Category: Pen and Ink

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.

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.


Working with acrylic ink – Holbein Super Opaque Black

I was really into Holbein Special Black drawing ink. It was smooth, black, and created nice thin lines. But then I was out and the local store I was buying it from didn’t have it. I looked on-line and couldn’t find it anywhere either. Yet what I did discover was that Holbein made an acrylic ink. I had somehow formed the opinion that India inks were better and that acrylic inks were harder on drawing tools, but I didn’t have any actual experience and I had really liked the Holbein Special Black. So I decided to try Holbein’s Super Opaque Acrylic Ink out.

At first, I really liked the ink. It was dark and fine, just like Holbein’s Special Black. Then I started to notice an issue. I have the habit of pouring my ink into a a pewter ink well that I have. When I am done for the day, I screw on the cap to keep the ink from drying overnight. What I noticed is that when I would come back the next day the acrylic ink would be watery and gray. Lines would bleed and the ink would dry a bit faded. This was frustrating. So I would pour the ink back into the original container, shake it up, then pour a new a new batch into my ink well. And it was fine again. Black and sharp.

So by reflecting on this and with a bit of internet research I realized what was going on. Acrylic ink settles. The pigment is heavier than the rest of the liquid it is with, so over time it sinks to the bottom of the ink well. In practical terms, this means that I can’t leave the ink in the ink well overnight. I need to get a fresh supply each time I sit down to draw. This isn’t a big deal, but it helps to have figured it out.

So I’m not sure yet how I feel about acrylic ink. This is the only issue I have had with it so far. Otherwise it has performed really well and works on almost any paper, which is one of the main drawbacks of Speedball Super Black (my former favorite ink). That said, I’ve read that acrylic ink doesn’t hold up as well in the long run and that it can bleed if it gets wet. Seeing that I scan my work pretty soon after I create it, these issues probably won’t be a problem for me. Still, I want to wait and see before I wholeheartedly endorse acrylic ink.

Four nib review

I needed to order some new Brause 511 nibs, so I decided to get a few others and try them out just for fun. Here’s what I got and what I thought…

bank of england ledger nib

The Bank of England Ledger Pen is a larger nib. It has a solid feel and reminded me a lot of a G pen, though stiffer than the Tachikawa G. It’s a nice nib and easy to use, and it feels like it would last a long time. It’s not as expressive as I like in a nib, but it feels strong and reliable.

cito fein lines

cito fein nib

I love Brause nibs and the Cito Fein is no exception. This nib has a gold finish and a solid, smooth feel. I’m considering using this nib as my standard lettering nib. It has a fairly small line, but allows some nice line variation. Yet it’s so solid that it’s easy to keep the line from modulating if you don’t want it to.

tachikawa school pen lines

tachikawa school pen

The Tachikawa School Pen creates a very fine line. It is a solid nib that doesn’t allow for a lot of line modulation. If you are looking for a reliable fine-line nib, this may be the one for you.

vintage hunt 100 lines

vintage hunt 100

As I’ve said before, the Hunt 100 used to be my preferred nib but has given me the most headaches of any nib. So when I saw that Paper & Ink Arts had a vintage version of the nib, I decided to see if it was any different. Basically, the metal feels a little stronger, but it’s the same Hunt 100. This nib has the most incredible flexibility, making it capable of some extreme line modulation. But it’s also a pain in the ass. The tiny tines tend to catch on the paper and it is finicky, not always wanting to work even though it was a brand new nib. So no, I won’t be going back to the Hunt 100 any time soon.

j. herbin belle epoque

I also purchased a J. Herbin Belle Epoque pen holder. I didn’t really need a new nib holder, but this one looked nice and I really like the J. Herbin Perle Noir fountain pen ink. I have to say, I really like this holder. It is a bit heavy, which I prefer. So many holders that I have tried recently have been very light, which makes drawing feel odd. I like a little heft to my drawing tool and this holder provides it. So if you want a really solid nib holder I highly recommend the J. Herbin Belle Epoque. It fits mid-sized nibs, like the Brause Cito Fein. The BOE Ledger fit, but the nib was so big it didn’t fit snuggly. The Hunt 100 also fit, but was so small that it was a tad loose.

