Carousel 023: Inking Tips

Once upon a time, inking comics was necessary because comics were printed on newsprint, and media like pencils, pastels, or paint didn’t show up very well in reproduction. Nowadays, printing technology and web displays are so sharp that cartoonists can get away with drawing in pencil or any soft media, if they wish.

Nevertheless, the snappiness of inked lines is hard to beat! This is especially true in comics, where lines that read quickly give artists greater control over the pace. Inked lines carve shapes clearly, allowing readers to absorb them immediately and move on to the next panel. Even in this digital age, with its perfect reproductions, I doubt inking will ever disappear from comics.

However, drawing in ink poses special challenges. Inked lines are less forgiving than the hazier lines found in softer media. Each hard, black line makes a clear, unambiguous statement—and any errors will stand out clearly as well! It’s therefore important that we bring as much skill and precision to the inks that we can. Here are several tips to help with that effort:

1. Every new project is an opportunity to try new tools or a better approach. When beginning a new project, pick a favorite panel that you pencilled previously and try inking it a few different ways, with different tools and at different sizes. Compare them and decide which approach you like best. For consistency’s sake, you’ll probably need to stick with your choice for the project’s duration, so choose tools that are easy to use and that deliver attractive results.

2. Take extra care when inking eyes and lips. Sloppy inking elsewhere, like in the hair or clothing, will be overlooked, but a badly-drawn line on the eyes or mouth can kill a likeness or expression. (The same is true of hands, which are second only to faces in their expressiveness. Be sure when you ink each finger that your lines bend in just the right places.) Also, ink the irises after inking the lids and lashes. It’s easier to control the direction of an eye’s gaze when you draw the iris within existing eyelids, rather than by drawing the eyelids around existing irises.

3. If you’re inking digitally, add the black areas on their own layer at 50% opacity. This allows you to see what lines you are covering up, and to make judicious choices about where you might erase some black to clarify a drawn object. Once you’ve settled on the right arrangement of black areas, bring the opacity back to 100% and merge the layers. If you are working on paper, lay a sheet of tracing paper over your page and block-in the shadows with pencil, erasing as needed to achieve the right look, or laying down new sheets to try other arrangements of shadow. After finding the right arrangement, you can remove the tracing paper and confidently dash-in your blacks with a large brush, knowing already that your composition will work.

4. It’s tempting to switch pen sizes often, especially when inking digitally, but numerous variations of line-width are typically unnecessary and can be distracting. Comics panels are designed to be read, not lingered on. Just as we enjoy a consistent font in a prose novel, uniformity of line-width in a comic helps smooth the read. To suggest distance when inking backgrounds, it may be useful to switch to a thinner line … but if you do so, take care not to pack too much detail in there. Thinner lines permit greater detail, but distance is portrayed better by less detail, because objects tend to grow hazy when they are farther away.

5. When you work digitally, revisions may threaten to become an endless task, because you can always zoom in closer to find more errors. To avoid this trouble, don’t make revisions until after the page is inked. Then, when you’re ready for the revision stage, reduce the page to the size at which it will appear in print, and examine it for errors. Circle each error you find in pink, on a new layer. Then, zoom in to correct only those errors you circled. Any new errors you notice after zooming in won’t be visible to readers and should go uncorrected.

6. Comics can be inked quickly or slowly, depending on what line quality you desire, but generally I would say quicker is better. In addition to being more deadline-friendly, quickly drawn lines have a certain smoothness and snap that reads easily, whereas slowly drawn lines tend to wobble or stiffen. In order to avoid sloppiness when inking quickly, picture in your mind the basic, overall shape of each line before making it. Is it straight? Curved? Is there a corner lurking near the beginning or end? Imagine your hand is a race-car driver on a rainy track: Giving it a glimpse of the road ahead will help avoid spin-outs. With practice, drawing this way will help you throw down whatever line you need, quickly and smoothly.

7. When inking digitally, consider keeping your panel borders on a “locked” layer between the ink layer and the pencil layer, to minimize chances of accidentally merging the pencil and ink layers, or accidentally inking directly on the pencil layer (mistakes that can cost hours). If you don’t plan to amend the pencils often, you can also lock the pencil layer to avoid inking on it. Use the "lock transparent pixel" button (beside the "lock" button), so that you can still adjust its transparency level.

8. When inking a weather effect like wind or rain over other art, draw it on a transparent sheet (if working on paper), or on its own layer (if working digitally). This way, you can later lighten, delete, or adjust any lines that interfere with figures or faces.

9. For maximal control when inking with a brush, it’s best to drag the brush-tip away from you, rather than pushing it as you would a pencil.

10. Your natural wrist movements (when inking according to the tip above) will follow an arc, curving diagonally away from your torso. If your page is fixed in one position while you ink, you’ll have to bend your wrist in uncomfortable directions to ink any lines that don’t follow that arc. To avoid this, rotate the page as you ink, positioning it so that each line you are inking matches the natural sweep of your wrist. (To rotate the page while inking digitally in ClipStudio, hold down the “shift” and “space” keys.)

11. When inking a long, smooth curve, it helps to fix your attention an inch or two AHEAD of the tip of your drawing instrument, as if you're dragging the line like a sled after that moving spot. (Looking directly at the tip, as you would when inking short lines, invites line-wobble.)

See you here next month!

Jesse Hamm’s Carousel appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!