Ah dip pens! They’re fiddly to start with and messy as hell but they quickly reward effort. The dip pen’s unpredictability means a lively line – which is hard to get with more stable media.
Here’s what I use to create my black and white ink illustrations.
- a dip pen – I use a thin-ish ‘point nib’ (rather than an italic nib) on a cheap plastic nib holder, but there are loads of variations – see here
- a toothbrush
- a pipette
- some brushes – not the best sable brushes, as I’m likely to leave them in inky water for hours… days even. Taklon brushes are good, as are really busted old brushes with wonky hairs pointing in odd directions. I like to label the brushes I use for ink with a bit of tape, so they remain ‘ink brushes’, separate from the untainted, pricy and highfalutin watercolour brushes.
- loads of paper towels for mistakes and spills, and for dab-drying brushes
- old plates and jars with various combinations of ink, inky water, watery ink and cleaning water
- fresh ink – Indian ink is good, but cheaper ink can be fine too – as long as it’s not dried or lumpy. Use waterproof ink if you’re going to paint on top in colour later on.
- Paper (the support) – this should be smooth but doesn’t always need to be thick. Of course if you’re thinking of doing loads of washes then it does need to be thick and possibly stretched or it will buckle, wrinkle and/or tear. For black line only, I’ve had happy results with cheap, thin (but smooth) sketchbook paper. This can dry more quickly too.
If you haven’t used a dip pen before just practice making a few marks, getting used to the restrictions of the pen and to dipping it into the ink frequently. Then try drawing a character or a few small objects around you. I find ornaments and plants good for a warm-up, or whatever’s outside the window (in this case a scheming, egg-stealing crow):
Sketchbook warm-up: the crow outside – from observation and imagination
And some neater, scratchy little birds.
These were done with a nib pen too, then tinted with (dirty) gouache.
For an actual composition, I get started by sketching lightly in pencil on the paper, just to get a rough idea of where to put the ink. Then I get brave, making the key marks using my arm and wrist to control the pen, rather than my fingers.
I’m right-handed, so I work from left to right, to avoid smudging the work.
Once I’m happy with the key lines, I start making things messy – thinning down some of the ink and spraying it on with a toothbrush, or sucking it up with a pipette and dribbling and trailing ink all over the page. I splash, spatter and scrub with brushes of different sizes (especially the busted ones), and dab the areas I don’t like so much with paper towel (to absorb areas of ink) or use the towel to smear other parts of the page.
Then I try to be patient and let it all dry.
Finally, I go back and add detail. I water down the ink a little to add lighter lines, or background elements, and I get out a white gel pen, or white acrylic paint to go over mistakes (though PhotoShop is invaluable here for book illustration)
Some final tips
- ‘no-smell’ water – it’s great to save unused ink by pouring it into a sealed container. BUT if the ink has been mixed with water it will start to smell horrible in a matter of days. So if you intend to keep used ink for longer than 3-4 days, it’s best to use distilled or boiled water for mixing. (I hear there are clever and organised people who actually do this)
- Apparently, wiping the nib with a tissue regularly while working will stop ink from drying on the nib and keep the ink flowing. Great if you can manage it.
- Indian ink is a standard staple for ink artists – it’s permanent and waterproof. It’s also expensive. Acrylic inks are cheaper but can gum up your nib more easily.
- Waterproof inks are best for line work, while water-soluble ink should be used for washes.
- Enjoy and accept ‘mistakes’ – they’re all part of the joy of the dip pen.
Inky working drawing from The Three Billy Goats Gruff – one of the wolf’s favourite stories, even though no-one gets eaten.