Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Just Jump into the Deep End of the Swimming Pool

February 28, 2011

The full post is about my thoughts on sketching directly with pen and ink (without using pencil first).

Above: Pentel Pocket Brush Pen of a French Bulldog in an 8 x 10 inch journal I made with now defunct drawing paper. Prepainted background.

Back in January when I posted some sketches of character actors a reader wrote in about using pencil before doing ink drawings. I encouraged her to just have at it and sketch directly in ink, no pre-sketching with pencil. To me direct sketching with ink is akin to jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool when you aren't the strongest swimmer—you improve out of necessity.

I wanted share a revised version of my thoughts on drawing directly with ink in this post.

Here's the thing, I believe you just have to jump in. Leave the pencil at home when you go out, or don't pick it up when you are out.

There is nothing to match the horror of that dark black gash of ink across the page, the sense that you are completely screwed, to get you to slow down and see, and well, simply carry on.

For me a large part of drawing is simply carrying on, continuing to find that three-dimensional form I see in front of me in space, residing somewhere on the page. I find this constant search inviting and encouraging.

When you do one great line, the thrill is ecstatic. When you do one really bad line, or series of really bad lines, the feeling is not as dramatic, but more "ah, well, try again."

So if the balance is so wonderfully skewed into the ecstatic how can you not choose to go for it? The next line might be "it." And I realized while typing that sentence that this is beginning to sound a little bit like "Hi, I'm Roz and I'm a compulsive gambler," but I don't gamble. At all. (OK, dime cap on all bets public or private, unless I'm so sure of my knowledge or the outcome that I go for broke with the, "I bet you $10,000.00" which just stuns the other party into silence. I'm a bully when I have the inside scoop.)

Seriously, it doesn't seem to be much of a choice. On one hand fun, exhilaration, thrills, on the other hand, just keep trying—we'd be doing that anyway right? The thing about continuing to try is that each try takes you one step closer to that elusive line you see for this situation. Wouldn't you rather move towards that line than simply stand flat footed in lead shoes watching the lines dance away from you?

I think the mental and verbal stance we take on sketching directly in ink is crucial to our inner artistic happiness. Switch from the "It's not perfect, shit I failed again" dogma to, "Have another go, that's not quite it, but I can see it from here," approach and you're more than halfway to improving not only your mental and artistic health, but your digestion as well.

Recently in a journaling class I talked to my students about drawing directly in ink. They weren't having it.  One woman even clutched her pencil convulsively at my suggestion. On that day, everyone was going to continue to pencil first, ink later. As an instructor you learn when to press your points. Here's the thing—People do everything in their own timing.

And even more important—People get to have their own timing.

I may encourage you to jump into the deep end of the pool but I'm not going to push you in. For it to work you have to do the mental preparation (spinning effort and practice in a positive way) and then leap.

It's the positive spin you put on your sketching practice that gives you buoyancy. And in art, buoyancy has to come from within or you aren't going to be able to slog it out, year after year after year.

I make a ton of ugly sketches and will continue to do so. In fact I'm committed to making a ton of ugly sketches because I know that's the best way for me to improve.

Also I love when a sketch comes out well—even when one line is well done.

Case in point the journal spread accompanying today's post was a quick, 5-minute sketch, done at the end of a day filled with mediocre drawings of people faces. I was desperate to sketch a dog or a bird before I went to bed. I'm working on a project with French Bulldogs, but it has stalled for a host of reasons—the main one being I have not been able to find a life model and have only a few blurry photos from a dog park. But over time the personality of what I've been trying to capture has taken hold. And after a day of sketching my hand and my eye and my intent were focused. Also I really wanted to finish this journal and had only a few prepainted pages and I would be able to start a new journal.

For me as I drew this dog everything worked. It was completely fluid (which is not the same as error free!). I started with an eye as usual, then the forehead and nose, and the second eye. The ears just swooped up in steady considered strokes. My pen was dying (running out of ink), but I kept going because I didn't want to break the magic of those lines—considered, placed. (Yes, considered.) I had to stop myself from adding a lot of shading, which is something I was doing earlier on the people portraits. I had to remind myself to breathe.

