Working with Ink Washes on Toned Paper

June 29, 2020
Ink washes with a Niji waterbrush on Strathmore 400 Series Toned paper. Approximately 4 x 6 inches.

Over the last couple weeks the students in my on line class drawing practice class have been working with values—learning to see value shapes, to judge and compare one value to another. 

Understanding values, the relative lightness and darkness from one area of a subject to another, and the ability to translate those values to the page either in color or in monochromatic washes of ink, is one of the important steps in understanding how to render a subject realistically in two dimensions.

I have them for such a little time that it’s sometimes difficult to impress the importance of this upon them.

There is awkwardness, many are using Niji waterbrushes and wondering if they need to change to natural hair watercolor brushes. 

Like anything, the Niji waterbrush takes practice. And if you’re hard on them like I am, their tips get worn and make control more difficult, but it can still be done. (Today’s sketches were done with such a brush.)

What really matters is looking at values, and then describing those values on paper. If you have more control with a fine tipped watercolor brush, by all means use it. But realize, regardless of the tool, practice is going to get you there.

Sketches in Today’s Post

Detail from the first sketch.

In the sketches of this post I’ve used two vintage photos, the Niji waterbrush, a Pentel DYE-based brush pen, a small daisy palette (paint wells in a circle with one central well), and a mechanical pencil. 

I was finishing the year off following two cataract operations which left me with lots of visual side effects and vision issues. One issue was a limited amount of working time each day. I made these sketches to explore alternate ways of seeing value, besides squinting (as that no longer works for my artificial lenses and my other eye impediments).

I began with a bare-minimum sketch that was simply an outline of the head and two circles where the eye sockets might be located. Then I switched over to working only with the brush and ink washes; ignoring the minimal lines as needed.

I like to work in various areas around a sketch like this, laying in a wash, then working elsewhere while the previous wash dries. Then returning to deepen a value as needed when the paper is dry. This keeps the original value layers intact and minimizes the wear and tear on the paper. (Though Strathmore 400 series Mixed Media Toned paper is a sturdy paper, sized for wet media, which takes a lot of work and reworking.)

In these sketches I was also working at what is my new default scale, with my new artificial lenses. This is something I’ve been talking with my students about lately. I believe we all have a scale that we default to which allows us to include the details we are drawn to. A comfort scale as it were. Even 18 months in I’m still working with recalibrating my eyes, but I think these are pretty close.

What You Might Experiment With

If you want to work on understanding values more I recommend that you work monochromatically at first, in black and white, or perhaps in Sepia and white. The white would be the white of your paper. Both black or sepia ink will allow you to get rich darks, but also dilute a range of values that will allow you to model the three dimensional nature of your subject. 

Alternately you can work on toned paper as I have done today. I also encourage my students to progress to working with complementary pairs to get warm and cool neutrals, but that’s for another day.

In this sketch you can see the light value wash I initially made to describe the head and hat shape extending beyond those actual details. When you’ve got something down on paper you can start to respond to that and rework things the way you want them.

For drawings like these you have to decide if you’re going to add in white on a toned paper. That would mean your toned paper is going to be your middle value. Or are you going to leave out white, and use only the paper value as your lightest value?

I did the latter for these two images because I didn’t want to add any white paint (it was in another room) and because I wanted my highlights to be subdued. Starting with the intention of using the color of the paper as your white you can then build up your value system from that paper value, reserving everything you want to be “white” or light, just as you would do if using white paper. Because your lightest values will actually be at what is normally considered a mid-value your whole sketch will be skewed darker.

I used a Pentel Brush Pen with dye-based ink in a squeezy barrel, because it was at hand. I squeezed out a puddle of ink in my central palette well, and then I made 4 other puddles in different wells, each a different strength in value so I had a range from light to dark.

Next I started to apply those values, looking for large values shapes on the figure and when those washes were dry, adding smaller washes in areas of darker value, building up value. I’d like to say that I stuck to the four values I created when I started, but as I build values I often find it’s more important for me to layer a middle or darker value a couple times in an area as I see how the ink or paint responds to the paper. 

If I’m working with opaque paints I tend to stick with the original values I set up at the start of my painting session.

If you prefer to work with bottled ink (which unlike the dye-based ink used here will be lightfast) you can do this exact exercise with acrylic ink that you dilute into puddles and glazes of color; you can also work with sumi ink. I’m sure there are inks cartoonists use that would be suitable for this practice, but you’ll have to ask your art supply store for recommendations, most such inks I’ve sampled have had strong odors.

If you would like to see video of me working in this fashion I will be posting a tutorial on it in September 2020 on my Patreon-Roz-Interim blog.

    • Sharon Nolfi
    • June 29, 2020

    I’m assuming you mean September, 2020, not 2009. I’m looking forward to seeing the video!

    1. Reply

      As much as I’d like to say to Tyanne that we are going to time travel, you are totally right Sharon it is supposed to be September 2020, so I went in and corrected. Thanks for having an eagle eye!

    • Tyanne
    • June 29, 2020

    Are we time traveling? 😂😂😂 (couldn’t resist) This was timely. I am going to use your idea of using ink and the flower palette for today’s homework, but will try it with diluted fountain pen ink

    1. Reply

      Tyanne, that is too funny that I had typed 2009. I wonder why since? Those keys aren’t even near… I must want to time travel. But I am glad that you are going to use the diluted inks for today’s homework!! I think you’ll have fun!

    • Tina Koyama
    • June 29, 2020

    Whenever I use toned paper, I always use white for the lightest value because I love the way it looks, so it has never occurred to me to try it without white. I like the way your samples look, though — very rich. I have always had an easier time studying values with dry materials. With watercolors, dilutions of ink, etc., I always struggled with the amount of water to use to vary the tone — it seemed like too many variables at once. But as soon as I switched to graphite or conte, it was so much easier to simply continue adding more and more to make it darker.

    1. Reply

      It can look lovely to use white, it really pops. Sometimes for sketches like this I’ll put in the bare minimum of white highlights, with either white gouache, or a white gel pen, or a white color pencil.

      The water amounts are something I find I’ve adapted to over time so that I can be quicker than laying the shading in with dry media. Though I still use dry media like charcoal at life drawing (or would if I were able to attend now).

      I have just always loved ink wash. But many of my students are sticking with dry media and if it makes them happy I’m for that.

      I can’t remember if you’ve tried this paper yet or not. You might really like it with color pencils!

    • Richard Schletty
    • July 3, 2020

    So true: gray values are the key to legibility, depth and richness in a rendering – regardless of whether your goal is realism, impressionism or abstraction. Values define light, shadow, contours and depth of field. Delicious, bright colors can blind an artist to gray values. One needs to understand the light-dark value of every color they apply to paper or canvas. Maybe artists should have “desaturation” or “monochrome conversion” glasses that they put on every five minutes as they create their masterpiece – simply to check for values. There are so many dimensions to illustration, not the least of which is the mandate to understand “relative values.”

    1. Reply

      Richard thanks for stopping by and supporting monochromatic work. Artists can use a red filter when working on values; and I’ve even seen one artist who had red-filter glasses. I have a piece of red acrylic I use when I go out landscape painting because there is just too much green going on for my eyes!

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