The Art of Ink Fu

February 24, 2016 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

The Art of Ink Fu

The art of Ink FuYou’d love to be able to ink and have your drawing have beautiful bold lines, but you don’t know where to begin.  Inking seems so intimating and complicated.

Perhaps you’ve already made the inking plunge. You love being able to draw your own pictures with clean outlines and everything, but your lines are getting wobbly and messing up your work.

What are you doing wrong? Is there some kind of technique you’re missing?  Do you simply need more practice?

In this lesson, I’m going to introduce you to Brushes, Dip Pens, Markers and how to take care of your tools.

We’ll talk about making varied lines that look confident.

In this lesson, you’ll learn Ink Fu.

Inking Tools

I’ve already introduced all of the inking tools I’m going to be talking about in the “Secrets of the Draw Fu Arsenal,” lesson.

I’m going to be talking about these inking tools from the view point of easiest to hardest to use. Here is the order:

  • Felt Tip Pens
  • Dip Pens
  • Brushes and Brush Pens

This is not necessarily the recommended way you should approach inking.  If you want to jump right in and start with brushes, I would actually encourage it.


Because if you can get used to the trickiest inking tool right away, it makes all the other tools easier to pick up.  However, if you choose to use the easiest tool to use first, every time you want to step up and use a tricker tool, it will be a frustrating struggle.

I know this from experience.  When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was given my first dip pen.  I jumped right in, head first into inking. A few years later, I made my way into using brushes.  Brushes where so tricky that basically, I had to build my inking skills up all over again.

I really wished I had started with the brushes first.  Although, at the time I first started inking, I didn’t even know brushes where an option.

However, when I started using Felt Tips Pens, it was absolutely no struggle at all.

Let’s begin…

How To Use Felt Tip Pens

Okay, ready?  To use a felt tip pen like Pigma Microns and Pitt Pens, you pop the cap and you ink.

That’s it.  The only real decision you have to make is in the size of tip you’re going to use.

The line quality you will get with these pens are consistent.  You will not make a think or thin line using these pens.  Yes, there is a such thing as felt tip brush pen, but I’ll talk about them in the brush section of this lesson.

For now, what you need to know is that the kind of lines you will make with the felt tips I’m currently talking about look like this:

Micron line Example

If you want a more varied line you’ll need to artificially create it by drawing the outline of the type of line you want:

Micron line example thick and thin 01

Then filling it in:

Micron line example thick and thin 02

It’s a bit annoying to do this and time consuming. If you want a varied line, you might as well use the other ink tools I’m going to talk about later in the lesson.

There really isn’t a whole lot more I could say about felt tips.

Perhaps I should therefore talk about how to make sure you don’t get wobbly lines when inking. The technique I’m about to talk about is applicable to all inking tools, including dip pens and brushes.

Inking can be tough. I STILL get wobbly lines. Usually when I’m starting to ink a drawing and I haven’t quite gotten warmed up.

The reason is, timidity. I’m so afraid of making a mistake that I draw too slowly. The thing about inking is that you can’t be timid. You have to be confident. Bold.

In other words, you have to ink a bit faster than you feel you should. Not so fast that you’re being reckless and out of control, but not so careful that your hand shakes and gives you a lousy line.

You have to find that right balance of both. And yes, this takes practice and experimentation. However, as I wrote before, I still get wobbly lines sometimes. So it also doesn’t go away. You just need to make sure to understand why it’s happening so you can be more bold when you ink.

Also, the same principle about using the natural pivots of your body, that I talked about in the Level 0 lesson “The Secret of Tracing Like a Pro: Basic Under Line Techniques,” apply here.

As a reminder I’ll simply copy what I said below:

“Here’s a little something I learned from a friend of mine who did clean up at Disney. Work WITH the natural pivots of your body, not against them. Here’s what I mean:

Your wrist is a natural pivot point. It’s like a limited compass. Your elbow is ALSO a natural pivot point.

Knowing this you can then position your PAPER and your drawing in such a way that when you make a mark, your working WITH those natural pivots. You’ll find that your lines will come out looking better for doing so.”

Here let me show you:

Don’t be afraid to move your paper around.

What are these tools best used for?

Anytime you need to ink something without line variation, these are great tools.  However, another useful way to use them is with alcohol based markers.

These pens don’t smear when they come in contact with the alcohol in the markers.  These make them ideal to use as a first ink pass when using those type of makers.