I didn't want this sketch to be fussy so when the head was finished and a couple body lines were down I stopped for a few seconds. I had to restate a couple lines, carefully, not because I didn't like exactly where they were, but because the ink was too pale over the background.

For me, the ear on the right, just below it, there's that little dip in and out which shows the tautness of the ear erect—it makes the whole sketch for me. And when you think about it that's a very small segment of the drawing. It's the one place in the sketch, besides the eyes, where I did any restating to "correct" a line placement.

If I had not done those awful people sketches earlier, directly in ink, I wouldn't have been sufficiently warmed up to sketch this dog directly in ink. I wouldn't have had my internal measuring eye tuned up and placement of the ears on the forehead might have been wonky or less flowing. So many things could have happened differently.

Don't get me wrong. There are times when you have to work in pencil, and revise, and revise. (I do this with overlays, not erasing.) And then you get to inking and take the time to make smooth clean lines, and you end up with something that is stunning and wonderful.

But that isn't as fun for me as controlling my hand, controlling my breath, and creating a line that works now, the first time, standing as it is. (And nothing is as fun as doing all of that while working with a live model—so get to a zoo, or State Fair, or café as soon as possible.)

I love the strident line that flows out of the pen. The way with the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen you can control the quality of your line depending on pressure, angle, paper, and of course the amount of ink in your cartridge.

I love the bracing effect drawing directly in pen brings. I appreciate that there is no other step before the ink, and that there is no pencil messing up the sight, and the feel of the paper.

Ultimately it becomes a meditative thing. And it's about intention (more about this in step 7 below).

And as my friend Ken Avidor likes to preach (because we are both always proselytizing for direct work in ink), you learn how to "cheat."

So find yourself some character actors or a dog and dive right in with that pen—but be sure you have a paper compatible with the pen you select. It's most fun if you have a live model. But if one isn't available I think it's better that you get some drawing done. (Then be sure to make plans to get out to the zoo, or the State Fair, or a café at the earliest possible moment—remember the fun is intensified when the model is always moving on you.)

To keep the swimming analogy—go hang out with a bunch of sketchers who work in pen. They'll push you in the deep end, or rather you'll just jump in willingly because you'll see how much fun they are having.

Or be like me—I detest smudged pages so I like media that doesn't smudge!

Good luck!

Some Specific Things To Think about When Drawing Directly in Pen, in Case You're Sitting on the Fence or—To Keep the Pool Analogy Going—the Pool Deck:

1. Warm up first with subjects that aren't your main event, or with your main event subject, keeping in mind that you are warming up. Reminding yourself that you are warming up will keep your expectations in check. It's another way to positively frame the practice aspect of drawing.

2. Study your subject for several minutes before you begin. Mentally measure and note the angles and spaces within and around your subject. If he gets up and walks away that study isn't wasted because you've just spent time training your eye to observe.

3. Work with your whole arm or if that's not for you, your wrist—whatever it takes to get smooth lines from your body mechanics, in ways that you practice all the time.

4. Look at your subject and not your paper for 90 percent of the time.

5. Resist the urge to get fussy in one area until you have finished the whole shape, unless your model is about to depart and then you want to focus on one detail because it is the detail that drew you to it in the first  place, e.g., like me with bird beaks.  In the above sketch I didn't put the pupils in until I finished the rest of the piece. Since I was working from a photograph projected on my computer screen I had the luxury of knowing he wouldn't walk away. But I also wanted to wait and add the character the way I wanted it, not the way it was in the blurry photo. When I'm at the State Fair, for instance, drawing farm animals I often focus heavily on the eye detail and get little else, because the eye is what matters to me and the animal is moving in his pen or walking away to be judged. You have to set up to capture what is important to you in the time allowed. But it is always important to resist the urge to get fussy.

6. Resist the urge to get fussy in an area away from where your current concentration is fixed. This is different from item 5. For this urge I mean that urge that comes upon you as you work in one area and realize it is either finished or stalled. You look up and down again, and then make a mark somewhere else on your paper. It's like drawing Tourettes. Nothing ruins a sketch made directly with ink faster than this urge to get fussy somewhere you weren't paying attention. Once that mark is down it isn't coming up. And frankly, since you weren't looking closely when you made it, it's sure to be extraneous.

