Inking Techniques – Traditional vs. Digital (Part One)

Hi folks! Over the next few articles, I’m going to show you all the differences between traditional inking and digital inking. They both have their benefits and inconveniences, but being fluent in both methods will make you a more well rounded artist overall. In this first part, I’m going to show you the basics of each method, and later on I will show you a number of different techniques you can try on your own. Let’s go!

The Difference

Traditional Inking

Before Photoshop, Illustrator and Manga Studio was around, all of your inking was done on a desktop (a REAL one made of wood) using a number of tools. The old masters used bottles of black ink, different types of brushes, and steel nibs in quill pens. The ‘modernists’ used pigment & technical ink pens like Microns, as well as a wide array of felt tip markers like Sharpies and Copics. Different tools for diferent effects – but in the end, the methods used were long and and unforgiving without practice.

Digital Inking

With the introduction of software for digital art production, inking methods changed slightly. Instead of messy ink bottles and brushes, artists could now use a tablet and stylus to replicate the same process to a certain extent. This digital method of inking proved to be faster and more efficient, as well as being more forgiving with mistakes. Although digital inking proved to be efficient and quick, much of the emotion and organic interaction of ink on paper is lost.

Tools of the Trade

If you’re planning on going ‘old-school‘ and trying out the traditional method of inking, I suggest trying your hand with ink pens first. This will help build your confidence in inking your artwork. Once you’ve got the feel of it, you can move on to nibs (which are more complex than pens) and then using brushes (where the ink application dries quick and allows for the most expression when creating your lines.) Here’s a list of stuff you’ll want to invest in.
• Micron Pens of different sizes
• Brush Pens
• Sharpie Markers (for heavy coverage)
• Copic Markers (more expensive, but pro quality)
• Steel Nibs
• Brushes of various sizes (Windsor Newton brushes are typically the standard)
• Pelikan Ink
• Strathmore Bristol for your pencil work (you can go with a kid (rough) finish or a plate (smooth) finish) which holds ink better than paper
• Vellum paper (for tracing your work – useful when you’re just starting out)
• Graphic White or Pro-White (used for correcting mistakes)

The Basics (Traditional)

As a beginner, you’ll want to use the pens and markers first. This will help you learn control and gestural movements. Start by practicing on a blank sheet of paper. Get a feel for the pen by doing some basic linework, cross hatching, fills, and long strokes. Make sure you use your wrist and arm when making these gestures. Instead of relying on your hand to make the lines, try using your entire arm movement to guide your pen. You’ll notice the linework will feel and look more dynamic on the page.

After these practice strokes, you can try your hand at inking your work. If you have access to a lightbox, secure a thin piece of vellum paper over your pencilled work. The picture above shows an easy DIY lightbox using a fluoresecent lamp and a Sterilite clear plastic bin. It’s not fancy, but it works!

Practice inking your drawing using these gestural movements. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s inevitable, so let it happen. Also remember that some of your pens and markers may BLEED through the page and affect your pencils underneath – be wary of which pens do this (this is why you test them out before you jump into inking!)

Try a variation of different styles – dramatic fills, strong linework, fine crosshatching and detail work, etc. Once you’ve grown confident with the pens and markers, you can step it up by trying out a brush tip pen. These pens mimic the feel of a brush, but provide an even ink coverage throughout your line. You’ll be able to adapt quickly to brushes afterwards by using the brush tip pen.

With enough practice, you can graduate from tracing with vellum to actually inking overtop of your pencils that you’ve laid down on professional grade Bristol paper. This is the common standard for cartoonists and comic book artists. The Bristol paper holds ink very well and will not bleed as easily as regular bond type papers. If you want more of a rough type finish, you’ll want a kid paper. If you prefer the smooth style, you’ll want a plate paper.

In the next part of the tutorial, we’ll get more in-depth with brushes and pen nibs for inking. That’s where it gets messy! For now, we’ll move on to digital inking basics!

