It can easily happen to anyone at any time—you do a really cool ink sketch, get the watercolors (or other water-based medium) out, start to paint, and watch as the ink color dissolves from the line and spreads into your paint.
This bothers a lot of my students. I’ve even heard them gasp, cry out, and moan about it.
I’d like you to think about it differently when this happens to you. I’d like you to embrace the effect and go with it. See what type of fun you can have.
First—Realize What’s Happening
In order to work with something we need to know why it is happening to we can minimize or enhance the effects.
Even if you’re using a pen that is “always” waterproof for you, there may come a day when it isn’t. A number of factors determine this. Typically it’s a paper sizing issue. The sizing is placed on and in a paper to keep the fibers from absorbing your ink and paint like a blotter. But all companies have different closely guarded formulas for their sizing.
So why is your pen suddenly acting weird? Well the paper you’re working on might be different from your regular paper, or it’s your regular paper and they have changed the sizing. (This happens all the time.)
Additionally the humidity of your work environment will have an effect. I’ve been sketching in the barns at the Minnesota State Fair on hot-humid days, using paper that just the day before at the studio (where there is a.c. drying the air) was fine and now at the Fair my ink is running. In that situation it’s just a matter of the air being so moist my ink isn’t drying quickly by evaporation. I sketch very quickly and go right to painting so the ink hasn’t had a chance to dry. This might be an issue for you, so see if a little patience helps. (I don’t have any patience when it comes to sketching live animals, so I live with the bleeding ink if it happens.)
There’s also the possibility that you bought the wrong ink. Several companies have confusing labeling, many colors that are similar but in different lines which each respond differently, or simply have changed their formulas.
Whatever the reason for bleeding ink you can allow yourself to get upset or you can embrace the effect.
Mixed Media Can Hide a Lot of Ink
If you sketch on a paper and find the ink running as soon as you add your first washes of color think about this—is the ink color bleeding only in the areas where the ink is darkest?
If yes, then stay away from adding washes in those dark-ink areas until they have extra time for the ink to dry.
If no, then decide if you want to continue knowing that all the ink will bleed.
I suggest that you go head.
In the two images that I’ve included in the post today I was watching TV and some interesting faces came up.
It was one of those talking heads situations so they were up for long enough for me to get some quick shapes down. I was treating it as a contour line exercise, and had a hunch the ink would bleed. (I was just testing the Stonehenge Aqua Hot Press Watercolor paper having finished tests on the cold press. I will have a detailed post series on the paper sometime later this month. Today I just want to write about ink.)
Once I had the contours down I tried to retrieve the highlights on the face. I used watercolors thickly in some areas to hide some of the green ink, and then I added on some white Sharpie Water-based Paint Pen, which is a very opaque white. The pen was a bit leaky, and pumping it makes it deposit even more paint, so I ended up with a lot of opaque areas, but it was fun to work quickly with only a few colors and see what happened. I was also trying to push those initial washes around, because this was early days in my testing of this paper.
In the second image in this post I followed the same procedure. I worked quickly to capture a contour sketch that I could build upon once the image had moved on.
This time I took some time to build up the ink areas around the lips and under the cap’s bill for example, because I already knew that the ink would bleed. When I went in with watercolor I used my opaque yellow ochre to had some of the green ink bleeds, but I also used a lot of red, knowing that it would mix with the ink and dull down a bit.
By this time I wasn’t worrying about “likeness” I simply wanted to have fun moving the paint around on the paper and testing what the paper and that green ink would do.
So My Last Word of Advice When Your Ink Bleeds
When you get into a situation like this and refining a portrait (or any sketch) isn’t going to work, rethink your strategy.
I could have stopped as soon as the ink bled in the first sketch and gone and grabbed some gouache. The opaque quality of gouache would have hid all these lines. On another day that’s how I might have gone. And I probably would have spent the entire evening refining the first face and never getting on to the second where I really got to play with the ink and push the paper in ways that would help me set up future experiments.
I stuck instead with the materials I had on hand. I played with them. Discovered some new things, made a mess. And learned something about the materials and paper I was using in the process. That might not have been my painting strategy when I sat down and started those contour lines, but it’s a baseline strategy that I find very useful.
When inks start to bleed you can start to fret, or you can start to play, and in that way learn.
I recommend you start playing.