How To Use Dip Pens

Dip pens are fun, and they make you feel like an inker.  However they do require a tad bit more maintenance than felt tips and they can sometimes be temperamental. They also require the purchase of an ink bottle.

Before I go any further, lets take a closer look at a nib.

Anatomy of a nib:

Quill description gillett

A little bit about the types of nibs.

The most common nibs to use are the “Gillett.” they look like the one above. The other is the Hunt Dome Point, which looks like this:

Hunt Dome Point

These type of nibs give a variety of line widths.

The smallest Gillett points are great for tiny details. Those look like this:


When I talk about nibs, these are generally the ones I mean.

However, You can also get the Speedball nibs which also come in handy once in a while. These type of nibs tend to hold ink for longer, which means less dipping.  However, they act more like the felt tip pens I talked about earlier in that, they give you a consistent line without any variety at all.

Speedball nib

You can use Speedball nibs, pretty much in the same way you use felt tips, except the ink you use might smear if you use them with alcohol based markers.

Each of these types of nibs have different uses and create different types of lines.  I’m not going to go into them all right now.  Besides, you might find that you like using one type of nib for something I wouldn’t use it for and vice versa.

It’s best you test them out, to see what you like about each type.

Dip pens are generally easy to use.

Simply open your ink bottle, dip the pen so that the ink has covered over the vent hole. Then pull it out and wipe any excess ink that threatens to drip off the tip, on the edge of the ink bottle opening.

Don’t over do it or you may wipe out all the ink from the nib.

Now that you have ink on your pen, you are ready to ink.  You ink by holding the pen with the top side up. It’s a good idea to have a test sheet of paper nearby so you can check the ink flow in the nib.

If you didn’t properly wipe the nib, you might get a blot of ink.  When you try making a mark and nothing comes out, it means the ink has not made it’s way from the tines to the tip of the nib.  This may require a few strokes on your part to coax the ink down.

This is where the nibs get temperamental.  Some nibs work better than others. And some simply need to be used a bit before the become “broken in.”

To make a mark, you simply place the nib on the paper and you pull the pen in the direction you want to make a mark. Unless you’re using a Speedball nib, you never push up or slide the nib sideways to make a mark. If you push up, you can potentially stab into the paper.  If you slide the nib sideways, it may not make a mark.

using a dip pen

Speedball nibs will make a mark no matter what direction you slide the pen.

You should always hold the pen in such a way that when you make a mark,  you’re pulling the nib in the direction you want your mark to go. It takes some getting used to.

Depending on how much pressure you use to press down as you make your mark, the tines will expand and contract to give you a thin or thick line.  Be gentle. If the tines open up too much, then no ink will flow out at all.


Once you’re done inking, you need to clean your pen. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s a lot like cleaning a brush.

I have a jar of clean water where I dip the pen in to wash off the ink. After I make sure all the ink is off, I dry it off the quill with a paper towel. A bit more ink comes off when I do that.

You can take it one step further, get some soap and water and gently clean the nib too. Whatever you do though, don’t leave the pen in the jar of water. The nib will rust and ruin the pen. I learned this the hard way.

What are these tools best used for?

Again, dip pens are best used for inking anything you want to have thick and thin finished black lines on. When you use waterproof ink, you can use water colors and paint over your finished drawing without the fear of ruining the line work.

Although, alcohol based markers may not be so forgiving.

Dip pen ink lines have a beautiful, unique quality to them that is difficult to duplicate using any other kind of pen. There are special hatching and line effect that are only possible by using a nib.

The more you use them, the more you’ll fall in love with them.

How To Ink With Brushes

Brushes are the trickiest ink tools to work with. However, there are ways to ease your way into using them which I will get to in a bit.

When it comes to brushes, the type of brush and the size make all the difference. Professional inkers swear by fine point Sable Brushes. They are by far the best and most expensive brushes you can buy.

Don’t worry about that if you’re starting out. For now you simply need to get an affordable brush that will serve the purpose.

What you’re looking for is a watercolor brush that comes to a fine tip. The size of the brush depends on you level of comfort. For a beginner I recommend a size 1, or 2. The reason is because with slightly smaller brushes, if you lose control and end up with a fat line, the line still looks reasonably small.
The bigger the brush, the fatter the line you can make, but also the more control you’ll need to get a finer line. However, if you want to fill in large black areas, you will need a bigger brush so that work doesn’t take forever to do. Usually a size 6 or higher should work well.