7. Realize at the start that sketching directly in pen and ink can take different roads to arrive at success. You can make lots of scratchy, sketchy marks which blend to make a cohesive whole, or you can go with the simple line. Both are great when done with care. Remember this, even if the lines are scratchy in the work of some artist you admire, it doesn't mean that the artist was simply flailing around. There is still intention in each of those lines. It comes down to different approaches and styles. But each style is still dependent on the same base of concentration and intention.

8. If an area gets clogged with two unfortunate lines (I'm avoiding words like "wrong" to keep your mind positive) go elsewhere in your sketch and work up other areas to complete the whole. A bit of mess in one area isn't going to sink the sketch. It will actually most often give it some charm. If, instead, you continue to fuss (there's that word again) in that one area, well you'll draw so much attention to the hole you worked into the paper that no one will ever see the wonderful passages that are on the other side of the page!

9. Another thing to think about in conjunction with item 8 is that a lot of drawing is about magic, the magic of transferring a 3-D item into 2-D on the paper while making it still look 3-D. Part of any magic is misdirection. And part of misdirection is cheating. All artists learn how to cheat. You develop a vocabulary of line and shape that is uniquely yours and which works for you to describe the shape before you. This is not to say you are sketching symbols for eyes as you did when you were a child. Instead I am referring to the understanding of when something needs a hard or soft edge for instance, or when you can get away with not sketching every fleck of fur yet still denote pattern.

10. Of course item 9 brings us to item 10. The only way you can learn to cheat is to practice, continually. Remember you can't win a marathon by training to run sprints. Just so, if you want to sketch directly in pen you need to sketch directly in pen. You might not always have success, but you'll always learn something, and you'll always be having fun.

One Final Note on Direct Sketching in Ink
I wrote about the horror of the gash of ink across the page and the startling and visceral reaction, and the ecstasy.  There's something else that's important about direct sketching with pen and ink (either with regular pen nibs or a brush pen).

Direct ink sketching is humbling.

I like that. I like doing sketch after sketch after sketch, and knowing immediately that I have more work to do. That's a hopeful thing for me. Humbling and hopeful.

  1. Reply

    You are right–about all of it, Roz. I quit using a pencil to draw with about 2 years ago–best thing I ever did. I initially quit because I was hating the graphite smearing all over my sketches. Once you get over the fear of drawing in ink, you will never go back to pencil. People who see me drawing and are amazed that I draw in ink always ask me, “what if you make a mistake” to which I reply “so what”. That’s the key, so what, who cares?

    Good topic.

    • Linda
    • February 28, 2011

    Good morning Roz, this direct sketching is just what I needed to read. Since teaching myself I do page after page trying to get where you have written about. Dont have the memory thing down yet when I go back and forth at looking get confused when I do this. Put practice has really helped me so with my art. Drawing with ball point just getting fountain pen down but ink comes out to fast so have to practice. Thank you so for having this for us helps so.
    Have a great day,

    • Terry
    • February 28, 2011

    People are always surprised to see me sketching in pen. Thank you for such a great post!

  2. Reply

    Donna, “who cares” is right. It says something about the state of mind of the observer, the one watching you draw, and how bottled up they are. While we get to sketch away!

  3. Reply

    Judith, yes, I remember it was you! I’m glad that you have jumped in and are having fun!!!! Keep sketching in ink.

  4. Reply

    Linda, the “memory thing” you refer to will come if you keep working regularly as you are. The confusion will pass. You’ll find points to lock into, you’ll find ways to orient yourself on that blank page. All pens are going to be a slightly different approach, as you’ve found between ball point and fountain. Dip pen is also different in that you have to take time to dip and get more ink and manage that ink as you draw. But it is the most fun of all as far as I am concerned.

    Keep it up.

  5. Reply

    Terry, keep surprising everyone. It’s good for them. And it’s great for you to be working in pen.