The Basics (Digital)

There are a variety of different software options you can choose from to ink your work. Typically, if you worked in an all digital format, you would do your sketching and refine your pencil work in Photoshop, Illustrator or Manga Studio. The inks would merely be an additional layer you place on top of this rough work. Some people choose to do a hybrid of the process, preferring to draw in actual pencil on Bristol or bond paper, scan it into their computer, then clean up and ink the final piece. Whichever method you choose, we will take it from the point where your artwork has been set up on a separate layer in your software of choice. In this example, I’ll use Photoshop to describe the process.

Create a new layer primarily used for your inks. Your scanned/drawn piece should reside in a layer below your ink layer. Turn down the opacity of this layer to about 50%. That way, if your pencils are very dark, you’ll be able to see the ink you apply in the layer above it.

Select a brush from your palette – the standard Photoshop brushes are Round or Calligraphic in nature. Start out with one of those, and when you become more proficient in digital inks, go out and download custom brushes for some really cool effects! You can even create your own brushes depending on the style and size you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re looking to modify the action of the brush, there is a palette called Brush Presets that allows you to modify the Flow, Jitter, Pressure and other specific actions applied to your brush. Experiment with them and see what works best for you! In this previous tutorial, I showed you how to set up your tablet to be more responsive to pen pressure in programs like Photoshop. This Preset palette will give you even more fine tuned control over your brushes.

Now apply your inks in the ‘ink layer’ that you created. You can easily correct mistakes using the Undo command or the eraser tool. It may take a while to get used to inking using a tablet as opposed to physically doing it on a table – but practice makes perfect! Make sure you ink while zoomed into your work. That way you can still mimic the feel of using your entire arm to create your strokes, rather than relying on your hand to precisely trace over the linework underneath.

That concludes part one of the inking tutorial. Stay tuned for part two in the upcoming weeks.

Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is the new guy here at Webcomic Alliance and is the author of the modern noir Online Graphic Novel entitled El Cuervo.  In his spare time he works as a stunt man on MTV’s Jackass and as a punching bag for UFC Fighter Georges St. Pierre.  If you have any suggestions for upcoming tutorials, feel free to connect with him on Google+ or you can follow him on Twitter at @ElCuervoComic

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      • I’ve heard from Tom Richmond saying for the traditional inking, you have to hold your pen/brush near the tip and you have to keep the end of the pen low enough. Can you do that?

        • For more control, sure. But if you have a natural jitter when you ink, it isn’t always the best approach. It works for Richmond because he has the inking mastery down – for those starting out, your results with that method may vary.

          Some people are naturally confident in creating their strokes. Others prefer to hatch.

  1. Great article, I really like it.

    I started out traditional with brush and ink, but earlier this year I got the Wacom Cintiq tablet and have been doing all of my inking digitally. I have found that I can get very close to the same organic feel that I got with my brushes when using calligraphic pens in Illustrator.

    But I am a hybrid though. I still like to do all my sketching on paper and scan it in. There are different reasons for that, but the main reasons are that I still love the feel of pencil on paper, and also I carry a sketchbook with me pretty much everywhere, but I can’t take my Cintiq everywhere.

    Good stuff.

    • I don’t mind doing pencils on the PC, but there’s just something I enjoy more from inking by hand rather than on a tablet. I hope my next project will allow me to do more inks on the table than on the tablet.

    • Absolutely not! In Freddie Williams’ book DC Comics Guide to Digitally Drawing Comics, he actually lists that process as a suitable method, because a lot of artists like to ink with washes and a brush – effects that don’t really work as well in the digital format.

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  3. I really enjoyed this article. Inking is something I just really enjoy trying to get good at. It’s a very zen like part of the process. For my part, I am 100% digital and do all my sketching and inking in manga studio. I just like the pen controls and settings there better than photoshop. It’s also a little more forgiving for people who have jittery hands. Due to the amount of coffee I consume, I am definitely a jittery hand guy.

    • You should try inking traditionally. Want to talk about zen? That’s about as calming as it gets – until you smudge your page or spill the ink bottle.

      But seriously – there’s nothing like the flow of a real brush, or the line weight you can achieve with a crow quill. It’s awesome.

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