My previous post about nib comparisons.

And my post about G pens.

And my discussion of nib holders.

I got all of these nibs through Paper & Ink Arts.

Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleed Proof White

For a long time I just used regular correction fluid when I wanted to correct my ink lines. But I didn’t like the lack of control nor the smell. I saw someone on-line recommend white gouache, so that became my choice for many years. While I like gouache, it usually takes more than one application to actually cover over the black ink entirely. And it doesn’t work so well with dip pens; I always had to apply it with a brush. For awhile now, I’ve seen mentions of Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleed Proof White and I finally broke down and decided to give it a try.

Dr Ph Martin's Bleed Proof White sample

It comes pretty thick. So a little water mixed in the top helps it flow better with a dip pen. But it works really well. It stays very white even after it’s fully dried. I’m still just starting out with it, but so far I’ve been very impressed. The only drawback I’ve seen with it is that while it goes on well over black ink, black ink doesn’t go on so well over it. The metal tines of the dip pen nib scrape the white, causing it to flake into the black ink. That said, this is definitely my current choice for fixing my ink work.

Holbein Special Black

For years, Speedball Super Black has been my favorite ink. I’ve just loved the way it flows, yet it has a tendency to bleed on certain papers. So every once in awhile I try another ink, like Yasutomo Ultra Black. But nothing flows as well as Super Black. Or so I thought.

I just moved recently and so have been trying out the local art stores. At one little store (Imagine Art Supplies) they had Holbein Special Black. So I decided to buy it and give it a try. I was immediately impressed. The ink has a similar flow to Super Black, but it allows a finer line. It’s less watery, which I think makes for the finer line but also allows it to remain crisp on more types of paper. But it’s not viscous like the Yasutomo inks tend to be. And Special Black is, unsurprisingly, very black. It is now my new favorite ink. (Of course I have a whole pint of Speedball Super Black to still get through…)

Holbein Special Black container

Another cool thing about the ink is its container. It comes encased in a plastic egg which twists apart. The top can be used as an inkwell or a reservoir for water. The bottom has a raised square section that fits into the bottom of the ink bottle and so makes it so that the bottle doesn’t move when you dip your pen into it. I love great design and this one is nice. Still, I prefer to use my own ink well. One, because I like it. And two, the opening to the Special Black bottle is quite narrow and so I end up getting ink on my nib holder of I dip directly into the bottle.

Holbein Special Black is not as easy to find as other inks, but there is this thing called “the internet” and maybe you can find someone who has a bottle for you. Again, I highly recommend this ink.

And here’s another recommendation by someone who creates comics, but a brush user. (though I disagree with him about Ph. Martin’s Black Star- too watery for me).

(not so) bleedproof papers

I’m always on the quest to find the perfect paper. Since I work in pen-and-ink, I want something smooth, but that doesn’t take too long to dry; something thick enough for lots of ink, but thin enough to work on a light table. So I’ve tried many different papers over the years. While I have rejected many papers based on tooth or thinness, these things reflect my personal preferences more than the quality of the papers themselves. However there are certain papers clearly labeled for pen-and-ink that are utterly useless for pen-and-ink. To add insult to injury, some of these papers even claim to be bleedproof. To be fair, I live next to the ocean so maybe there’s more moisture in the air and maybe my ink, Super Black, is a little watery. That said, it’s fairly temperate here and I’ve tried other inks on these papers with no success.

So here are three types of “pen-and-ink” papers that I recommend you avoid. All of these treat ink like the image above.

Borden & Riley #234 Paris Bleedproof Paper for Pens


Deleter Comic Book Paper B


Bee Paper Company Professional Series Pen Sketcher’s


G Nibs: a comparison

The G nib is probably the most fabled nib among people interested in the creation of manga. So what is a “G nib” exactly? Basically, it’s a Japanese-made pen nib that has cuts in its shoulders that make a “g” shape. This nib is large, but capable of creating fine lines for its size. It is also slightly flexible, making line modulation possible, but at the same time it’s stable and so feels solid and capable of lasting a long time.

As of this writing, three makes of G nibs can be obtained in the U.S.: the Nikko, the Zebra, and the Tachikawa. So which is the best? As with anything, it comes down to personal taste. But let me run through the three versions and tell you what I think.


