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Sketching with Pen, Ink and Wash


landscape ink outline

illustrative landscape outlined with ink

H South

Drawing with ink pens, often done very precisely, can work well with a more relaxed approach, especially if you use a nib pen which can be a little unpredictable. I've chosen an untidy country lane as my subject for these examples - foliage is a great subject for practice in informality, as it will soon drive you crazy if you get too detailed!

The first drawing at right (click the image to see the next picture) shows a scene outlined in pen. Because we are used to writing with pen, and often draw outlines, this is how we will often first approach a pen drawing. While this method might be quite useful when color is used, as in illustration work, the bare outline doesn't work with the monochrome wash, as you can see from the next image. The shapes look flat and it is difficult to see what is going on in the picture.

For the third image, a more value-based approach has been used, drawing the darks andthe texture behind the foliage, rather than defining outlines. Broken lines indicate light colored edges. Although you are using a linear tool, try thinking in terms of tone and texture. Let the line wander a bit, and don't worry about spatters and spots - they add energy! Once the ink drawing is completely dry, two black watercolor washes (warmed with a touch of burnt umber), one light and one mid-tone, complete the sketch. Work in simple broad areas, 'reserving' (avoiding) the white areas.

Paper choice depends on your pen selection and whether you are using washes. Many pens work well on sketchbook paper, but I find that the fine nib tends to catch on its rough surface - sometimes a fun effect, but to aviod spatters I use a lightweight (185 gsm), hot-pressed (smooth) watercolor paper. Watercolor paper also takes a wash well.

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Drawing Pens
Drawing Ink


  • Put enough ink to load the nib in the bottom of a small jar for dipping - that way you won't have a pen-holder dripping ink everywhere.
  • Try doing some really small, thumbnail images first.
  • Keep washes simple - two or three layers, light, medium, dark.
  • Let the texture match the subject - spiky grass, curly leaves.
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