Put It in Ink

You can do a lot more with pen and ink than just create a strong representation of your subject. With no more than the ink and the instrument used to apply it, you can also create a variety of rich tones and textures. The simplicity of this art is akin to handwriting—decorative, descriptive and very personal—and as a drawing medium it has a refreshing sense of finality. When the ink hits the paper, it’s literally there in black and white, a crisp and bold statement. It may test your will, but it may also turn out to be one of the most satisfying mediums you’ll find.

The Right Tools
Choose your drawing surface first because the surface you’ll be working on influences the choice of nearly all your other tools. Drafting film is a good choice for pen and ink if you’re working from a pencil sketch because its transparency allows you to place it directly on your sketch without the need for a manual transfer of the drawing or for working on a light box. But be aware that on film your marks may spread or bleed slightly, and ink on film can have a drying time of as much as 15 or 20 minutes, as compared to only a few minutes for other surfaces.

Paper surfaces are a natural choice, and vellum (a heavy, semismooth drawing paper) is relatively transparent. Strathmore bristol board, with its toothy paper surface, is another fine choice, but less transparent. In the end, you’ll probably be best served by trying a variety of papers to see what works best for you. I’d recommend any good kid-finish surface, but heavy tracing paper and even various watercolor papers are worth a try, too.

Artists’ pens come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Each has a “stiffness” that dictates how hard you must press in order to release the ink, and the more flexible the nib (the point), the more dexterity you must develop in order to control the line quality for detailed work. For highly expressive drawings, a pen with a flexible nib or a sable brush will be the most satisfying instrument, giving spontaneity to the finished product. Technical pens create lines of a single width, allowing minimal line thickness, but they eliminate the need for constant dipping into bottles of ink. Drawing inks are each formulated to provide the best results on a specific surface, so be sure to read the labels, and keep in mind that some are waterproof while others will bleed when washes are applied.

A Good Strategy
When you first give pen and ink a try, begin by experimenting with a variety of lines and strokes—long strokes, short ones, curved ones and even scratchy ones. Work from the pivot point of your elbow for long strokes, and from your wrist for shorter ones. Vary the pressure on the nib of your pen to observe the thin and thick qualities of the resulting line. Whether you pull the line toward you or away is a matter of choice, and turning the paper will give you greater freedom in your strokes.

I like to start a drawing by outlining the areas of interest and then trailing out my lines to the periphery of the picture. The focal area is where you’ll explore the broadest range of grays. By starting here you can set the tone for the rest of the drawing, and once the focal area is established I like to move outward with the intention of creating a smooth transition to the white of the paper.

Developing the Skills
Creating a range of values and a three-dimensional effect in ink can be tricky, but it’s not as hard as you may think. As you move away from the focal point, your lines can be thinned, scratched through or ended with short strokes and dots to establish distance. Depth can be achieved with broken junction lines and lost edges—as one line crosses another, simply break the line that’s perceived to be behind the other. In any area, you can lighten your values by letting the white of the paper seep into the outlines using interrupted marks. If you find the focal area needs enhancement, cross-hatching or careful placement of stipples in the small white spaces can be used to further establish the gray tones.

Simply to add visual interest, be sure to change the direction of your lines when appropriate, and curved lines can suggest an organic quality that keeps the artwork from looking too stiff and mechanical. Swirling lines and interrupted dashes and dots help convey a sense of frenetic energy. For softening lines, you can scratch or score them with an artist’s knife, although you must be careful to keep from damaging your painting surface, especially with film or vellum. And finally, colored inks offer a great alternative approach to inking, either in a variety of colors or perhaps in a single color that you can combine with washes of watermedia.

To me, the use of pen and ink is reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer or Leonardo da Vinci; their work displayed vigorous, searching lines with a casual yet controlled look. In fact, all of the best examples of this medium proudly display the artist’s touch, a sense of personality that shines in the bold intensity of black and white. So don’t be afraid—pen and ink demands that you express yourself in your own voice, but it’s an opportunity for expression unlike any other.

Tina Tammaro paints and teaches in her Covington, Kentucky, studio.

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