Nikko G

The first G nib I ever purchased was the Nikko G. The metal of the Nikko feels a bit tinny and is the lightest of the three G nibs. When drawing, it feels a bit stiff and tends to be capable of less line modulation than the other makes. If you are new to dip pens, this may be a good thing because that stiffness would make it easier to control. However, it’s a tad scratchy. I personally love a nib with a smooth feel on the page. Overall, this may be an okay G nib if you are a complete beginner, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a more experienced pen-and-ink artist.

Zebra G

This is the second G nib I tried. Straight away, I noticed that it offered a much thinner line than the Nikko. Its line is even slightly thinner than the Tachikawa’s line. It is more flexible than the Nikko, but shares its scratchiness. Overall, I think the Zebra is better than the Nikko. Still, I don’t like the feel of it on the page.

Tachikawa G
I don’t know if these only recently became available, but I only got a pack of the Tachikawa nibs a little while ago. The Tachikawa is closer in color to the Nikko, but looks more like brushed steel than tin. While its line may not be quite as thin as the Zebra’s, this is the most elastic nib of the three. It swells much more easily, which I like. Overall, the Tachikawa feels much smoother than the other two G nibs. It’s simply the easiest to draw with. So if you’ve got a firm hand with pen-and-ink, this is definitely the one I’d recommend.

Final thoughts

While all these nibs are flexible, and the JetPens guide even warns people that they may be too flexible for some people, I find all the G pens to be pretty stiff. Yes, they offer some line modulation, but for years I used the Hunt 100, which is the squirrelliest nib out there. So I’m used to the other end of the flexibility spectrum. These days, I tend to use Brause nibs, especially the 511. These nibs tend to be more flexible and just flow better. So while the G nibs are perfectly fine and are pretty easy nibs to use in terms of skill, I find them limiting. I just feel cramped and stiff when I use them. Again, this is a matter of personal taste and my own nib using history. I just don’t want people to think they have to use G nibs just because their favorite manga artist does. They are not necessarily the best nibs out there.

Buying the nibs

These nibs are now easy to buy on-line. Both JetPens and Paper & Ink Arts have all three makes.
JetPens: Nikko, Zebra, Tachikawa. Paper & Ink Arts: Nikko, Zebra, Tachikawa.

If you buy these in a store, let me offer a warning about the packaging. Not only is it in Japanese, it can be a bit misleading. For instance, the Zebra G nibs can come in a package that says “IC Comic.” The Tachikawa package doesn’t have any English on it at all besides the letter G. Still, in both cases you can just look at the nibs themselves. All three makes have their names embossed on them in English.


Lastly, here’s a similar comparison of the nibs, but with a focus on using them for calligraphy (spoiler: the author agrees with me about the Tachikawa).

Thoughts on Line: Edmund Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study

I didn’t read Edmund J. Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study all at once, but piece by piece over a few months. Besides just life getting in the way, I took this book slowly because it isn’t the kind of book you get lost in. It’s written in an older style and it references people and ideas that are not around anymore. That makes a lot of the book nonsensical. So you have to wade through that to find the parts that are still helpful. Sullivan also has the attitudes of a man of his time, including the casually racist ones (he has no trouble tossing around the word “nigger,” for example). For all that, Sullivan was an incredible pen-and-ink artist and his thoughtful observations about the craft come from years of experience.

So because of these two things- Sullivan’s insights and Sullivan’s attitudes- I feel the need to recontextualize what he says. Also, his insights are rooted in a pen-and-ink style that is not popular anymore and he of course wasn’t considering comics. So again, I feel the need to put his ideas into my own context. So here we go…

Line weight
One thing using a dip pen gives you is the ability to modulate line weight. Often, the rationale for this is that heavy lines are used to depict areas of shade. Sullivan makes an interesting observation about this; he calls it “doubly wrong” (74). He thinks that the heavier lines should be on the side of the object nearest the light source. This is for two reasons. One, if the heavier line is on the shaded side, then that side tends to come forward rather than recede. As in painting, darker shapes seem near, while lighter shapes seem distant. He shows a drawing of a head with the far side in shade outlined with a heavy line and it makes the head seem odd, because the dark side, which is supposed to be receding, actually comes forward. His second reason is for contrast. The light side will seem lighter if set off with a darker line. I can also think of a third reason: the thick line will get lost in the shading and so lose its power.