Using a brush is simple. Like a dip pen, you simply dip the brush in the ink and wipe off any excess on the opening of the ink bottle, until you know it’s not too saturated with that it drip off your brush.

You’re going to want to have a piece of scratch paper to test your brush in on occasion. The first times you use the brush you may want it just to see what the saturation of ink on the brush is like when you make marks.

I always have a piece of scratch paper when I ink for this purpose. I also use it to test out different kinds of effects I want to make with the brush before I use it on my actual drawing.

Making a mark on the page is much easier with a brush than with a dip pen. You can easily make a mark moving your hand and arm in any direction you want.

However, the tricky part of using the brush comes in the fact that, unlike a dip pen which has a solid tip, the brushes softer tip makes is tricker to make a steady consistent line. Random thick and thin variation as well as shaky looking lines are what you’ll end up with until you learn to gain some control.


If you’ve used a brush before, you pretty much know how to clean it. Have a jar of clean water where you dip the brush in to wash off the ink.

DON’T smash the brush at the bottom of the jar. You can ruin the point of the bristles that way. You can wipe the brush a the bottom from side to side to get the ink off that way.

After test to see if the ink is off by making strokes on a paper towel. If it’s doesn’t make leave any dark marks, it’s clean.

You can take it one step further, take the brush to a sink and gently pull your fingers across the brush to squeeze any ink you think may still be in the brush.

Whatever you do, don’t leave the brush in the jar. It will bend the tip and ruin the brush. Believe me, I know.

Easing Your Way Into Brushes

Brushes can be intimidating to use. If you want to take baby steps, there are options.

First there are felt tip brush pens you can use. The benefit of felt tip pens, is that they tend to have varying levels of tip sizes and hardness.

You can start with a hard tipped pen and work your way to softer pens.

Also, you don’t have to clean them. They’re pens.
Felt Tip Brush Pens
However, depending on the material the pen tips are made from, these pens can lose their tip integrity and become “fuzzy.” Which makes them, unusable. Just be aware of that.

If you want to take the next step up, you can use a synthetic fiber, brush pen. These pens give you the real quality and experience of using a brush, without all the cleaning.

They come with their own reservoir of ink. Often the ink is in replaceable cartridges. Some of these brush pens allow you some control over ink flow, and others do not:
Brush Pens High
It’s beyond the scope of this lesson to review each type of brush pen. It’s not a bad idea to go out and experiment with them to see which type you like.

These pens are my go to ink tools. I LOVE them. It’s possible to simply used these pens and never touch an actual brush.

HOWEVER, even though these pens are amazing, they STILL don’t give you the diversity of absolute control that a real brush does. Especially when you discover that the quality of each brush pen brush varies, even when you buy duplicates of the same brand pen.

What are these tools best used for?

Brushes are best used for inking anything you want to have the highest line variety possible. When you use waterproof ink, you can use water colors and paint over your finished drawing without the fear of ruining the line work.

Although, alcohol based markers may not be so forgiving.

Brushes give you a unique organic looking living lines. They are often softer looking lines than the ones made using a nib. The larger brushes also help you coat large areas of a drawing with black ink when needed.

Line Variation

I talked a lot about thick and thin lines. An inked drawing with a consistent line width, can be a bit dull. Variations in the lines can add dynamism and visual interest.

Line variation can also add mass and form as well as accenting what forms are in front of other forms.

Most commonly, line variation is there to emphasize a light source. What I mean by that is, that more often than not, lines are often drawn heavier the further they get from the light source and thinner the closer they get to it.

In drawings with no clear light source, artists often default to creating lines that mostly thicken at the bottom, and get thinner at top. Light is often brightest at top of things and gradually darkens as it turns away from the light.

It’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind if you’re not sure how to approach line variation.
Brush example 02
The only other rule of thumb that I will add, is that foreground elements ought to have the thickest lines to represent closeness or clarity. Mid-ground elements should be “normal” or your personal “average” and the background elements should have very thin lines to represent the atmosphere effecting them and the distance.

However, there is no absolutes and sometimes the line does what it does accidentally as you ink and it turns out looking good anyway. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s really all about what you intend or what looks right to you.

There isn’t any absolute rules that MUST be followed. The rules of thumb I’ve given are just starting off points. You can invent what you want out of your line variations from that point on.
Experiment and find out what works best for you


Alright, now I show you SOME of the things that can be done using these inking tools.  Beginning with:

Felt Tip Inking

There are many great ways to ink with felt tips.  This is the simplest of them all. A straight forward line drawing.

