Inking Advice

Recently, I’ve been going through the old Famous Artists Course handbooks. If you don’t know, this was an art course first devised in 1948 and it involved teachings by artists like Norman Rockwell, Austin Briggs, and Robert Fawcett. There was also a course designed specifically for cartoonists (you can get pdfs of that course here). I just recently started reading the lessons for this course, and the other day I got to part three, the section on inking, and I encountered the following picture:

It reminded me of my old post about how to hold a dip pen. As you can see, these cartoonists– Al Capp, Milton Caniff, and Rube Goldberg– all hold their pens at a comfortable distance from the nib.

Lesson 3 has a lot of other little pieces of advice about inking and I thought I’d share some of what the lesson says, along with my own insights. Much of what I have learned is from trial-and-error and hopefully I can save you some of the frustration.

One thing I have learned to do is to not ink my nibs too much. Lately, I barely dip the point of my nib into the ink well. I just get enough ink to make a good line or two. In the past what I’ve done, as you can see above, is to run the bottom of the nib against the ink well before I start drawing. This removes excess ink. Why do this? Well, too much ink and you will have ink drops on your paper. Also, an over-inked nib produces a heavier line. And lastly, less ink on the nib helps the longevity of your nibs.

As the Famous Artists Cartoon Course points out, you have to be careful about the surface you are drawing on. Even if your hands are clean, oils from your hands can get onto the page and resist the ink. This is one reason many animators wear gloves. Another idea, and one that I often use, is to have a piece of scratch paper beneath your drawing hand. You have to be careful when you lift up your hand though, or you can send the scratch paper skidding off through your wet ink lines.

As the course also mentions above, it is better to let the ink dry before you draw through it. If it is wet, the the crossing lines will drag some of the wet ink with them, making for dark spots where the lines intersect.

Along the same line (pun intended), you have to ink in a direction that doesn’t take your drawing hand through wet ink. So right-handed artists need to ink left to right. Left-handers, right to left. And if you have pencil lines that you want to erase, make sure the ink is completely dry before you do so. And I use a kneaded eraser when I erase, because, as the course says, it takes away the pencil and not the ink.

Last but not least, it is extremely important to clean your nibs when you are done. I find that water by itself isn’t effective and you always need to be careful with water and metal, since it can lead to rust. So I have a cloth that I use to wipe my nibs with.

Good habits make for a less frustrating drawing experience. If you have any frustration at all, it should come from not being able to make what you are imagining a reality and not from having to fight your tools. Also, good habits will make those tools perform better and last longer. And, as always, this is advice that is intended to help you create. Use what does that and disregard the rest.

new Carnivale pages 175-179

Yes, you read that right.

Back in April, I had an idea for how the sequence starting on page 175 of Carnivale should be revised. I had always felt that the original sequence was too small and short. But back in 2013 I was eager to finish the story, so I didn’t revise it. Well, seven years later I finally did.

Here it is…

What struck me as I went to do this was how much my pencilling has changed in seven years. Not only do I use colored pencils in the process, the drawing overall has gotten tighter.

Old 175 pencils versus new 175 pencils.

“The Betrayal of the Mouse” mini

I recently finished a little semi-autobiographical story about unrequited love for Mickey Mouse. I’ve printed up the story into a single-sheet mini, cut down into fourths. So, eight pages. It’s printed on linen paper and held together with a singe staple. If you would like one, send me a buck and I’ll drop one in an envelope (link below or see the books page).

Give me the mini!

A Serious Consideration of a Comic Definition

Comics has always had a problem with language. Just take the grammar of the name. Is it singular or plural? I would think that if we use comics as a collective noun then it would have to be singular the same way “economics,” “linguistics,” or “rabies” are. But I’ve seen people insist on using a plural verb even when they use “comics” to mean the art form as a whole and not just a pile of individual issues

Then there’s the old albatros of the title’s connotation. Yes, comics originally derived from humorous strips, but it’s unfortunate that the name stuck, especially for those of us who love to see the medium explore new and different realms.

Then, of course, there’s the question of a definition. What do we mean when we call something comics? This is an old debate, but I was thinking about it again because I just read Thierry Groensteen’s essay “Definitions” in The French Comics Theory Reader. Groensteen presents an expansive overview of the historical struggle to name and define this medium that we all love. Appropriately enough, Groensteen himself symbolizes the problem and changing ideas about how to define comics. In his 1986 essay “The Elusive Specificity,” he states that he knows of “no example of a comic that does not produce something that can be classed as a story” (63). In other words, for something to be classified as “comics” it has to be narrative. Yet in 2012’s “Definitions,” he amends his previous statement and says that a comic does not require a narrative (109). So what changed his mind? Specific works. Artists who explored the form and function of the medium. A thing must exist to be named and in the case of any art, the artists then push the edges that conscribe the art, challenging what the rest of us thought to be true. You can’t keep defining a shape as a square if someone changed the angles or added an extra side.