So here, the egg on the left has the weighted line on the shaded side and the egg on the right has the weighted line on the light side. Notice how for the egg on the left, all your attention sinks to the bottom right. The egg on the right has a fuller form. The line weight and the shading balance each other. And as a result, the center comes forward and the whole thing seems more three-dimensional.

Still, if one doesn’t use any shading, which is much more common in drawings these days, then putting the heavier line towards the light source looks odd. The egg on the right looks a bit like it’s floating, while the one on the left seems more grounded.

The other useful thing line weight is used for is the relative distance of objects in your drawing. As I said, darker objects come forward while lighter objects move backward. In the drawing below, the guy on the right seems farther away. This is partly due to him being overlapped by the person on the left, but it’s also due to his lighter line weight. The person on the left has a heavier line weight, so comes forward. There is also more line and tone variety in how she’s drawn. That also makes her command our attention more.

However, Sullivan doesn’t talk much about balancing line weight against itself. For him, it is always balanced based on some external rationale, like light source or relative distance. While he does say that varying line weights makes for a more visually interesting picture, he doesn’t abstract line from what it is supposed to represent. This is probably a result of his time period and tradition, but it limits his insights into line weight. Again, he only thinks of it representationally. Recently, I have been playing around with alternating line weight by putting a heavy line next to a thin one. So I change line weight not based on any claim on realism, but simply based on the lines themselves. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do things, but I present it as an option that Sullivan doesn’t consider.

Speaking of which, I of course think about this in relation to comics. Personally, I find really thick panel lines to be distracting. If the lines in the border are bolder than the lines in the drawing contained within, then the panel comes forward and takes attention away from the drawing you are supposed to be reading. Likewise, a panel composed on lines all of equal weight can be difficult to read. In my early comics, I didn’t vary line weight but used a lot of shading. That resulted in a lot of muddy panels.

Line harmony
I found this part of Sullivan’s book to be very interesting. Yet again, I wish he had gone even further with this topic. Basically, he says that you should have a rationale for how to do your shading. He offers three possibilities: the shading running across or perpendicular to the light rays (A), the shading running parallel to the light rays (B), and the shading being molded to the form of the subject (C).

While Sullivan seems to prefer the third, his point is not that one approach is better than the others, but that if you mix approaches then the drawing will become muddied. I realize now that I tended to use A before and now I am much more drawn to C, but honestly, before reading this book I didn’t consciously categorize these different methods. And when I first started with pen-and-ink, I didn’t consider my approach at all; I was just scribbling down lines. So Sullivan entreats us to stop a second and consider what we’re doing.

As before, Sullivan’s rationale is based on representing reality. Here, line harmony has to do with how one shades in relation to the light source. But of course, you could approach line harmony in other ways. You could gather your lines to a certain focal point or to convey a certain emotion. For instance, I once noticed that in a lot of his portraits, Van Gogh radiates his brush strokes away from the eyes. The result is that the eyes of his subjects have a particular intensity.

You could also arrange your lines to make your image more readable. This is something many cartoonists consider. In the example below, John Adkins Richardson shows how the lines in this George Price cartoon help draw the reader’s attention to the speaker (The Complete Book of Cartooning 128-9).

When you’re dealing with multiple panels, the lines from one panel can relate to the lines in another. Again, this can help readability. I did this in Carnivale on a few occasions. In these three panels from page seventy-two, I used the background shading lines to guide the reader’s eyes to the correct reading order. I was also hoping that the strong vertical lines of panel one would take the reader’s eyes down to panel two. And notice how the lines that compose the tree in the second panel swoop from the panel above to the panel on the right.

Sullivan says many more things in his book. He discusses perspective, anatomy, and beauty. But the ideas above are the ones specifically about line, not drawing in general. They are also the ones that stuck out to me the most and made me think. So while Line is an odd book in many ways, it still manages to teach after all these years.

Dover publishes the book.

(written October 26, 2016)