    • Leslie Schramm
    • February 28, 2011

    Love the 10 steps. I use a camera a lot, I remember the moment of shock when a photo popped up on the screen I had absolutely no memory of taking, no memory of the location, or even the day it was taken. I;ve worked harder at looking around ever since ( not going to even mention the line of trees I;d never noticed before ) Often we see without observing. Ask any archeologist why they always draw a dig. Because that way they spend time looking at what’s there, examining it and making sense of it all, often coming to a new understanding of whats in front of them. I;ve tried to do that ever since. Def improving at drawing

  6. Reply

    I find I go back and forth; sometimes all I want is the pencil, but other times I toss it aside for a pen. I even sometimes sketch in charcoal. What a mess that makes! But I don’t mind messes. Sometimes I’ll revisit the mess later, and work it over with an eraser. That’s fun too.

    I guess it depends on what I’m after. Charcoal and pencil I would use when I’m in a value/tone mood, and don’t want to spend time stippling, crosshatching, or whatever with the pen. And I use them on days when I need a more forgiving material.

    But the pen is great for days when I’m feeling decisive, bold, and daring. Those marks just cannot be denied!

  7. Reply

    Maggie, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against pencil as a medium for sketching. I love it on its own.

    I wouldn’t have achieved the same look if I’d worked in ink.

    But when I use pencil I like to use pencil. When I use ink, I like to use ink with NO pencil before hand.

    I’m writing to encourage people to let go of pre-drawing with a pencil before their ink drawing.

    If people draw with a pencil (or charcoal) and it gives the look they like, I’m all for that.

    • Linda
    • March 1, 2011

    Roz, Thanks so for the comments would not have any idea about the memory thing So Ill keep going my happy way and practice this gives me so much hope. Journal keeping and art has gotten me through so much and a blessing to have:)Keep up the hints and words cause you have given so much for me to learn from.:)Wish you were in Pittsburgh:)
    Have a great day,

  8. Reply

    I just got my Pentel Pocket Brush Pen today! And I came here to see if you use the ink that they come with. I found this most appropriate post about diving in – gulp. So I’ll look around and see what you say about ink if I can find anything and then I’ll go practice drawing straight away with the ink. Might have to do some practice lines to see how the pen works first.

  9. Reply

    Timaree: Congratulations on your new PPBP!! What fun. There is nothing like those first few exploratory strokes.

    I do use the ink that comes in its cartridges. I find that the ink is lightfast in my tests, and I find it waterproof on most papers (some papers with lots of sizing float the ink for a longer period and then I have to be careful how quickly I go back in with watercolor washes, but generally this isn’t a problem).

    I do have one friend who fills an empty cartridge with a syringe and the ink he uses is a technical pen india ink that he thinks is more waterproof. It may be, but I wonder if it might also clog the brush over time. And then there is the possibility of leakage when you reuse a cartridge like that.

    Point is, it can be done, I haven’t found the need.

    Have great fun with your new brush pen!!!!!

  10. Reply

    Roz- I have always sketched with my pen (yay!) and when I tried to go abck to a pencil – it was very difficult for me. I love, love learning while sketching with a pen. I always say (to my own art students) that you commit to the drawing when you draw with pen. You figure out how to make it work (hopefully) rather than erasing it time and time again. You learn more…and learn better…loving your blog!
    carol sloan

  11. Reply

    Carol, Yay! Sorry though that it’s difficult when you use pencil, because that can be fun too (for a different look). The committing to a line is huge, we help ourselves see where to go next. Keep spreading the word.

    • Tom Winterstein
    • March 23, 2011


    I guess I did it backward. I’ve always drawn in pen and ink without penciling first. I had to teach myself to do it the other way when I wanted to do some ink drawings rather than sketches. The most important thing to do when sketching is to turn off the inner critic and remember that sometimes sketches work and sometimes they don’t, which is what I tell people when they go through my sketchbooks.

  12. Reply

    Tom, there’s nothing backwards about the way you learned to draw. I think the resultant drawings look more alive. It always frustrates me when I have to refine a drawing and then re-ink it. I’m “over it” by the time I get to that point—but. That’s my bit to work on.

    People are lucky to look in your sketchbooks, I wouldn’t say anything to them!

    But turning off the internal critic is always a good idea.

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