimes referred to as a "brush tip". I haven't used those so I don't know how they compare to actual brush bristles, but I'm sure it's not the same, and that brush bristles last longer.

Some brands come in a few sizes, for example fine, medium and thick. Others have only one size.

The only downside of brush pens that I can see is that most require you to buy proprietary cartridges, except for some brands that allow you to put your own ink. However I find the price of cartridges acceptable.

Pentel Kanji Fude pocket Brush Pen review

The best way to show you why I love this product is to let you take a look at some of my art produced with it:

- Flora and Fauna doodle

- Spider lady

- Fragment of Dominican monastery in Rijeka

- Beach bar Pajol sketch

Pentel Arts Pocket Brush Pen, Includes 2 Black Ink Refills (GFKP3BPA)
Pentel Arts Pocket Brush Pen, Includes 2 Black Ink Refills (GFKP3BPA)

Product description: Create fine or broad lines; Permanent pigment ink; Portable and refillable.

I have recently bought a Pentel Kanji Fude pocket brush pen. I have completed several small quick illustrations exclusively with this brush pen and I can say I really enjoy it. It's now in my purse all the time. It can create both fine details (when handled carefully) and wide strokes that fill up a surface quickly.

Here are some examples of my brush pen art:

- Flora and Fauna doodle

- Spider lady

- Fragment of Dominican monastery in Rijeka

- Poison fairy

- Dry stone wall

- Beach bar Pajol sketch

- At the Chinese restaurant

I have found that this brush pen does not bleed to the reverse side of the page of my thin sketchbook unlike some ink pens I own. Dark shapes are visible through thin pages, but the page is still usable.

Other people who have been using it for years claim it has never dried, even after not being used for months, so I expect it to be my faithful companion for years to come.


Inking a hand-lettered logo with a brush pen

Inking a hand-lettered logo with a brush pen
Inking a hand-lettered logo with a brush pen

Fountain pens

Adding class to writing, but drawing as well

If you love using a steel pen nib & ink, and want to have this experience when you're outside as well, a fountain pen is the next best thing. There are fountain pens made specifically for drawing that have thinner tips, and are flexible (not as much as pen nibs, but enough to give some variety) and can also come with waterproof ink.

The only fountain pens I have are calligraphy pens, so I don't have much experience with that. Some allow you to use your own ink, others require you to purchase proprietary ink cartridges.


A thing of the past? Maybe not!

If you want to experiment with old school tools, you can't go wrong with a good old goose feather. You can prepare one yourself, or get a ready-made one on ren-fairs.

Personally I find it difficult to handle and I always mess my fingers with ink, so I don't use it, but if you want to get into medieval calligraphy this experience may be very valuable for you.

What's your favorite inking tool?

What tools do you love to use the most?

See results

Inking technique: Hatching and cross-hatching

Hatching and cross-hatching
Hatching and cross-hatching

Hatching is the simplest way of adding dimension to your ink work. you simply cover the surface that is darker with diagonal lines. You can also vary the pressure of your stroke from heavy to light, so your lines will get thinner toward the end and it will give the effect of gradual transition.

When you overlap lines in two different directions, it's called cross-hatching. The angle can be around 90 degrees, but it's not a rule. It also depends on what object you're drawing, so your lines can follow the shape of the object.

Inking technique: stippling
Inking technique: stippling

Inking technique: Stippling

Stippling is a shading technique created using tiny dots. By varying the space between the dots (but not their size), you get areas that are lighter and darker, and you can control the gradual transition between the tones with fine precision.

Stippling is probably the most effective technique to achieve gradual tones with ink, but it takes a lot of time and patience.

Ink wash
Ink wash

Inking technique: Ink wash

You can use ink in a similar way you use watercolor - mix it with water to get gradations of the same tone.

The main difference between ink wash and watercolor is that ink dries much faster, and once it's dry, you can't remove it from the paper. This means that you have to work very fast if you want to avoid hard edges on your wash.

While you can achieve gradations with ink wash, it's much more difficult to control than stippling, and the effects are sometimes unpredictable.

The drawing of the sheep skull at the top of the page is shaded using ink wash.

Papers to use with ink

Your regular copy paper may not be the best choice

While copy paper is fine if you're just starting out and don't want to splurge on expensive drawing tools before you're certain you're going to be drawing with ink for a long time, there are many downsides to it.

First, at 80gsm (54lb) copy paper is rather thin, and ink is likely to bleed through to the other side.

Second, if you're using wash techniques, any paper that's too thin will warp as you paint on it.

Third, some papers are not suitable for drawing on with sharp objects such as steel nibs, so you might find yourself cleaning your nib a lot because bits of paper get ripped and stuck in the nib.

All of this can affect the quality of your drawing.

For "dry" techniques (stippling, hatching) thicker copy paper can do. I personally use this a lot - about 160gsm (100lb) is enough.

Watercolor paper is more suitable for ink wash, with 300gsm being the best. The thicker the paper, the better it will handle all the water. There are hot pressed (smooth) and cold pressed (textured) papers to choose from.

If you can afford better quality papers, there are some specialized illustration papers such as illustration board, and comic (or manga) papers.

I do a lot of inking in my Canson sketchbook. Even though the paper is thin, it doesn't bleed through, and it handles brush pen very well because the paper is made specifically for drawing, while copy paper isn't.

Canson Basic Sketch Book, 8-1/2" x 11", White (108 Sheets)
Canson Basic Sketch Book, 8-1/2" x 11", White (108 Sheets)

This is the sketchbook I use daily, and a lot of my examples you see on this page were drawn in this very sketchbook. It's a great ratio of price to quality.


Share your comments and experiences with ink!

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    • nelchee profile image

      nelchee 4 years ago

      @GrammieOlivia: Thank you, Grammie! I'm glad you liked this!

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Lots of good info here! Well put together too.

    • profile image

      GrammieOlivia 4 years ago

      Not nearly as talented as you are, these are amazing and I've learnt a lot! Thank you for this wonderful lens.