For me, as a person who creates comics, the element that sets comics apart (and here I agree with Scott McCloud) is juxtaposition. Yes, when I create a comic I think about drawing. I think about composition. I think about dialogue. I think about diction. But fundamentally what I do, which I don’t do when I write an essay or draw a single image, is consider how to convey a concept through a juxtaposition of static elements. To me, that is the heart of the medium. Drawing and writing just help me express that heart.

I want to emphasize that I am using the term “elements” intentionally, versus McCloud’s use of the term “images” (8). Yes, comics is largely visual, but I want to be more inclusive. I want a definition that can encompass text and format (inspired by David Gedin), as well as image.

I think the other thing that we should also keep in mind is how comics is evaluated aesthetically. We can borrow from literature and look at story, character, and the rest. So literary aesthetics apply (at least with narrative comics). But visual aesthetics is always a part. We judge how well an artist draws, or how a page is laid out, or the placement of a word balloon. So fine art theory often applies. Likewise, elements of film theory crossover. But so do the concepts of graphic design. In fact, I think comics is more akin to graphic design than it is to literature, fine art, or film.


Comics is a medium that derives its meaning from a comparison of elements in static sequence, and is evaluated by literary and visual aesthetics.

In the end though, whatever language we use to pin down the art form, an artist will wriggle out our pin and toss it in our smug faces. As it should be. An art form belongs to the artists, not the critics.

So get to work.

Some works mentioned

Gedin, David. “Format Codings in Comics–The Elusive Art of Punctuation.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, Volume 3, Issue 3.  Ohio State University Press, Fall 2019. 298-314.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Definitions.” The French Comics Theory Reader. Edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty. Leuven University Press, 2014. 93-114.

—. “The Elusive Specificity.”The French Comics Theory Reader. Edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty. Leuven University Press, 2014. 63-73.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

original Carnivale beginning

I started thumbnailing Carnivale: a Kit Kaleidoscope Story in March of 2004. I got to work on the first finished page in August of 2005. Yet that original beginning didn’t feel right. I was trying too hard to force a Toulouse-LauTrec biography on Kit, having them use sex workers as art models. Upon reflection, I felt that it didn’t seem true to their character and the scene itself felt forced. So I re-thumbnailed the beginning in February of 2008 and started the finished pages that March. That meant that I had fifteen pages that I was throwing out. Some of those pages got reintegrated into the finished story, but the ten-page intro didn’t.

I was thinking about those original ten pages recently. While I still don’t think they work story-wise, I like some of the art in them. So here they are.

Colored pencils for pencilling

Something that I’ve been doing for awhile now is pencilling my comics with colored pencils (I was inspired after seeing some sketches by Marian Churchland on Instagram). What I like about doing this is that they let me build a drawing without having to erase too much. I can start with an orange, and then when I want to nail down a line, I can switch to a purple or blue.

I do this on the finished page, also. I find it really helps with distinguishing, back-, middle-, and foreground.

I also find that the colors are so light that they drop out when I play with the levels after I scan a page. That means less erasing and less of a chance of the pencils muddying the clarity of the inks, which can happen with graphite.

Colored pencils can have their drawbacks. It’s hard to keep them as fine as graphite. And sometimes they are so light that I have trouble seeing them. Also, if I go too crazy, there can be a waxy build-up on the page which can impede ink flow. Though the easy fix for that is to finish my pencils fully on another piece of paper and start a new one for final inks.

Still, for me the benefits outweigh the potential negatives. And sometimes the pencils just come out looking really cool.

Speedball Super Black vs. Holbein Super Opaque Black

speedball super black and holbein super opaque black acrylic ink

I’m always on a quest for the perfect ink. A long time ago, Jimmie Robinson told a group of us who were at a meeting of Bay Area comics creators that he used Speedball Super Black. Over the years, this is probably the ink that I have used the most and the most often returned to.

Well, I’m returning to it again.

Most recently, I have been trying out Holbein Super Opaque Black Acrylic Ink. As I mentioned in a previous post, I tried it because I had really loved Holbein Special Black, but couldn’t get that ink anymore. The Super Opaque Black isn’t an India ink, but instead a water-based acrylic. So I was concerned at first, but it’s a good ink. The lines I get from it are fine and it’s probably the blackest ink I’ve used. It dries like a watered down acrylic paint. So its coverage is incomparable. However, the longer I’ve used it the thicker it has gotten. Even when I vigorously shake up the bottle before I pour it out, it is often so viscous that I cannot get it to flow from my dip pen nib. Water in my ink well helps, but too much can cause the ink to gray out. Also, over time I’ve noticed that my nibs are gumming up and wearing out faster. I think the acrylic is just hard on my tools. But I wanted to give it a fair try and so I kept going with it. But my frustration was growing and that’s never a good thing.

So I switched back to Speedball Super Black. And it flows like a dream. Now, what tends to make me drift away from Super Black and try other inks is that Super Black tends to be a bit watery. On the one hand, this is why it flows so well. On the other hand, it can fuzz out and bleed on certain papers. Obviously, I can just use papers that work with Super Black, but sometimes I like to try out new notebooks and sometimes Super Black doesn’t work on the paper in them. And so I yearn for something more dependable.

Really, what it comes down to is that Holbein Special Black was the best ink. It sucks that I can’t get it anymore.