Nothing fancy:

Felt Tip example

Dip Pen Inking

Artist Charles Dana Gibson was a master of the dip pen. His work is amazing.  Here’s an example of the kind of work you can pull off using dip pens.

Dip pen Example Charles Da

Notice the line variation. Some thin lined areas describe the turning of the forms while implying the light color of the surface.

While other thinker lined areas also describe the direction of forms but imply a much darker local color.  As well as shadow areas.

Brush Inking

I’ve used this example before. This is a copy of Frank Frazetta drawings I did.

If you want to start learning how subtle you can get using the ink tools you want to use, copy the inkers you admire.

Frazetta used a combination of very thin exterior outlines which creates great contrast with the large black areas of the shadows.  Then he feathered out very thin lines from those areas to describe the firm tones and the direction of the anatomical planes.

Copying Examples 01

Mixing It Up

But here’s the thing, you don’t have to stick with only one medium for one drawing.  You can use multiple tools in a single drawing.

You just need to know what tool you find easier to work with, for specific inking situations.

Below are some five minute figure drawings I did.  I used a very thin felt tip to lay in my basic gestures, then I went in with a grey ink brush pen to describe the shadow shapes (which I didn’t have time to fill in with tone).  Finally I used a black ink brush pen to outline the figure’s contours:
Brush pen and felt tip pen
The drawing below has one less pen.  Again, I used a thin felt tip to lay in the gesture, then I used a brush pen to do the outline and shading:
Brush example
In the drawing below, the “Draw Chi” patterns surrounding this woman where all done using very thin Micron pens.  The woman was also inked with Microns. After applying the gray tones using a grey felt tip marker, I went over some of the Micron lines with a brush pen to add some variety, and add the large black areas:
Inking example 09

Your Turn

Alright, now that you know the theory, it’s time to get practical.  I can explain inking to you until I’m blue in the face, but doing it is everything.

Below you’ll find some images to ink.  I’ve done two versions, a version with line variation and a version without:

Characters to ink Line Variation

Varied Lines

Characters to ink Unvaried Line

Unvaried Lines

With the first one,  I created the line variation I want you to follow.  Where the line is thick, you should match the thickness. Where the line is thin, you should match the thinness.

I’m asking you to do it this way so you can get used to the ink tool you’re using.

The version without line variation allows you to create the line variations you want to use on the fly.  Just to experiment and see what happens.

So in order to do the exercise, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Download the images by right clicking on the images and pressing the “Save Link As…” button.
  2. Save it to your computer.
  3. Print out the image,
  4. Ink over the printed image using your preferred tool.

Like this:

Once you’re done, you should have something that looks like this:

Inking Demo

This exercise is almost exactly the same as the one in Secret to Tracing Like a Pro lesson. In fact, if you want to have even more practice, you can take the images from the clean up exercises in that lesson and ink them too.

Pro Tip

When working on your own stuff for the first time, I recommend you create the line variation on the final drawing before you ink it, the way I did in the first example above.  The reason for this is so you can test out the line variety without the pressure of it being permanent.

If, for example, you don’t like the way the line looks, you can erase it and adjust it.  This way, you learn what you like and what you don’t.  Eventually, you won’t have to do this and you’ll do it as  you ink.


Q:  My lines are very wobbly. I don’t know enough to know if I’m missing technique or if I just need to do a lot more of it. If I had to guess I’d say probably some of both. What should I be doing?

A:  Inking can be tough.  I STILL get wobbly lines.  Usually when I’m starting to ink a drawing.

The reason is, timidity.  I’m so afraid of making a mistake that I draw too slowly.  The thing about inking is that you can’t be timid.  You have to be confident.  Bold.

In other words, you have to ink a bit faster than you are.  Not so fast that you’re being reckless and out of control, but not so careful that your hand shakes and gives you a lousy line.

You have to find that right balance of both.  And yes, this takes practice and experimentation.  However, as I wrote before, I still do this sometimes.  So it also doesn’t go away.  You just need to make sure to understand why it’s happening so you can be more bold when you ink.

Also make sure you use the natural pivot points of your body, EXACTLY the way you did when drawing a clean line in The Secret of Tracing Like a Pro lesson.

Read the tip under the “TROUBLE” section there for more information.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning inking questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about inking? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

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